One of the most important lessons travel and a life abroad has taught me is that language is everything. Every country has a unique ‘voice’ – and when you delve into its language you see that country through entirely different eyes (…or in this case; ears!). Through understanding the content of local conversation or cultural discussions you learn about the soul of a place, and through the way it is spoken you learn about the souls of its people. Language goes hand in hand with the ‘personality’ of a country.
This has made me wonder; which came first, the personality of a country or its language? Can you have one without the other? Take Spain or Italy; where language involves famously expressive hand gestures and melodic intonation. To the Northern Europeans, where language is more about words and less about movement, it makes every conversation seem a particularly passionate one. Is it because many Italian people are generally passionate by nature or do elements of their language shape opinion and behaviour? It’s likely to be a bit of both. Gesticulating (how I love that word) and multi-tonal speech definitely seems to have an affect on how ‘passionate’ a person comes across. Another facet, of course, is culture. Feelings (a higher peak of excitement and a lower dip of despair) are generally more accepted, and so expressed, in Mediterranean countries than in comparison to many other countries. Think of the stereotypical English stiff-upper-lip (read a good study on that here), or cultures such as the Japanese (where negative emotions are subtly expressed in the tone of voice rather than through more obvious lingual or facial cues) as opposed to the southern European’s unambiguous displays of emotion. A dive into Italy’s vast, and often hilarious, pit of illustrative swearwords reveals just how enthusiastically sentiments can be expressed. The mouthing off by drivers in daily bouts of road rage is a perfect example; I remember careering through the narrow Sicilian roads with a local who seemed to revel in hurling obscene (and hilariously lengthy) sentences involving animals, grandmothers and unspeakable acts at anyone who dared overtake/cut in/brake or perform any other perfectly normal driving manoeuvre near his rickety car.
Words are just the tip of the iceberg in Italian language; true mastery involves appropriately using a baffling array of hand gestures and head movements. Who better to explain it than a handful of D&G models?
Language and personality are, it seems, inextricably entwined. Many Spanish friends have told me that I seem innocent (which always receives a disbelieving snort on my part) when I speak; which I put down to my somewhat ‘Tarzan Spanish’ and likely an element of shyness in my word confidence. In Dutch, I feel more practical and less elegant– both due to the harsher Germanic sounds of the language and the cultural implications (infamously to-the-point) that Dutch carries. I often wonder if who I ‘really am’ actually comes across at all in languages other than English! It seems like this is not unusual in the slightest; Many multilinguals report different personalities, or even a different world view (Benjamin Lee Whorf, an American linguist, proposed that each language encodes a world view that significantly influences its speakers–a.k.a “Whorfianism”) when they speak their different languages. It appears language changes the way you see things and the way you act; both vital parts to the definition of personality.
There’s a famous quote floating around social media, often scrawled on a sufficiently envy-inducing photograph of an effortlessly beautiful model jumping with carefree abandon into turquoise waters: ‘Travel Yourself Interesting’. It’s about as obvious as ‘Eat Yourself Fat’. But what’s more surprising than collecting a book’s worth of stories and unlikely adventures is the truly lasting effect travel has on personality; not just in the way of improving gratitude and human understanding but on the way exposure to different languages changes subsequent inter-personal interactions. Since having been fully immersed in both Spanish and Italian culture in the last few years I’ve noticed a flurry of hand gestures and sweeping arm motions entering my daily lingual exchanges. My wonderfully Dutch grandfather even told me to stop waving my arms around so much when I talked because it was so distracting (priceless!). Noticeable changes have also crept into my accent and I feel I express myself more strongly, even in English–although this may be due to a change in attitude and confidence that foreign travel brings, as well as cultural exposure. If personality is the way you express yourself, then exposure to multiple languages can definitely alter ‘who you are’.
Language has the power to change your perception of the world, alters the world’s perception of you (something that I’ll delve into in the second part of this series), and dictates how you express yourself: it shapes your personality.
Do you have any thoughts or personal anecdotes about how languages have shaped your thinking and actions? Do you have a unique ‘self’ depending on the language you are speaking? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!