Getting into Character

Learning a language is more than stringing together verbs and nouns to make sentences that make sense. It’s also about adjusting your non-verbal communication, your posture and personal space, in a way that will make native speakers feel at ease. This is one of the harder parts of a “language” to learn, because you can’t learn it from a book, a Skype tutor or a movie.

I think the subtleties of non-verbal communication are hard to learn without extended immersion, and even so, it takes a lot of self-awareness to learn how to turn mannerisms on and off, so that you are able to use the correct non-verbal language to match the people you are interacting with at the moment.

I spent last week accompanying a group of French visitors to Oregon. The group was visiting mostly for professional reasons, although my role was to be a tour guide and to make sure the whole visit went as smoothly as possible. They had hired two translators to accompany the group during the professional visits, and I had the chance to speak with both of them.

One of the translators was particularly impressive: His French was essentially accentless, and for the first couple of days I couldn’t figure out if he was French or American, not only because of his language skills but because his mannerisms were entirely French when he spoke with the French group, and yet very American when he interacted with other people.

At some point, he mentioned that when he speaks French, it’s like putting on a different persona, like an actor getting into character. There has been quite a bit written about how bilinguals have different personalities in depending on what language they are speaking, but this was the first time I heard someone talk about “getting into character” for the language.

Nonetheless, it’s a very apt analogy. The most successful bilingual (and bicultural) people are able to change their non-verbal communication at will, much the way an accomplished actor can take on the persona of different characters, slipping into or out of character according to the situation.

Next time you speak with someone in a language other than your native language, think about how your body language changes. How much of the changes are you consciously aware of and/or actually controlling? What is happening totally unconsciously? People – including me – often change their body language unconsciously when speaking another language, but if we want to be really fluent – native-like fluent – we need to be able to control our body language just like we control our spoken language, and recognize what is or is not appropriate given the context.

The translator I was working with was, incidentally, American, not French. Several of the French visitors remarked on the fact that his accent was flawless. He had lived in France for 11+ years and studied linguistics, but I think a part of his success in “becoming French” was that he had the self-awareness to recognize that he needed to change more than just his spoken language when interacting with French people.

I’ll be thinking more about body language and getting into character as I continue learning, and it’s a good idea for you to do so as well.