Polyglots Might Have Multiple Personalities

From the "I get this!" files: Polyglots Might Have Multiple Personalities. I can't really claim to be fluent in other languages, at least not any more, but I did spend years studying and speaking Mandarin Chinese - and labored endless semesters in French plus a few less formal forays into Spanish and Greek. Enough to have experienced the sense of thinking in - even dreaming in - alternate languages. When I read about people taking on different personalities when speaking different tongues it IMMEDIATELY resonated for me. I feel that!

There is a Laura, a 李淑 that I have almost no access to any more because I can only just eke out a coherent Mandarin sentence, and she was not quite the same as the one writing this in English. She is stuck in being 18-25, for one thing. She was more polite. Less assertive. She was 19 and lived in Taiwan, and then in New York City, and she could only trick people into thinking she spoke Chinese for a few minutes at a time if she was wearing her motorcycle helmet at the night market or on the phone because Mandarin was a second language for so many people around her. She fell back home to the US after two years in a state of cultural exhaustion and alienation. But I liked her. She had good self-esteem - probably because she was an English teacher in a culture where educators are still revered. She was, strangely enough, quite brave: she moved around the world fearlessly, and with curiosity and fascination with the world.

The Greek Laura was far less confident. Risk averse. Δάφνη wasn't able to figure out how to be a girl in a culture that wanted girls to stay home at night if unaccompanied, and stay quiet when men were speaking. So she was quiet all the time and her words stilted. She walked every day for the better part of a year past a beautiful church she was too timid to enter and too prideful to ask anyone to bring her in. I don't miss that Laura. She liked Greek but it had no time for her.

French: I could translate Camus - at least in my Sophomore year at college. It is lost to me now. I think the elegance and coolness of that culture was inaccessible to me. I spent my 24th birthday, alone, in Paris, and my clearest memory is of conceding to the expediency of adding a TV to my bill because I was unable to do an entire day speaking to real people en français.

The Spanish-stumbling Laura lived in Spanish Harlem. She listened, even danced, and smiled, ate well and got along - but again, an outsider. Language is the way in, and without it - without genuine conversation and friendship and even the ability to argue - one is a tourist living in lively silence, and unseen.

English-speaking Laura is a paler version. But I smile as I say that, in English - because even now I can say my name and channel at least that in Chinese, in Spanish, in Greek, and even in college level French. More personalities, even unspoken here in a kitchen in Virginia, enrich my life.


  1. There is nothing pale about English-speaking Laura! She is an olde English knight in shining armor! A valiant warrior upon a mighty steed armed with a silver sword. Her battle cry can be heard the world over...


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