I know we all have different versions of ourselves. We have the version of lounging at home on the couch, we have our social selves and we have our work persona. But when it comes to speaking more than one language, I feel like I also have different identities.
I speak three languages, English, Spanish and French. Spanish and English are my mother languages. I even learned how to read in Spanish before English. French is my third, which I started learning in high school. Though multiple people think this is an amazing accomplishment on my part (and it is something I am proud of), it can sometimes be very difficult to distinguish in which language I am speaking, thinking, dreaming, etc.
It is a constant question I have been asked since I was little: what language do you think in? It’s not a black and white response.
When I only spoke two languages, I used to explain it by saying it depended on who I was surrounded by and what I was doing. Obviously, if I am with someone who speaks Spanish, I think in Spanish. If I am reading a book in English, I think in English. Today, it is much more complicated than that. I live in a country that speaks French, which I learned much later in life. On a normal day, out of English, Spanish and French, I probably spend 90% of it speaking French, and 8% English and the other 2% Spanish.
When I started my studies at the Sorbonne, I didn’t expect to have the headaches I had by the end of the day. The level of French used at university is something completely different from the day to day life. I also didn’t expect to be coming back to my apartment and having an experience of feeling misplaced, and a slight home language sickness. I would come home and put on something on Netflix in English or Spanish. My mind was asking for it. Even trying to call the Frenchman could sometimes be difficult because all I needed was to feel like the languages I grew up with, the ones that made me, were not being forgotten.
Here is the thing I love learning about languages: I love that each one has its own personality, its own way of expressing things. The other day while speaking with the Frenchman, I translated “the elephant in the room“. He looked at me confused, not understanding what I was trying to say. I explained it meant that it’s a feeling between two people that is not being talked about but both know is there. It’s an expression that is not used in French. Which comes down to my point that each language has its own personality. Hence why I sometimes feel I have multiple identities. In each language, I express myself differently. English is my first language, the language I used when going to school, communicating with my dad and most of my American friends. To me, English has always felt like a language that is very direct, very precise. In fact, Humans of New York interviewed someone who said my exact feelings about the difference between speaking English and Spanish:
“English is a very precise language. I like to use it when I’m describing technical things. But when I’m talking about my feelings, I find it easier to use Spanish.”“Why is Spanish best for describing feelings?”“Latin people have a lot of feelings. So they have a lot of words to describe them.”
I have always felt that when I speak Spanish, my intonation varies a lot more than when I speak English. I am more active with my hands. I am more expressive. I would be what my American friends said, “the hot-blooded Spaniard”. Speaking French, I am very much more reclusive, especially when meeting people for the first time. My accent is neither Spanish nor American, so it doesn’t give me that place of being one or the other (which I would never want to be, I like being known as the Spaniard/American). Once I do feel comfortable with people, I open up more, and when I make mistakes, I like to joke about it. My philosophy when learning a language is that we can’t be afraid. Mistakes are going to be made, so instead of having a defensive attitude, I will beat you to the punch with the joke. I have always felt that both French and Spanish are a lot more romantic than English as well.
When I was back in the states over the summer, I did experience reverse culture shock. A lot of it had to do with the language. There would be little slip ups of me replying in French to people, and there would be times when I would want to translate certain French phrases to English or Spanish (which tends to be the opposite when I am in France). It was also difficult to understand the concept of my friends loving everything and everyone. Americans LOVE to use the word love. I love this, I love that, I love you, love ya’! In French and in Spanish, saying love is used rarely, so that the word keeps its depth. The first time I told the Frenchman I loved him was a mistake. I wasn’t there yet. I just wanted him to know that I liked him, and enjoyed spending time with him. In French, there is no difference between the words like and love, they’re both aimer, but it depends on what context you are using the word. In this situation, when I wanted to say “I like you”, I should have added a bien to the end of the phrase. So it would have been je t’aime bien instead of the je t’aime, which is what I used. It was an awkward situation to be in, not knowing the difference, since we had only been dating for a few weeks. Now that we have been dating for a few years, I do tend to say “I love you” to the Frenchman more than he’s used to, which is where my American leaks into the language.
A friend from high school recently visited me in Paris, and I asked her how my English was holding up. She told me not much had changed. “You were always mixing up expressions back then because of Spanish. I understand what it must be like. You have multiple languages speaking in your head.” It was nice to have someone point that out, something I sometimes felt self-conscious of. Now, I have learned it comes with speaking more than one language. I have a mix of so many places, and that’s something beautiful.
I am a jumbled, beautiful mess of cultures.
Bisous, Besos, XOXO,
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