In a recent radio program on multilingualism the bilingual poet and Professor Gustavo Perez Firmat stated that he feels very differently about his two languages, with English being a happier language than Spanish. He also answered ‘Yes’ to the question whether he felt like a different person when speaking each language. I find this very interesting, as I have always been – and still am – of the opinion that knowing more than one language does not mean I am a different person depending on which of my languages I happen to speak.
I have reach a point in my life when I have a pretty clear opinion about most things in the world. I may not always share my thoughts with others, but when I do, one thing is sure, they will not change depending on which language I am using. Depending on the available words and the language structure I may have to choose a specific way to express my opinion, but it does not change the core of it. (and no, my opinions are not set in stone!)
Like every other bilingual, I use my languages in many different situations and with different people. Of course, my behaviour is not the same in all situations: I may be more or less talkative, assertive, open, intimate, argumentative … depending on with whom, when and where I am talking. But – exactly the same also applies to a monolingual person!
Partly because I know quite a few languages, I have also experienced many cultures – all with their own specific traits. If someone were to observe me communicating in different cultural environments, they probably would say that my behaviour is not the same in each of them. From this, it is however incorrect to draw the conclusion that I am a different person depending on which language I speak. I, like everyone else (or at least most of us), adjust my behaviour depending on the environment. If we did not do this, we would forever act like the bull in the china shop.
It is however not always easy to make this adjustment when moving between cultures, as I discovered when I moved from Finland to the UK. My two first languages, Finnish and Swedish, do not have the word ‘please’ – you have to express politeness with a specific verb form, a longer phrase or your intonation. In Finland, you can also be very brief without being impolite. Thus, you can just say ‘kaksi kahvia’ (Finnish for ‘two coffees’) when you make your order at the coffee shop. During my first years in the UK, I probably sometimes did behave like the proverbial bull by forgetting the ‘please’ or by hastily adding it only after being given a long look. To anyone who has been at the receiving end of my unintended impoliteness, I hereby want to express my sincerest apology!
All my languages are an intrinsic part of my identity. Every single one of them has helped me understand other people and cultures and thus contributed to the person I am today. They do however not split my identity, they consolidate it.