Rachel Beresford asks if it’s possible to have different personalities in different languages
The other day my boyfriend referred to me as his costillita. In English, that would be his “little rib”. Had we been speaking in my mother tongue I might have been forced to express some feminist outrage at that word. As it was, we were speaking Spanish and it appears I am a lot sweeter and more receptive to Colombian piropos when I speak Colombian Spanish. If you pressed me, I would probably admit that I answered him in the same vein.
|“It’s hard to find two languages that suggest different personalities more”
The debate about whether people have different personalities in different languages is long-running and unresolved, but the evidence is plentiful and the explanations yet more so. Plenty of bilinguals report being reserved in one language but highly romantic in another. Others claim to feel younger in one tongue, “more childlike” they say, but are convinced they assume a certain seriousness the moment they switch.
They might have the same European roots, but it’s hard to find two languages that suggest different personalities more than Colombian Spanish, the language of our lives here, and British English, my own cherished native tongue. Could that be attributed to something as simple as the words themselves? Does, “me regalas,” (“please gift me,”) make me instantly sweeter than “please may I have?” What about the, “se me cayó,” (“it fell from me,”) of the broader Spanish tongue? Could swapping that phrase for, “I dropped it,” make a speaker instantly more responsible?
|“They are convinced that personality and attitude are dictated by the construction of the language spoken”
There will be linguists who tell you “yes,” (or “sí,” depending on their mood apparently) because they are convinced that personality and attitude are dictated by the construction of the language spoken. Others are less sure, citing numerous factors that could be at play. Do we associate one language with work and another with home, for example? In which case are we really going to start offering prizes for guessing which makes a speaker’s personality more relaxed?
We cannot underestimate the power of personal prejudice either. If we consider British people to be drier, colder, more formal and more sarcastic than the average Colombian, is it any surprise to find ourselves exhibiting those traits when speaking their language?
Could we equally convince ourselves to be more excitable when speaking Italian or more rigid, perhaps, when speaking German? What personality would we unearth if we finally learned to speak Polynesian?
|“If Colombians expect warmth, sweetness and humble deference, is it any surprise a British Spanish speaker will find a way to comply?”
And at what point does culture come into play? If Colombians expect warmth, sweetness and humble deference, is it any surprise a British Spanish speaker will find a way to comply? And if those cold old Brits expect sharpness, irony and a ton of witty banter, won’t British English suddenly lend itself to a whole new world of humour?
Whatever you choose to believe, it seems unlikely the linguists will come to a consensus anytime soon. In the meantime, I am a happy, affectionate costillita. Just please don’t call me your “little rib.”
CEO, Executive English Training S.A.S.