Language and Personality

A monolingual colleague was very surprised when I said that I feel and act very differently as a Spanish speaker than when I speak English, Russian or Ukrainian.

It shouldn’t surprise us, though, that achieving complete fluency in a language has an impact on behavior and self-perception.

Take, for instance, the issue of gesticulation. People gesticulate very differently in different cultures. Some do an enormous lot of it, while others do next to none. Once you start gesticulating differently or suppressing gesticulation, you involve your entire body in the act of speaking. We are our bodies, and it makes no sense to assume that the way one moves has no effect on how one feels.

Intonation varies greatly among languages and is usually one of the hardest things for a non-native to master. Once you change your intonation, you have changed the entire musicality of your existence. We all feel differently while listening to a lullaby as opposed to a military march. Why wouldn’t we register a change once we become the source of the music of our daily lives?

A language is a lot more than a dictionary and a book of grammar rules. People who speak different languages touch each other in different contexts and with different frequency. Some barely touch at all and maintain a physical distance during a conversation that is completely unnatural to people in other linguistic milieus. Pronouncing different sounds involves groups of muscles that might not even coincide among languages. In the early stages of language learning, we bring handheld mirrors to class so that students can see themselves while pronouncing unfamiliar sounds. “I’ve never done anything like this before with my tongue!” a student once exclaimed, provoking a burst of laughter from the rest of the class.

In order to pronounce a set of sounds, you might have to lift your chin in a way you normally don’t do. Try an experiment, and hold your chin an inch higher than usual. I can guarantee you are going to feel different as you do it. And that’s just one simple adjustment. Now think of what it would mean to switch into a completely new articulation apparatus.

Humans are not machines that deliver messages in different languages at the touch of a button. We are not a collection of different parts, some of which can be swapped out without affecting the entire organism. Everything in the human body is connected to everything else. And language – the very thing that makes us human – is at the root of everything we are.


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