How Your Personality Changes When You Speak in a Foreign Language

Have you ever seen someone speaking two languages and feel as if two different people are speaking them?

A Brazilian Speaking Japanese English

I was recently having a conversation with a Paulista (someone from São Paolo, Brazil) who has spent most of his adult life working and  traveling abroad , including a few years spent in Japan.

While we were speaking in Portuguese, I saw him as a confident, intelligent and funny guy. He was a very skilled conversationalist; his words flowed naturally and seemingly without effort, and he always had something intelligent to say. After some time a Norwegian man joined our conversation and we switched to English to accommodate him.

When the Paulista greeted him, I thought for a moment that he was Japanese because of the way he bobbed his head and because his tonality matched Japanese people. As we conversed in English I felt as if I was talking to a different person.

Whereas in Portuguese he was confident and skilled with his words, in English he was self-conscious, at times struggled to articulate himself properly and his tone didn’t match his character as it did in Portuguese.

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Rhythm and Flow

Every language has a unique rhythm and flow, a way that individual words come together to paint a larger picture. But what happens when you speak a foreign language using the rhythm from your native language?

The effect is that even if everything else is perfect, the listener might not understand everything you say because it still seems like you’re speaking a foreign language. Portuguese is spoken almost as if you are singing; you don’t speak it word by word, you speak it sentence by sentence, rising and falling as you do.

Brazilians often speak English in the same rhythmic way, which sounds weird to English speakers unaccustomed to this style of speech. If someone isn’t used to hearing English spoken in this style they might struggle to understand everything that you say because you’re almost speaking a foreign language.

The following video demonstrates this concept quite well. In it there is a couple speaking in what seems to be English, but if you listen carefully you will realize that it’s actually with English intonation.

The first time I saw it I thought I could make out a few English words because they have so perfectly mastered the way that Americans speak. Even though they are actually saying only a few real words, if you weren’t paying much attention you would assume they are speaking American English because their accent is perfect.

[su_youtube_advanced url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vt4Dfa4fOEY”]

Word Choice

Finding identical words and phrases to express complex thoughts and emotions can be a difficult task in a foreign language. Until you expand your vocabulary, you may be stuck using words don’t fully express the meaning you wish to convey but are close enough.

For example, there are dozens of different words whose meaning is approximately the same as “good.” Without the right vocabulary you will end up translating all of these words as “good” which slightly changes your meaning and the way you are understood.

The idioms that you use signify a lot about your background, state of mind and past experiences. Different groups of people use different words and expressions to say the same thing.

For example to say, “I have to go to the bathroom,” a surfer might say “I’ve gotta take a dookie,” a military man would say, “I have to use the latrine,” and a woman might say, “I have to powder my nose.” They all mean the same thing, but which one you use reveals certain things about who you are.

surfingSlang is a powerful identifier of your character. Some slang is unique to certain groups of people, and the use of these words can signify what your interests are.

Surfers commonly use words like gnarly and tubular, so if someone uses words like these you can probably assume that they surf. It’s common to hear poker players use jargon such as double down, fold and bluff outside the context of poker. Maybe you’ve guessed that I surf and play poker based on these examples.

Without knowing the equivalent phrases in a foreign language you won’t be able to properly express your personality. You may try to translate them literally which doesn’t work if that expression isn’t the same in both languages. Or you will say them in a very direct way, which may come across as rude or culturally insensitive.

It’s always good to consult the Internet, a native speaker, or a RealLife English article to make sure you’re using the right expression.

How You Can Improve

There is no magic pill to overcome these challenges, but the first step is being aware of them. Once you become aware of how you speak you can start to work on changing it to make it sound more native.

A good idea would be to record yourself speaking in your foreign language and compare your intonation and flow with that of a native speaker.

Another way is to study someone who has a similar personality or background as you and observe the way that they speak. Observe not only the words that they use but also how they use them in speech. Take note of their rhythm, when they make pauses and their body language while speaking.

Thankfully there is an abundant amount of study material available through TV and movies. Find a character that you identify with and study their word choice, tone of voice, and overall attitude they have while speaking.

If you enjoyed this article please let us know what you think! Take a second to COMMENT below.  Love English? Remember to join our international community where you can practice with native speakers, teachers, and other language learners like yourself!

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  • Natasha

    Great article.This is so true, myself included! My initial conversations in Greek were monotonic , stlited and rather soulless making me frustrated at not being able to express what I was really like as a person.However, my ‘Greek’ personality has changed over the years . As I have become more proficient , my confidence in interacting with Greek native speakers has blossomed but not only that – I shout when I speak excitedly, i gesticulate continuously and , shock horror, have begun to interrupt when others are speaking! And there has been a certain amount of crossover into English, when in the UK I express my feelings and opinions much more freely than I would have done in the past, and find myself searching for English versions of Greek idiomatic phrases!

    • Justin

      Hey Natasha, Very insightful comment. It’s sounds like you’re kicking ass with your Greek! I’ve felt the same way at points with my language learning too, and I know exactly what you mean. Thanks a lot for commenting!

  • Andrew

    Thanks for such good educating post.ok now i will try to fix my vocabulary.

  • nommoc

    So hear what you are saying, as a westerner learning Chinese I feel my personality, tone and pitch of voice all get affected when speaking Chinese.

    • Justin

      Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. I’ve felt the same thing with Spanish and Portuguese. I can’t really imagine how it would be with Chinese! Totally different frame of reference.

    • Justin

      Hey Carol, That really great that you’ve familiarized yourself with TV series and high school. That’s a very effective way to learn. Thanks for your nice comment!

    • Justin

      You’re not alone Reis! Courage is the answer.

  • Liz Cardoso

    This post and comments has put a big smile on my face! My partner is a native English speaker and I’m Brazilian and have English as my second language. It can be so challenging sometimes, no to communicate, but to make me feel like the real me when talking to him… I wish I could be as confident and straight to the point in English as I am in Portuguese. Not that he minds, he loves me the way I am and loves. But the problem is within myself. I just don’t see myself the same way when I speak a different language other than my own.

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  • Interesting 🙂 I can hear myself change when I switch from English to my natives!

    • Justin

      Yeah that is interesting! The same thing happens to me with my language learning.

  • Great post! Actually this problem of changing personality when speaking another language really occurs with me, especially because I’m very worried about making mistakes with the language, so when a more elaborate discussion starters I face this problem so hard. In portuguese I love to join discussions about politics, but when it start in English (even when there are some Brazilians in the conversation) I prefer to stay in silent than to express my opinion. For sure this is a field a have to work a lot!

    • Justin

      Hey Luisa, Thanks for the nice comment. I’m really glad it was useful, but now this is something you’re aware of and you can start to experiment with. I know exactly what you mean about talking about politics. With me it’s the exact reverse! But definitely open your mouth and speak and start trying out your English voice as it’s the only way to develop it!

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