Can the Italian Language Change Your Personality?

Nov 19, 2013

Personality twins jpg

La lingua e la personalità

Language and Personality

“Learning a new language is like growing a new head,” a European friend told me long ago. “You see with new eyes, hear with new ears, speak with a new tongue.” Neuro-imaging has proved her right: The mental gymnastics of groping for even the simplest words in a different language ignites brand new clusters of neurons and synapses.

But can a foreign language (una lingua straniera) also change your personality (cambiare la tua personalità)? Scholars, who have debated this topic (l’argomento) for decades, distinguish between being bilingual (bilingue) and being bicultural (biculturale). One is about vocabulary (vocabolario) and grammar (grammatica); the other, about absorbing a deeper dimension of life in a country and culture other than your own.

Even “crib” bilinguals raised in two languages or those who live in a foreign nation for many years may show different aspects of their personalities in their two tongues. For an Italian who emigrates to the United States, for instance, speaking his mother tongue (madrelingua) may conjure feelings of family and home, whereas English may “prime” him to think of school and work. And so the same person may seem warmer (più caldo) and more emotional (più emotivo) in Italian and colder (più freddo) and more reserved (cauto, chiuso) in English.

When tested in different languages, people are more likely to fall into a “cognitive trap” (una trappola cognitiva) and answer with an obvious-seeming but wrong answer in their native language—in part because working in a second language focuses and slows down thinking. As you’d expect, people feel more spontaneous, more free and easy — disinvolta, in Italian—in the language they were reared in from childhood. But often without realizing it, a second language (seconda lingua), even when acquired in adulthood, can transform speakers (parlanti).

In a recent essay  Filomena Fuduli Sorrentino, an Italian teacher in New York State, observed that when Italians who have left Italy for years return on vacation, Italians recognize them as ex-pats as soon as they enter a store or restaurant (appena entrano in un negozio o in un ristorante) even when they speak perfect Italian or speak in their dialect of origin (anche se parlano un italiano perfetto oppure parlano il loro dialetto di origine.) The reason: their subtly transformed “Americanized” personalities reflect another culture (riflettono un’altra cultura).

I’ve seen different transformations in Italian classes. Quiet Cathy blossoms into charming Caterina; tough-talking Tony morphs into tender-hearted Antonio. As for me, when I trade in Dianne for Diana, I enter a parallel universe (un universo parallelo) where I wear my heels higher and my necklines lower, dance barefoot under the Tuscan moon, and chat (chiacchiero) about anything with anyone. And Diana, the inner Italian, definitely has more fun than Dianne, the American workaholic.

What about you? Does speaking Italian change your personality? Dimmi come. (Tell me how.)

Words and Expressions

linguaggio — language, speech, idiom

avere il dono delle lingue — have the gift of languages

lingua di terra — tongue of land, spit of land

padroneggiare una lingua or avere padronanza di una lingua — to master a language 

Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.

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