How Your Personality Changes When You Speak in a Foreign Language

by Josh on April 16, 2012

Have you ever seen someone speaking two languages and feel as if two different people are speaking them?

A Brazilian Speaking Japanese English

I was recently having a conversation with a Paulista who has spent most of his adult life working and traveling abroad, includinga few years spent in Japan. While we were speaking in Portuguese I saw him as a confident, intelligent and funny guy. He was a very skilled conversationalist; his words flowed naturally and seemingly without effort, and he always had something intelligent to say.

After some time a Norwegian man joined our conversation and we switched to English to accommodate him. When the Paulista greeted him I thought for a moment that he was Japanese because of the way he bobbed his head and because his tonality matched Japanese people. As we conversed in English I felt as if I was talking to a different person. Whereas in Portuguese he was confident and skilled with his words, in English he was self-conscious, at times struggled to articulate himself properly and his tone didn’t match his character as it did in Portuguese.

Flow and Rhythm

Every language has a unique flow and rhythm, a way that individual words come together to paint a larger picture. But what happens when you speak a foreign language using the rhythm from your native language? The effect is that even if everything else is perfect, the listener might not understand everything you say because it still seems like you’re speaking a foreign language.

Portuguese is spoken almost as if you are singing; you don’t speak it word by word, you speak it sentence by sentence, rising and falling as you do. Often times Brazilians speak English in the same rhythmic way, which sounds weird to English speakers unaccustomed to this style of speech. If someone isn’t used to hearing English spoken in this style they might struggle to understand everything that you say because you’re almost speaking a foreign language.

The following video demonstrates this concept quite well. In it there are a group of Italians singing in what seems to be English, but if you listen carefully you will realize that they are speaking gibberish. The first time I saw it I thought I could make out a few English words because they have so perfectly mastered the way that Americans speak. Even though they aren’t actually saying any real words, if you weren’t paying much attention you would assume they are speaking American English because their accent is perfect.

Word Choice

Finding identical words and phrases to express complex thoughts and emotions can be a difficult task in a foreign language. Until you expand your vocabulary you may be stuck using words don’t fully express the meaning you wish to convey but are close enough. For example, there are dozens of different words whose meaning is approximately the same as “good.” Without the right vocabulary you will end up translating all of these words as “good” which slightly changes your meaning and the way you are understood.

The idioms that you use signify a lot about your background, state of mind and past experiences. Different groups of people use different words and expressions to say the same thing. For example to say, “I have to go to the bathroom,” a surfer might say “I’ve gotta take a dookie,” a military man would say, “I have to use the latrine,” and a woman might say, “I have to powder my nose.” They all mean the same thing but which one you use reveals certain things about who you are.

Slang is a powerful identifier of your character. Some slang is unique to certain groups of people, and the use of these words can signify what your interests are. Surfers commonly use words like gnarly and tubular, so if someone uses words like these you can probably assume that they surf. It’s common to hear poker players use jargon such as double down, fold and river rat outside the context of poker. Maybe you’ve guessed that I surf and play poker based on these examples.

Without knowing the equivalent phrases in a foreign language you won’t be able to properly express your personality. You may try to translate them literally which doesn’t work if that expression isn’t the same in both languages. Or you will say them in a very direct way, which may come across as rude or culturally insensitive. Consult the Internet or a native speaker to make sure you’re using the right expression.

How You Can Improve

There is no magic pill to overcome these challenges, but the first step is being aware of them. Once you become aware of how you speak you can start to work on changing it to make it sound more native. A good idea would be to record yourself speaking in your foreign language and compare your intonation and flow with that of a native speaker.

Another way is to study someone who has a similar personality or background as you and observe the way that they speak. Observe not only the words that they use but also how they use them in speech. Take note of their rhythm, when they make pauses and their body language while speaking. Thankfully there is an abundant amount of study material available through TV and movies. Find a character that you identify with and study their word choice, tone of voice and overall attitude they have while speaking.

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Justin Murray April 16, 2012 at 10:53 pm

Good post, Josh! With respect to the blog, this is exciting and we´re going to make this fun for everybody involved.

About personality and language, I think this is a great topic. For better or for worse, our personality changes when we speak another language.

For the really fluent people and natural actors, these people reinvent themselves and adapt characteristics of the other language or culture.

For people who have more difficulty molding their target language to their personality, sometimes it´s just a question of loosening up and realizing that this is your chance to play around and invent a new version of yourself!

Marcelo Mendes de Melo April 17, 2012 at 12:21 am

Hello, Josh, you wrote exactly what I feel when I'm speaking English with my friends.
What I usually notice is that I can't give the same intensity in English to express complex thoughts and emotions as I do in Portuguese, you described it very well!
I got the impression that something is always missing, as if I were painting a landscape with limited colors, needless to say that there are expressions we can't always find the same equivalence or the same intensity in the target language, as for me, I always end up making use of the circumlocution.
I wish I could speak English as if it were my first language!
Great post, Josh!

