In My Language I am Smart

Today I found an interesting piece about the differences between speaking your own language and speaking a second or foreign language by Dragan Todorovic, a Serbian writer and artist who lives in Canada. He tells us that:

…my biggest problem was the sound of my English. Language is acquired with its sound, and the sounds I had picked from records and movies were harsh, aggressive, and presented me in a very different light from who I was and am. Suddenly I realized that somewhere in the process of acquiring the tone of modern English I had lost my identity. It was painful to realize that in my language I was smart, but I sounded stupid in English.

Have you had similar experiences? Do you think you’re a different person when you speak a foreign language?

14 thoughts on “In My Language I am Smart

  1. Do you think you’re a different person when you speak a foreign language?

    Yes, definitely. I feel like I’m acting or playing the role of someone from that country. With Armenian, I have so many native examples that I even change my gesturing sometimes and tone of voice to more reflect those around me. (I’ll confess: I might act a little more macho. :-D)

    Come to think of it, we do that a lot in the U.S. even with other Americans. If I’m talking to a southerner or someone from the east coast (New Yowk or Joisey), I pickup on their accent and their mannerisms. And I’m not the only one I’ve seen doing this.

  2. I’ve been told that when I speak french I sound really straight forward and demanding- but when I speak english I’m more meek and accommodating. I’ve also been told that when I speak french I sound sarcastic and stuck up. That’s so not my nature though.

  3. I´lll spare you the biography, but having to live (rather than study for fun) in a second (or fourth) language, is like having parts of your soul ripped off: you loose in a stroke you cultural, and social identity. even when you are at a level way beyond degree level it´s still not fun. I´ve heard it takes 5 years living in the country before you start to normalise….

    Not fun

  4. I think I’m much more direct in Chinese than I am in English. It started when I had no choice but to be direct, when my skills were so limited that I couldn’t make my words any less harsh, but has continued now that that is no longer the case.

  5. I’m not a different person but when I speak german I prounance it hard. The only one I had heard speaking german was Hitler and I spoke like he did, and until this day I have not maniged to speak german normally. One person thought that swedish (my mother-tongue) was a very hard language, because I spoke so hard. I have to get rid of my hitler-accent, but I can’t. German is a difficult language to prounance anyway. It is difficulter than any other language I have learned or tryed to learn.

  6. Unlike James, my soul is very much intact; in fact, greatly enhanced by living in a second (or indeed fourth) language. I moved to Canada as a young adult and fell in love with the English language; its variety, its subtleness, its great vocabulary and yes, even its bizarre spelling. Most native Anglophones do not appreciate the beauty of their language. Nowadays, when I speak Dutch (my native tongue) I feel uncomfortable and awkward.
    So, yes, I must say that I do feel different when speaking a foreign language, even when I now consider Dutch the foreign one.

  7. My Japanese teacher told me that when Japanese men talk the talk in a really low sort of a voice and when English speakers speak Japanese to a Japanese male, they will find it quite funny as our voices are higher pitched.

  8. @David:

    I’ve heard this same thing. Deep and gravel-ly. That’s why you should have a Japanese instructor of the same gender as yourself.
    Even certain words, including a specific rendering of the pronoun, “I”, are used by women more than men. Writing was gender specific in the past, with a script used only by women.

  9. I wouldn’t say that I’m a mean person in any language. But I’m a much nicer person in French than in my native English. This is perhaps because I lack the French vocabulary to match my dry sarcasm in English. I pretty much only use Spanish for commerce so I’m a very helpful person when I’m speaking Spanish.

  10. What an interesting concept and comment thread.

    I wonder if it’s the language itself or the people. For example would a non-native Portuguese speaking person express themselves differently in Portugal than in Brasil?

  11. Reading through the comments, I think there are two different issues at stake here:

    1. How people perceive themselves while speaking another language, which is often influenced by their perceived (or real) level of competence in the language.
    2. How native speakers of the language perceive the foreign speaker based on accent, competence etc.

    These two perceptions can be wildly different.

    Example: when I first started speaking Spanish with Spanish people, I felt kinda helpless, often rude and without any wit. Most Spanish people I talked with however appreciated the effort and waved away most of my mistakes.

    Another example: when I – as a Dutch person speaking “ABN” (Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands, the standard) – hear someone from the town of Tilburg speak Dutch, they, to me, in general “sound” stupid, no matter how intelligent the opinions they express may be. The typical accent of that area just has that effect. Nothing to do with how well they speak the language at all.
    (Of course, that doesn’t mean I disregard their opinions as stupid, it just means that that is how they come across on first sound)

  12. Whenever I speak with a French person they always think my French sounds like that of a Belgian. Well, It should. My first teacher was Belgian and that is why I speak French with a Belgian accent. It’s kind of funny because I have been studying French since I was five. Most non Belgians think I’m Belgian.

  13. What an interesting topic!
    As a young adult, I was stuttering. Only when I came to live in a region speaking another language (French), did I learn to speak without stuttering. Even in my native German I did not stutter anymore.
    When I finally lived in the US, my language sounded more intelligent, so as if I had a better education.
    I believe that learning and speaking a new language can help us overcome difficulties in our own culture.

  14. (from an american teenager living in France for a year) I think the culture of a country plays into as well for sure. In France, people use more joking, frank, teasing humor, and I find in French I take a much more sarcastic tone than in English, where I use more dry, subtle sarcasm. But I learned early on dry sarcasm isn’t even understood in French.

    but I think you pick up the habits of those you’re around whether or not its your native language. For example, I think I am more well-read than the average person. When I speak with adults, when I write, when I am discussing more “intellectual” topics, I tend to naturally use a higher level of language. But I notice when I’m around other kids my age, I hear the “likes” and “ya know?s” slowly infiltrate….

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