A character for every language: anatomy of an expat’s (non) psychological syndrome

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When I started this blog, one of my main concerns was that I perpetually felt lost in translation. Or maybe not even in translation. Just lost. Sometimes misunderstood, some others not listened to and most of the times confused. 

There’re days I can’t speak French but only English. Or there was that day I had this very important job interview in Spanish and I kept hearing myself saying words in French instead. The most humiliating is when I am supposed to talk Italian with a fellow national and I can’t but finish my sentences in another language. I look then something between a poser and a plain illiterate and that’s certainly one of the reasons I have stopped being invited to the fancy fêtes where mozzarella and ricotta are flown in by plane and everybody complains about the Belgian weather and the lack of a decent espresso. 

According to this article I can stop googling “multiple personality disorder” and looking up specialists in my region. It might be all the fault of the language(s). 

Several bi- or multi-linguals have indicated a change in the way they feel according to the language they’re speaking. Personally, I tend to talk more and to form longer sentences when I am surrounded by Italians while when I write in French my sentences result short and (too) concise, lacking all that flowery stuff French-speaking people are used to. (That was one of the first remarks my past editors made. I told them I still think in English rather than in French when I have to articulate a complex thought. They didn’t like it). What stays the same across languages is my tendence to be blunt and to avoid any possible sugarcoating of unpleasant realities.

If a good night’s sleep, followed by a strong coffee, can solve some of the above issues, there’s one that can’t be solved. No matter how strong you focus and how much caffeine you use. As you can read on the Economist’s blog, “many bilinguals are not biculturals”. 

It took me a while to realize this. For a very long time (and it still happens sometimes), every dinner party with Belgians would end in the same way: I would say something in my usual blunt way and my husband would interrupt, extremely embarrassed, to warn the other guests that I didn’t “really” think what I said. Every single time we would drive home without talking. Me, hugely offended. Him, unable to understand why I had to be so opinionated (something inappropriate for Belgian society). 

I am bilingual in French but far from being bicultural. I’m partially responsible for that: despite my decade spent in Belgium I never willfully took the time to immerse myself into French literature, films, newspapers and TV. I did it a bit at the beginning to learn the language but after a while I felt too distant from the French-speaking world to develop a passion about it. So I missed my train and if I now know how to talk to Belgians in formal occasions, I certainly have troubles in measuring my words in an informal context. 

The passive exposure since early childhood to British and American culture (cartoons, films, tv, books, stories) plus the fact that I simply like it more, makes me more sensitive and less prone to being equivocated when I speak English. 

What’s your own experience regarding multilingualism and multiple personalities? What about multiculturalism? Do you feel you are as many persons as the languages you master?

4 comments

  1. To a certain exten my thinking conforms to the language I speak. I also tend to think of different things in different languages: everything related to my mother, for example, is always thought in Italian while evertyhing pertaining to my husbad is always in English. Dreaming, though, seems to occur exclusively in English. But I always immersed in the culture I lived in, probably to a fault. The difference here is that I always chose the culture I wanted to be in while, in your case, it just happened maybe? Either way, it takes a long time to make peace and to inhabit fully different cultures and to walk in and out of them nonchalantly. If ever.

  2. I do feel and think differently in English vs. German, and I was completely immersed in both. I’m not quite there yet in Spanish, and I feel that it might never happen to quite the same degree.
    Great post 🙂

  3. I think it’s too late for me – English language and culture written all the way through me, like a stick of rock, no matter how many languages I master (ha ha) or countries I visit.

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