I have realized something really important living abroad in a country where the majority of people do not speak English (at least not well enough to communicate everything) – how essential communication is to, well everything. I understood before, during misunderstanding with friends and others, the importance of effective communication, but here I am talking about basic communication.
When you arrive in country as a Peace Corps Volunteer, its possible you have some experience with the local language especially if perhaps you head to a French, Spanish or even Russian speaking country, all of which are more or less, in the case of Russian, foreign languages that are taught widely throughout the United States, or were when I was at school. However, there’s also a better than decent chance that you won’t know the language or perhaps ever have been exposed to it before you arrive in country. When I found out I was going to Moldova, I certainly could not have told you almost anything about the language here, was it Russian, Romanian, something else – also suffice to say I had not ever previously encountered anything in the Romanian language.
But then one day, over a year ago now, I arrived in Moldova and was awash in Romanian. For the first six months or so, in country it was a serious constant struggle – to understand, to respond, to communicate. For the first few weeks I literally had trouble expressing myself; my three-year old host sister was better able to express her wishes, her needs, her feelings, her thoughts on anything better than I was. I was suddenly trapped inside my head, bounded by the few words I knew and what I could accomplish via mime or simple understanding of the person across the table from me. (This was also a lesson in what can be accomplished via mime and understandings that transcend spoken words.)
But as time passed, I grew in my linguistic abilities and simple expressions became less scary or overwhelming. There was a point, sometime between this six month point and the one year mark where my language took a jump and I felt proficient (never fluent) in my abilities. It was somewhere between the first and third over one hour training I lead in Romanian; and likely it was because of pushing myself to create these trainings in Romanian, to plan what I would say, to practice it repeatedly, to learn the new vocabulary, to struggle for hours over certain words correct pronunciation.
Somewhere in there I felt confident in translating, speaking, understanding. But there still isn’t the ease as with English. If I go a few weeks without a significant amount of extensive, engaged Romanian interaction, I regress. It’s not that I can’t understand anymore, I can still understand just fine and translate ok, but I can’t produce the language with the same ease. I still don’t have any close Moldovan friends who don’t speak English at a really high level, in fact with almost all my Moldovan friends, we communicate in English. (This isn’t to say that I don’t interact with lots of people in Romanian, I do, just these people are more acquaintances, colleagues or such.)
Now that I can communicate better, I advocate for myself more. If someone cuts me in line, if a cashier or waitress is aggressively rude, if some drunk is speaking to me, I can confront these situations, rather than shying away from them for lack of ability to speak through them.
Tonight I was speaking to two other Peace Corps Volunteers about this. About how your reactions to things here change in your second year and how some of that is due to a lessening of the constraints of language. I realized as I was speaking to them about language and how it affects your life here, just how much it really does. When I first arrived in Moldova, I lost so much of my personality from the US, or at least the ability to express that personality. So when you arrive you’re forced into this version of yourself that if nothing else is forced more or less to spend at least some large part of the day listening, introspective and not speaking, because, well, you can’t. So you’re personality here in Romanian is shaped to be less verbose, to be more concise, to speak less and listen more, because speaking in Romanian (correctly or to be understood) requires much more thought. And over time this affects who you become in this new language and perhaps even helps shape who you are in this new culture.
There’s actually a significant amount of research into bilingualism’s effects on personality. And some of it suggests what I have observed.
For example, when tested in a foreign language, people are less likely to fall into a cognitive trap (answering a test question with an obvious-seeming but wrong answer) than when tested in their native language. In part this is because working in a second language slows down the thinking. No wonder people feel different when speaking them. And no wonder they feel looser, more spontaneous, perhaps more assertive or funnier or blunter, in the language they were reared in from childhood. (Economist)
Some research even suggests that speaking in a native tongue, one associated with family, may have mood altering effects. While I think any Peace Corps Volunteer or someone who has lived for an extended period of time in another language would agree, its interesting to think of language having the same effect as a comfort food, blanket or other such emotionally charged object.
The research on whether personality is actually changed by language is fascinating and takes an in depth look at those who are bilingual and bi-cultural, as well as those, like myself who are just (in my case en route to be) bilingual.
Bilinguals use their languages for different purposes, in different domains of life, with different people. Different contexts and domains trigger different impressions, attitudes and behaviors. What is taken as a personality shift due to a change of language may have little, if anything, to do with language itself.
Imagine the way we speak to a best friend and the behavior that we adopt. Then, think of how all this changes when we are speaking the same language to a superior. We behave differently and sometimes change attitudes and feelings even though the language is the same. (Psychology Today)
Other researchers argue that a large part of this ‘personality shift,’ may be in fact due to the very composition of the language we are speaking. Where the verb is placed in the sentence may allow or suggest a more aggressive speech pattern. If the subject and the predicate need to be close to each other concision is key or if for example in English, words tend to be more malleable (ie I texted you, I sent you a text, I texted).
But even for those who are not bi-cultural, there arises the question of culture; does the language itself give us new personality or do we simply fall into the culture we associate with that language? Furthermore we have to be aware of the categories of various languages, for example when learning a new language we can not rely only on translations, but also we must rely on categories of size, material, shape, usage, cultural connotation, ect.
Thus it is necessary to not only restructure how we think about culture, but also how we think about objects, words, and the very world around us. It’s perhaps a little too Orwellian, too 1984 to think that changing languages might rewire our minds (e.g. could the oppressed understand or even desire “democracy” if the word ceased to exist?), yet a comparative analysis between languages and a variety of studies finds that this is the case. (Thought Catalog)
The question probably will always remain whether I am this ‘other person’ in Romanian because of my lack of fluency or because of my associations with Romanian and Moldova or something else. This experience though of being immersed in another language, being forced to pause and think more has certainly developed my memory, my ability to prioritize tasks, my ability to think long-term, and has forced me throughout most of this experience to stay more in the moment, it has rid me of the luxury of passivity (at least for now).
“Learn a new language and get a new soul.” – Czech Proverb