How the Language I Speak Changes My Personality
When I switch between languages, my values and demeanor shift too
It’s a sunny, crisp fall morning in Brookline, Massachusetts. I’m in considerably happy spirits: It’s Saturday, I’m walking to brunch, and life is good. A couple passes by with a small dachshund. Its tiny legs move furiously beneath its comically long body. Naturally, I must stop and meet this perfectly huggable being.
“Do you mind if I pet your dog?” I ask the woman. “It’s so cute! What’s its name?” I don’t consciously make the decision to shift languages, but as I lean down to pet Pippa my white-girl inflection evaporates and is replaced by something else entirely.
“Hola chiquitica! Cosita linda — siiiii eres una chiquita bella y amada!” I talk emphatically to this dog in Spanish while her startled owners eye me. But I don’t mind. I must tell this puppy she is small, beautiful, and most of all very loved.
To me, all dogs and cats speak Spanish, and they are always “chiquita,” regardless of gender. The innocence of animals inspires nurturing feelings and brings out my maternal side — one I’ve learned only in Spanish from my own mother, who still calls me her chiquita. Spanish words are like a cup of coffee — pero guayoyito, guayoyito — in the morning: soothing, homey, a warm blanket I wrap around my loved ones and unsuspecting dogs on their daily walks.
In English, I’m far from nurturing. I’m dry and sarcastic; I breathe puns and self-deprecation. My sense of humor lives mostly in the English-speaking part of my brain, which is why some of the best relationships I’ve formed are in English. My brother and I speak almost exclusively in our second language, even though we were born in Venezuela. Strings of our texts fill up my downtime: high-level memes, Hispanics be like, Netflix series references, Game of Thrones commentary, and dark jokes that just don’t have the same bite in Spanish. But when we talk about arguments with family or the possibility of visiting Mami for Christmas, we always fall back to Spanish. It’s rare to have a person who understands the sudden shift in values. English-speaking me doesn’t give a damn, but in Spanish I am concerned, affable. My brother gets it; he can switch as easily and unexpectedly as I do.