As a young man I spent three years working in Turkey, where people were constantly reminding me of the famous Turkish saying about speaking a foreign language:
“Bir dil bir insan, iki dil iki insan.”
(One who speaks only one language is one person, but one who speaks two languages is two people.)
Turks say that if you speak only your mother-tongue, you have ‘just’ the one personality.
But learn a foreign language, such as English, and in effect you gain a personality, you become two people.
I once knew a girl from the east of Turkey who worked as a belly-dancer in a nightclub in the capital.
She was doing pretty well out of it, so much so that she could afford to hire me to give her private English lessons at her smart apartment in a nice area of the city.
The reason she wanted to learn English, she explained, was that when speaking Turkish she encountered prejudice because her accent betrayed her origins and lack of education.
She hoped that, by using English, she’d be able to escape those limits.
Certainly, the way you speak your own language can say a lot about you.
And obviously, a lot (or all) of that ‘meta’ information about class and accent will be lost or become irrelevant when you speak another tongue.
But putting aside prejudice based on cultural clues, is there some sort of linguistic or psychological basis for the belief that you are actually a “different person” when speaking a second language?
For an interesting overview of this issue, check out this article from The Economist. (It’s a little heavy, but interesting.)
So, TWO Daniels?
Not to worry. I’d say I’m the same, irritable me whether I’m speaking English or Italian.
For me, the Turkish saying is without foundation, at least when it comes to how I feel about myself.
I’d allow, though, that perhaps other people may perceive me differently according to which language I’m using at the time.
My kids, for example, are used to hearing me spout competently in English. It’s likely that when they hear me speaking Italian (with friends, over a bottle of wine), they get a different impression of their old dad.
Similarly, I often notice how my perception of my students (Italians, learning English) changes when they switch from English to Italian. Even the sound of their voices can seem different.
Over to you
So, do you feel like a different person when you speak Italian?
And what about the idea mentioned in the article, that it’s the intrinsic nature of a language that causes you to behave differently when you are using it?
Click here to share your views (scroll to the bottom of the page to have your say).
Talking of speaking a foreign language, I’ll be publishing details of next week’s free Italian conversation lessons tomorrow (Sunday). There’ll be three sessions with 10 places in each, as last week, but some changes to the days. So watch this space.
Twitter user? Follow @onlineitaliancl (Please! So far we have an embarrassing 24 followers…)