Lauren Collins wasn’t destined to learn French, even though she married a Frenchman. But enough time watching him converse in a tongue she didn’t understand made her wonder: Who was Olivier, in French?
“My husband had this secret life, in a way, that was totally inaccessible to me,” she says while discussing her book When in French on The New Paris podcast. “I was like ‘Maybe he’s the same person, or maybe I married this total loser and I just have no idea.’”
If you think about it, that’s a strange thought: Surely things as stable and meaningful as our identity, values, and sense of self wouldn’t be affected by mere vocabulary.
Or would they?
Many people say they feel different when speaking in different languages, and it’s a prospect that enticed Collins personally as she embarked on her quest to learn French.
“Do people have different personalities in different languages?” she mused. “The fantasy is that learning [a foreign language] activates a latent alter ego, righting a linguistic version of having been switched at birth. Could I, would I, become someone else if I spoke French?”
Research suggests that her hopes may have been warranted. In a study of bilingual English and Spanish speakers, participants reported being more extraverted, agreeable, and conscientious when the personality surveys were in English rather than Spanish. These were the same people, taking the exact same surveys a week apart, and their answers changed.
But they changed in predictable ways. At least as far as this study is concerned, a new language doesn’t give us the freedom to reinvent ourselves however we choose; instead, these bilinguals became more like native speakers of their second language. They seemed to be adopting parts of its culture.
Another study found that even our moral judgments change in a second language. When researchers asked bilinguals whether they were willing to push a man off a bridge to stop an oncoming train and save five lives, people were significantly more likely to give him the heave-ho in their second language than their first.
Why? This effect only held for highly emotional decisions—pushing a man rather than just flipping a switch. The researchers interpreted that to mean that our emotional responses are dampened in a foreign language. We can take a more abstract, distanced perspective on the problem, and conclude that one life should be sacrificed for five.
“It shouldn’t matter if you are considering the life of ‘the large man’ or of ‘el hombre grande.’ But it does matter,” the researchers wrote.
Furthermore, skill level made a difference: The more proficient participants were in their foreign language, the more their moral decisions looked like native speakers’. Their emotions seemed to come into play more and more.
These studies suggest two ways that our identity might change in a second language: We might be influenced by a different culture, or the foreignness of the language might tone down the knee-jerk emotions evoked by our mother tongue. Other authors have suggested that we might be different people in different languages because we’ve used them in different contexts—for school or work, romance or adventure.
Collins’ memoir also hints at another explanation, when she describes visiting Olivier’s family before her French is perfectly polished. “Unable to present myself the way I would have liked to, I felt exposed, as though I’d been rousted from bed and dragged to a party, forced to come as I was,” she writes.
We all have habits of self-presentation—the rehearsed speech about ourselves we give to new acquaintances, the confident persona we wear at work—that we have to relearn in a second language. That’s a challenge, as Collins implies.
But we also get to shake off our negative habits of self-description: The self-deprecating comments, the ways we limit ourselves (“Oh, I’m not an artist”; “I don’t like to stay out late”; “I’m always stressed”). Some of these self-descriptions may no longer apply, but habit keeps them in use far past their expiration date. In a new language, we have to create new habits of talking about who we are, what we do, and where we’re from—and that can be liberating.