Foreign language learning and the rebirth of a new you

By | June 5, 2014

The path of learning a foreign language, especially when self-taught, is fraught with many challenges and difficulties, and one should always expect a minimum of several years for any reasonable level of fluency.

Fortunately, all the hard work is (eventually) rewarded with satisfaction in this great achievement, better appreciation of another country’s culture, and increased opportunities for careers and life in general.

In my study of Japanese I’ve come to realize there is one more hidden bonus in getting proficient at a foreign language. It’s that you have a chance to rewire parts of your personality, in essence create a new ‘you’.

This may sound crazy, but think of it is way – When you are learning your native language, you learn a variety of expressions from your surroundings and gradually build up a set of phrases that make up who you are linguistically. We all have our own unique ways of speaking, and I am sure you’ve had the experience where you hear a phrase and think “this sounds like something so-and-so could have said”. In addition, these linguistic influences may go deeper than you might guess, as there are some theories that language can have a major effect on how we think and act.

This process of personality-creation also applies to a second language. Initially, all of us will have experiences where we struggle to translate some set phrase from our native language since it’s the first thing that comes to mind, but the more we are surrounded by native speakers of this second language, the more we will pick up new expressions, many of which have the potential to carry nuances not present in our mother tongue.

Depending on our age and how linguistically endowed we are, some of us may struggle to make complex sentences in a foreign language and as a result end up with a much simpler personality when using this language, as we strive to minimize mistakes.

But we can also make active choices about how we direct our foreign language studies. For example, we can strive to improve our descriptive ability, or promise to ourselves to improve expression of our own feelings. While in theory we could do this in our native language, starting from linguistic scratch provides a more convenient opportunity to get rid of our old habits and sculpt a new self word by word, sentence by sentence.

This idea came to me one day when I had realized that there were some things I could say with more ease or in more detail in Japanese, despite the fact it is my second language. I’ve noticed there is a lot of ’emotional baggage’ associated with words in my native language which can actually act as barriers to expressing myself fully.

I’m curious to hear if any of you have noticed personality differences when speaking in a second or third language.




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7 thoughts on “Foreign language learning and the rebirth of a new you

  1. chanteru

    Since studying Japanese, I’ve found that I often bow my head slightly when I say thank you to people. I also give and receive items with both hands now. It’s so weird :/

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thats interesting, thanks for the comment!

      The other day when I was responding to a waiter (who speaks English) I said ‘うん’ and my wife laughed (:

  2. mc

    Generally speaking I think English is more expressive probably stemming from our long oral tradition but I agree that certain things are easier to say in Japanese. Personality-wise I’m sure my personality has become more deferential over the years.
    As far as the use of Japanese words and mannerisms, definitely I’ve done that. For example, pointing at my nose to indicate self rather than chest as we would in U.S.

    1. locksleyu Post author

      I’m not sure if English is more expressive or not but I think Japanese has a much longer history if you go back far enough.

      I’d be curious to see statistics on the number of verbs and adjectives in common use in both languages to see which has more.

      1. mc

        I don’t think it’s a word count issue. There are tons of words in both languages (that nobody uses). The reason I said that is because Japanese is high-context culture, meaning there is more non-verbal communication. Especially when it comes to emotions.

        1. locksleyu Post author

          Yeah thats true there’s definitely a lot of hidden undertones that are not said explicitly in Japanese and have to be read from facial expressions, mannerisms, etc.

          I think those are present in English speaks to a certain degree, but on average English speakers are probably better at expressing their emotions in words due to cultural traditions.


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