How the Language I Speak Changes My Personality

When I switch between languages, my values and demeanor shift too

Photo: Laura Salas/EyeEm/Getty Images

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.

I also have friendships in Spanish. I met one of my best friends, Daniela, in Caracas when I was 12 years old. I had just moved back to Venezuela with my mom after living with my dad and stepmom in Connecticut for three years. Daniela quickly became my partner in crime. We stole our classmates’ treats from their lunch boxes while everyone was out during recess. We were die-hard fans of the Mexican band and telenovela RBD, and we spent hours at each other’s houses reading magazine interviews and watching scenes on YouTube. She was in love with Miguel, while I was all about Diego.

Moving to the U.S. the second time was extremely difficult. I was 14 years old, struggling to adapt, and furious I couldn’t make sense of an unforgiving high school landscape. In Venezuela I had been outgoing, a class clown, and constantly surrounded by friends. Just a few months later, in affluent Greenwich, Connecticut, I couldn’t find my voice — or anyone who cared to listen.

Greenwich High School had about 3,000 students, most of whom were firmly established in long-ago-formed cliques. Being Venezuelan didn’t work in my favor. Even though I spoke English with virtually no accent, I didn’t know how to act. Cool-girl Caracas was very different than cool-girl Greenwich. My jokes suddenly weren’t funny, and my attitude was too foreign. I never understood why American kids put so much emphasis on sports. In Venezuela, my friends and I did everything to avoid getting picked for a team and the gym teacher had to force everyone to play, but I was now in a place where getting picked last was a complete embarrassment. From my perspective, everyone was too intense about the whole thing.

I navigated from group to group, never quite fitting in. I even joined the freshman cheerleading squad, thinking this was my ticket in, but it just made me more aware of how much of an outsider I truly was. I ended up inserting myself into my cousin Eugenia’s group; she had been in Greenwich for a few years and already had an established crew. But that’s all I ever was at GHS — Eu’s cousin.

My parents couldn’t provide much support: One was on the brink of divorce and the other was more than 2,000 miles south.

This is when my identity started to split. After the initial shock, I started to understand what was expected of me. With Eu’s friends I became the socially acceptable version of myself. I learned what was funny and did my best to embrace what it meant to be a teenager in America. I snuck out to the woods to have my first beer; I hung out in CVS parking lots and other people’s basements. I also became quiet. It’s who I still am in an American setting — quiet and dark-humored.

Daniela and I kept in touch, however, and she was always there as a virtual release for all my teenage angst. Via social media, BBM, and WhatsApp, over the years we have exchanged countless details of our lives and discussed issues I’ve never truly shared with anyone else. With her I get to be loud, like I am in Spanish. I am sure of myself. I don’t think twice about what I’m going to say. Regardless of all the changes I’ve gone through, our relationship has remained the same.

When she came to my wedding last year, it was like we were sitting on the bleachers during recess 13 years ago, revisiting old jokes in fits of laughter. She truly knows me. She knew who I was before my identity started to split, and that’s why I enjoy our conversations so much. Her friendship is one of the most authentic connections I have. She can see through it all, and in doing so, allows me to find myself, even if just during a brief text exchange.

Authentic friends. My wedding: Mérida, Mexico, 2018

As I grew older, I maintained my split identity. I remained sarcastic and bookish in English, while in Spanish I’ve always been more relaxed and personable. Many bilinguals and multilinguals feel their personalities shift when they change the language they are speaking. A few studies even back up this phenomenon. Some researchers claim it isn’t the language that causes the change, but rather the context. Monocultural bilinguals don’t experience this change, they argue, so it must be the result of a bicultural outlook rather than language. In essence, they’re saying that just as I wouldn’t talk to my boss the same way I speak to my husband, I adapt within an appropriate cultural concept rather than just expressing Venezuelan norms in English.

Many bilinguals and multilinguals feel their personalities shift when they change the language they are speaking.

Although that sounds right on target, the language I’m speaking definitely triggers the shift. In fact, I often find myself responding in the wrong context, like with the dachshund owners who had no reason to expect a string of Spanish platitudes. Thinking in English brings forth a set of characteristics that are different and sometimes in opposition to thinking in Spanish, and I don’t always get to choose my own mindset.

This is especially true when I’m around Latinx friends and family, who tend to lean toward the conservative side. In Spanish I generally wouldn’t start debates about religion, politics, or abortion. I let more things slide. But in English I’m always ready to fire. When these topics come up it would be easier not to participate, but the English-speaking part of me won’t allow it. My husband thinks it’s funny and says I need to learn to act more like a politician, but it’s actually mortifying. I’ve gotten into plenty of uncomfortable arguments while hosting dinners at my own house.

