Me, in Korean

It’s always surprises me when fellow language learners say they feel like a “different person” when they speak in a non-native language.

When people ask me if I feel like I have a different personality when I speak Korean, my answer has always been no.

If you’re learning a new language as an adult — at least, past the “optimal” age to acquire a language — how much of your self can truly be affected by the language? The culture and language of your family and the society you spend your day-to-day life in has so much a firmer hand in shaping you. I doubt that even study-abroad programs or other intense immersive experiences can have a significant effect on one’s core self.*

(Aside: I do think this is a very different situation from being multilingual from birth. I’m not well-versed in the research, but I know there are models and theories for how language shapes identity and personality in children who grow up in multilingual/multicultural households.)

I’ve heard a lot of language learners say they sound more polite or reserved in Korean or Japanese but I suspect that’s because those languages have distinct speech levels; and the one that you learn in class or from a textbook is the standard “polite” style, mixed in with a few extra honorific and humble verb/noun forms. The phrases and and vocabulary you learn tend to sound more neutral; and coupled with literal grammatical ways to sound polite that don’t exist in English, it makes sense why people might feel like they have a new personality in a new language.

So maybe that’s why people feel like they’re a different person when they’re speaking a different language—maybe it’s because at the beginner level, communication feels limited to more neutral phrases. Communicating abstract inner feelings, your 속마음, is a challenge. And then once the nuances of language, all the contexts and connotations of words and phrases, become more apparent, there’s a learning curve to “fitting” yourself into this new language. How does my personal philosophy and worldview fit into Korean? My interpersonal relationships? My morals and ethics? My sense of humor? My “voice”?

No, I don’t think I have a different personality in Korean, but I do think that adjustment period of finding yourself in another language can feel weird and uncomfortable to the extent that you feel like you’re undergoing a kind of metamorphosis. You might feel like only a small part of yourself in Korean — the rest is still being built as you build up fluency.

One interesting thing I have noticed about myself when I speak Korean is the degree at which I show certain parts of myself. I grew up in the United States, but was taught to reject the Western mindset for a more conservative South Asian one — that is, to reject individualism for collectivism, to maintain the status quo and preserve social harmony, to revere one’s elders and social “betters” regardless of their character, to give a few examples. Through and through, I’m Asian American, and I still don’t know how to balance how I was raised at home (very Indian) with how I grew up among my peers (American). But I’ve noticed that when I speak in Korean, especially to native Koreans, I subconsciously tap into the part of me that’s more Asian than American and downplay or ignore the parts of me that are more Western. But both of those identities are still a part of my self and still continue to shape my personality.

The more advanced I become in Korean, the more I become myself in the language. These days, I’m finding it to be easier to express my innermost thoughts, my life philosophy, my 속마음 in Korean. But I think the moment that I felt like I was wholly myself in Korean, was when I realized I could be funny. Not that I’m really funny or anything in English, but it’s pretty satisfying to know that I can be my snarky self and actually say things in another language that can make people laugh.

At the end of the day, maybe this is what fluency should be? Not a score on a test or the ability to talk about politics or discuss modern literature, but a measure of how much you feel like yourself in a language.


*Post-script: I have little to no knowledge of psychology, so I’m probably missing a lot of nuance here. One thing I got lost reading about while working on this post was the distinction between ‘self’ and ‘personality.’ There seems to be different schools of thought on how/if they are distinct, and then how those things relate to ‘identity.’ I might be wrongly conflating a lot of things here but writing all of this out in my own words, just for my own sake, still felt worthwhile. Thanks for reading!

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