Thursday, February 02, 2012

do you recognize yourself in a language not your own?


i've been thinking a lot lately about whether you can ever truly be yourself in a language not your own.  are you recognizable as yourself? and to yourself? i've had occasion to feel that i wasn't myself several times of late in danish. and yet, i can also have moments of feeling comfortable in danish and feeling like my sparkling self. but i wonder if i will ever truly feel like me in danish.

so i asked husband about this, especially since he has spoken exclusively english with me for going on 15 years now and we will never switch to danish (it feeling most unnatural to both of us). i asked him if he ever felt something was missing. he said it was the cultural references, especially those of childhood -  books, films, television programs - that he felt most acutely.  but he said it never made him feel like he wasn't himself, just that he didn't have the full breadth of expression that would be at his disposal in danish.

i actually at times feel like a different person - one who is quieter, who holds back when she would normally say something, who thinks more before she speaks (admittedly not a bad thing), one who sometimes sounds sharper than i mean to because i get something slightly wrong (tho' i'm sure there are those who would argue that i am at times sharper than i should be in english). it's partially that different words and grammar express things differently, it's partially intonation, and i guess it's also a feeling of awkwardness. maybe i'm simply never truly comfortable in danish, so i can't fully relax.

i know some of you live outside your native language too...do you ever feel this way? do you lose a bit of who you are when you're speaking a foreign tongue?

11 comments:

The F Girl said...

I don't live in a foreign country, but I do blog in English and talk to friends in that language, while my mother language is Dutch. I don't experience many problems with that, but, like you said, sometimes I notice that it can be difficult to exactly express an emotion the way I feel it in my heart, just because the words are less close to me, in a way. And yes, I think I can come across more harsh than I mean to, or less funny than I sounded in my head because of the language :)

Having said that, I think that in a real life situation you bring so much more to the table than language, like your eyes, your expression, mimic, laugh. Things that might define you even more than words could ever do, don't you think?

poet said...

I'm a native speaker of German and acquired English as my second language, but since I took great pains to learn it really well since age 13, and since I lived in the US for a while, it feels like they've switched places. A lot of my thinking and most of my internal wordplay jokes happen in English, and it has some words that are much more appropriate. At this point in my life, I have trouble talking about my main interests - fashion, feminism, or my research - in German. I even feel that if I were to write poetry now it would come to me more easily in English than in German. Eventually I'm my true self in-between both languages, though.

MissBuckle said...

I'm better now, but I used to be much more confident when I spoke English.

Mostly I cant find the word in Norwegian, only English. Other times Norwegian words are better.

jessica wilson said...

I only speak English and I often feel less myself. I attribute this to feeling less than and trying to fit in with different circles of people. It is kind of like code switching which is referred to children who speak two different languages. I liken code switching to preforming within the realms of accepted behavior within your various peer groups. Work, childhood friends, new friends, parent friends, the coffeeshop...it is when I believe I don't fit in so I try to fit in that I lose myself. I'm getting over it. Does any of that apply to you or am I just rambling? ;)

Spilling Ink said...

I so can relate to what you're talking about here. I grew up in Sweden but have spent half my life in Australia. I find that I miss half a life time of references whenever I swap between the two languages. It's the later part of my life that's missing when I talk to the people back home and the childhood and teenage part that's missing when I talk to people here. It becomes an exercise in extreme code switching at times.

Elizabeth said...

As you know I use three languages on a daily basis. The strange thing is that I need to feel some kind of acceptance of the person I talk to when I speak Danish. If it is not there I get nervous and I feel judged on my ability to speak in Danish. Don't have that with the other two languages.

Interesting topic.

Blanca Gonzalez said...

I think about this A LOT but I guess I haven't stopped to reflect on it properly.

I'm most comfortable when I speak with Spanish speakers who also live in England and we speak Spanglish, or simply switch between Spanish or English depending on the conversation or how we're feeling. I guess that's when I feel more myself, really, when I can use both...

But I had to choose, these days I actually feel more myself when I speak English. That does not mean that my English is perfect, I do struggle to find the right words to convey my feelings from time to time and I know that I sometimes sound too harsh in English. But I also struggle in Spanish depending on the topic, for instance.

My situation is different to yours as I speak the second language all day, including at home, whereas you speak your first language at home. I'm sure that makes a difference.

I think it also has got to do with how much I have grown in the last 10 years, I'm not the same person I was when I first moved here. I've had a lot of my real firsts in England: first time truly living away from home, first real job, first real love (oooh!) and I had to navigate all that in English. In a weird way, sometimes when I speak Spanish, I feel like the person I was 10 years ago (and I don't want to be that person!). But that may also be because I mostly speak Spanish to my family and my friends from 10 years ago, so it may be less about language and more about the context.

PS. Sorry for the long, rambling comment... this is definitely something that I want to reflect on, specially now that I'm preparing myself to raise a bilingual child...

Linda said...

I am very talkative in English, in French not so much. I'm sure they think I'm a very quiet person-if they only knew.

Sammi said...

I agree with Blanca, when I lived in the Canaries, I used to speak a mixture of Spanish and English depending on how I was feeling. I speak to my closest friend down there 80% of the time in Spanish rather than English even tho' we are both English.

The best example I can use is between my ex boss his new girlfriend and my friends the mixture of nationalities was English, French and Italian, and we used to sit and converse solely in Spanish so we could all understand but sometimes there are some words that just don't work, or don't express what we actually mean in the way we want it to. I find myself concentrating too hard also to try and say what I want to correctly.

Also, if you listen in the Canaries, most English people speak Spanglish because there is no words for certain things, so you use to Spanish equivalent for the sentence to make sense.

Magpie said...

i can't get past the picture. i made a head like that, way back when, with similar hair and an oddly similar face. i wonder where it is...?

Polly said...

I do agree with you, I don't think that you can ever express yourself in a foreign language as well as you would do in your mother tongue... and I agree that it's a lot about all those signals and innuendos that can be left unsaid but still perfectly understood if you're communicating with your natives... but also sentence intonation and modulating my voice feels (and sounds) much more natural when I speak my own language. It's strange, after so many years of using English as a first language and despite the fact that I would find it hard to communicate in my mother tongue on professional level - legalese is too full of language/cultures specific terms - I still feel at my best when I can speak my own speech.

I have a French Canadian friend who despite the fact that he was brought up practically bilingual is very much from Montreal, he sounds so much better in French, somehow calmer, timbre of his voice is much more pleasant, it strikes me every time I speak with him, it's evident he's not quite himself in English.

PS really sorry it's taken me so long to post this comment, I'm so disorganised these days...