Marcos Silva April 17, 2012 at 1:43 am

Thanks for the post, Josh! Even though all you said about foreign language learners is perfectly normal and obvious during the learning process, this is a good tip for us to sit up and take notice. I often strugle with circumstances like that when talking with friends on Skype, specially those who aren't native English speakers since native ones most of the times get everything that you say wrong right. On the other hand, when talking with non-natives, you've got very limited ways of expressing what you really want to say if the other person you're talking with has lower English Skills. I particularly feel more at easy when I'm talking with natives speakers. I might not express everything I want to, but I know that it's almost a sure thing that they'll got it right at the end. Anyway, thank you for the valuable hint. I hope to read more posts from you very soon. Thank you for help us out. Bye!

Josh Plotkin April 17, 2012 at 2:20 pm

Thanks for your comment Marcelo!
I like your metaphor of painting a landscape with limited colors, I think that is a good way of describing this phenomenon.
I feel your pain about not giving the same intensity when I speak Portuguese. Many times I'll be speaking at a normal pace, then I'll stop abruptly for a few seconds while I try to find a word, realize I don't know what it is, and use a more basic word like "good."
They probably understand most of our meaning, but its not the same as finding that specific word with a specific meaning.
Keep studying and and practicing and you'll get to that level eventually!
Thanks for your support,
Josh

Josh Plotkin April 17, 2012 at 2:20 pm

I think you make a good point about reinventing yourself in your target language. Some things just can't be translated perfectly and you'll have more fun and be less frustrated if you find a different way of saying it.

Josh Plotkin April 17, 2012 at 2:32 pm

Thanks for the feedback Marcos!
I hadn't considered talking to speakers of a lower level when I wrote this article. I think that when dealing with foreign languages patience is one of the most important things to have. I would speak more or less the same to someone with a lower level, but take the time to explain things they don't understand. We all used to be at that level once, and if it wasn't for patient advanced speakers we never would've progressed.
Thanks again for reading and commenting!

Danielle Rioga April 18, 2012 at 7:43 pm

Great post!
It really happens to anyone who starts learning a second language.

However, I think that to have more information about the culture of the language you are studying helps a lot too. Because, to know about it gives you support to understand where you are and who you are talking to. Having some beers beforehand can also make people more relaxing and sensitive when speaking another language!

Jenny Shaw April 18, 2012 at 11:02 pm

It's so true! Especially the part about the beers :-)

Due Elles April 28, 2012 at 6:50 pm

Great post! Really liked it!

Due Elles April 28, 2012 at 6:50 pm

Great post! Really liked it!

Daniel Brandão Neto April 28, 2012 at 7:33 pm

Indeed!

Natasha November 7, 2013 at 3:47 am

Great article.This is so true, myself included! My initial conversations in Greek were monotonic , stlited and rather soulless making me frustrated at not being able to express what I was really like as a person.However, my ‘Greek’ personality has changed over the years . As I have become more proficient , my confidence in interacting with Greek native speakers has blossomed but not only that – I shout when I speak excitedly, i gesticulate continuously and , shock horror, have begun to interrupt when others are speaking! And there has been a certain amount of crossover into English, when in the UK I express my feelings and opinions much more freely than I would have done in the past, and find myself searching for English versions of Greek idiomatic phrases!

Justin November 7, 2013 at 10:51 am

Hey Natasha, Very insightful comment. It’s sounds like you’re kicking ass with your Greek! I’ve felt the same way at points with my language learning too, and I know exactly what you mean. Thanks a lot for commenting!

Andrew November 7, 2013 at 12:40 pm

Thanks for such good educating post.ok now i will try to fix my vocabulary.

nommoc November 10, 2013 at 7:45 am

So hear what you are saying, as a westerner learning Chinese I feel my personality, tone and pitch of voice all get affected when speaking Chinese.

Carol Oliveira November 10, 2013 at 11:02 am

Great post! I've noticed it already: when I speak English, sometimes I feel like I'm not me, you know? haha
Since I'm a teenager (I'm 17), I've been trying to familiarize with the way students speak by watching TV series that have high school as background. I've been getting a lot of useful slangs and expressions that kind of translate the stuff I'm used to say in Portuguese.

Justin November 11, 2013 at 8:51 am

Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. I’ve felt the same thing with Spanish and Portuguese. I can’t really imagine how it would be with Chinese! Totally different frame of reference.

Justin November 11, 2013 at 8:52 am

Hey Carol, That really great that you’ve familiarized yourself with TV series and high school. That’s a very effective way to learn. Thanks for your nice comment!

Reis Vanita January 5, 2014 at 6:50 pm

I feel insecure sometimes!

Justin January 5, 2014 at 4:21 pm

You’re not alone Reis! Courage is the answer.

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