Learning a Language, Adopting an Identity

Bilingual (and multilingual) people often report that their personalities change – even if just slightly – depending on which language they are speaking. Learning a new language is about more than conjugating verbs and pronouncing tones correctly – it’s about learning to adopt a different identity.

As a language learner, you might never reach the kind of fluency that would allow someone to mistake you for a native speaker. You might not ever understand the cultural significance of certain idioms or movie references in common expressions. You will never become Chinese, but you will become more Chinese. You’ll start to understand how native speakers in your target language think, and even if you don’t really subscribe to that way of thinking, the more fluent you get in your target language the more you will find yourself seeing the world from a similar perspective – at least when you’re speaking your target language.

As you become more fluent, you will be building up an identity in your target language. When you first start learning, you’re identity will be simple: You are an outsider, a language learner. The closer you get towards fluency – especially once you have spent some time abroad in a country that speaks your target language – the more complicated this identity becomes.

In her memoir about living in China and writing about Chinese food, Fuchsia Dunlop, an Englishwoman who lived in Chengdu and studied at a culinary school there, describes a moment when she’s in another part of China talking about food – and the person she’s speaking with refers to her as if she were a native of Chengdu. When she’s speaking Chinese, Dunlop is still an Englishwoman, but she’s also someone who speaks with a Chengdu accent and has a deep connection to that city’s culinary traditions. Her connection to China might matter to her deeply, but when she speaks English her specific connection to the city of Chengdu and its food is less apparent.

Likewise, when I speak German, I speak with a Swiss accent. The fact that I lived in Switzerland, not Germany, when I was learning German influences the vocabulary I choose to use as well as the structure of my sentences. When I speak German, I feel slightly Swiss. If I’m speaking with a Swiss person, I draw on the shared context we have, my experiences traveling in Switzerland, living in a Swiss host family and going to school in Switzerland. If I’m speaking with a German, I’m very aware of the fact that we don’t share those same reference points.

When I speak English, of course, there is no part of me that feels Swiss. People I talk to don’t know I spent time in Switzerland unless it comes up as part our conversation.

When we learn a language and live abroad, we are choosing where we want to be “from” in our target language. That’s powerful. While you can choose where you live as an adult, you can’t choose where you were born or grew up. You can’t choose your own name. Learning a language is a process of ‘growing up’ in another culture, but this time we get to choose what accent we speak with, what country and region we are ‘from’ or attached to, and sometimes even our name. You will learn to eat – and perhaps cook – food from your adopted home. Slowly, you’ll start understanding cultural references and laugh at jokes about locally-famous individuals.

When you’re speaking your native language, these things won’t matter. Americans don’t generally care what your Chinese name is – most of the time, they wouldn’t even know to ask. They won’t understand jokes about Russian pop stars and they won’t eat oysters at Christmas.

As you’re working on your target language, think about who you want to become and who are are becoming. That’s what learning a new language is.