I am not confined to two languages: I also learned Italian when I was 19. In college I dated a much older man whom I met during a family vacation in Milan (much to my parents’ chagrin). His Spanish went as far as the similarities between the two languages, and his English constituted the basics learned from the underfunded school system in his hometown. Our relationship took place mostly online, so with email and Skype conversations I came to hold a competent grasp on the Romance language. I devoured Italian movies, bands, books, and anything else I could get my hands on. I found myself relying less and less on Google Translate to draft my messages. I began to correct the rudimentary translations myself, and then not at all, except to find the occasional word I didn’t yet know. I didn’t just learn Italian like someone using Rosetta Stone would; I consumed a culture. When I have the rare chance to practice my Italian today, I envision myself as a hip Roman girl from the movie Scusa ma ti Chiamo Amore, moving my hands and saying “ma daaai.” Italian me is young and carefree, appreciating the beauty that is always around us.

But she isn’t part of me. She’s more of a secondary character who is sometimes useful. I keep her in my back pocket for whenever the need arises. I know how to speak Italian, much like my husband speaks English. I don’t make decisions based on her belief system, I didn’t grow up with her like I did the other two, and her stay was so brief I didn’t have the chance to fully get to know her. But I like her and remember her fondly. She’s someone I could have been.

Most of the time I want to be social and have a good time, but I also want to keep to myself, text my brother, and read Harry Potter fan fiction. It’s hard to say which identity is more central or more me. It depends who’s asking. To most of my family, I am the Caracas-accented me who also knows how to speak English. My husband understands one more than the other. He was born and raised in Merida, Mexico, where we now live. His exposure to English is limited to four years of college, which he spent partying with fellow Latinos. He knows the language, but it wasn’t part of his formative years. It didn’t shape him. He always complains when I’m being too gringa, and cannot fathom why I find The Office so hilarious. He says he doesn’t separate my two identities, even though he notices the subtle (and not so subtle) changes when I shift. To him I’m always the woman he loves—sometimes intriguing, sometimes infuriating, and sometimes nonsensical.

Spanish, however, is the best possible language for expressing marital woes. When we argue I transform into the woman who saw my mother scolding her husband or my aunt refusing to take her boyfriend’s calls. I feel generations of women pass on their wisdom and let him have it. “Broooooooder, no es que se te haya olvidado hoy, de pana que no estás entendiendo? Estoy HASTA AQUÍ de tener que recordarte las cosas mil veces!”

Roughly this translates to, “Dude, it’s not that you forgot today. Don’t you get it? I’m fed up of having to remind you of things a thousand times!” While the English version is a good enough way to let him know I’m upset, in no way does it cover the depths of my anger. The initial “broder” is technically the English word “brother,” but in a Venezuelan accent it’s also an angry way to say “dude.” He knows nothing good can come of a sentence that starts off that way. And when I say I’m fed up I’m actually saying “I’m up to here,” and in Venezuelan Spanish that expression comes with its own hand gestures: I take my hand up to my forehead, because I really am up to there, the highest point in my body.

At these moments, Spanish is again that warm blanket. It empowers me and leaves my husband out in the cold of my wrath. Spanish is also the language we got married in, the one we use to discuss our relationship (outside of fighting), the strongest way I know to tell him how much I love him. Yet I often speak to him in English, and he always replies in Spanish. I learned about feminism and social justice via discussion and reading countless essays in English, so it’s easier to discuss them in that language. The writer in me thinks in English.

English is progressive and practical, and Spanish is the realm where I visit my heritage, how I explain my character.

With Mom in Caracas, Venezuela, 1996

But I’ve also written in English about my family, my life in Venezuela, the country’s political history, and immigrating as a child. I don’t have the same ability to string words together for literary effect, to revise, outline, and present compelling arguments in Spanish. English is progressive and practical, and Spanish is the realm where I visit my heritage, how I explain my character.

I don’t think I’ll ever have the opportunity to learn another language like I did English. I did so earnestly and absolutely, so much so that for a time I refused to speak Spanish, although that has ramifications of its own better fit for a second essay on cultural assimilation and being the only Latina in an overwhelmingly white elementary school. I learned English so well it became another facet of who I am; it further shaped what was already there. It opened a door for creativity and expression I might have never found in Spanish. It allowed me to be self-aware, or at least explore the possibilities of becoming so. And I’ll always have my first language to relish in the feeling of belonging, to inspire the fear only a Venezuelan mom can in my future kids if they’re ever out of line, and to tell them how much I love them the strongest way I know how.

Writer. Venezuelan-American living in Mexico. Once cried at a reindeer video because I forgot they were real. ivanhapaz@gmail.com Tweet @ivanhapaz

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