For seven months of my life, right at the start of my twenties, I was Hélène rather than Helen. While living in France sounds glamorous, don’t image long evenings spent drinking red wine or afternoons in the sun under a parasol eating cheese. The small town that became my temporary home was on the choppy English channel, closed up for winter, and a playground for rich, more elderly Parisians. For all its lack of appeal to my younger self, I did speak French pretty well by the time I left. It’s sad that in the intervening decade I’ve lost those skills, but for a while, there were days and weeks where I spoke French more than I spoke English. French came out naturally, without real thought. I started dreaming in French.
And it was the strangest of feelings. Almost as if Hélène was someone slightly different to Helen. The friends I made speaking French knew nothing of me at all. We had very little that was shared, neither culture nor language, not personal history or presumptions. What’s more, there existed an imbalance in the amount we could communicate. My French self was forced to listen more, forced to craft thoughts more carefully and express ideas and opinions by drawing on a more limited vocabulary.
Not being able to make a joke or react as fast as everyone else was frustrating. However, as my language skills developed, I remember that I began to like Hélène more than Helen. Hélène took her time to say things and accepted not having anything to contribute. When she did say things, she’d thought about them first, clarified her views and gave a more reasoned opinion. I felt, at the time, that this made her truer to herself. A lack of nuance in language didn’t necessarily result in a lack of nuance in expression. Having to talk about religion, for example, in simple vocabulary forces one to be clear about what they want to say.
That was ten years ago, and Hélène doesn’t exist anymore. However, I think die Helena might be morphing into reality. Having spent the last twelve months taking German classes, I’ve started to feel more confident conversing in German. My teacher and I talk about books, politics, films, and, naturally, the weather. I make mistake after mistake, but as a firm believer in communication being the first goal of any language learner, I sigh and plough on.
As my German gets better, I’ve started to have this odd feeling of otherness, just as I did ten years ago. This article cites research that has shown how people who speak multiple languages have slightly different personalities in their different languages. Whether it’s culture, experience, age at which you learn a language, or other reasons, it’s fascinating to consider. Especially if you’re experiencing this phenomenon. It is both frightening and wonderful the first few times you say something in a different language without really thinking about it. It’s like an out of body experience as you wonder whose voice that was and whose thoughts they were expressing. You stop translating and somehow just understand and internalise, respond and react.
This is only just starting to happen in German, but as with my French self, Helena’s main difference to Helen is that she talks a lot less (an inescapable reality caused by lazy vocabulary learning and constantly being surrounding by English speakers). Helena is less self-conscious, however. She has to be. Being self-conscious and a language learner are rarely a good mix. She apologies less and is more forgiving of herself for the mistakes she makes. Again, I think I like her more.
But do I think I am someone slightly different when I speak a different language, or am I just waiting for the time when the gap between my English and German is not so chasmic?
In a year I could be reading Goethe or still deciphering the difference between dative and accusative. Language development is no x=y graph. What’s clear to me, though, is that learning a new language unlocks parts of you you didn’t know existed. It also forces you to keep parts of you hidden. It challenges and changes the way you think and it can teach you an awful lot about yourself.
Also, I’m hardly living a life with a split personality. There is nothing fundamentally different in the values I have, but I do think they come out differently depending on whether I’m stumbling over them in German or English. What’s key, however, is seeing what I can take from these quirky differences that start to develop between Helen and Helena. If I can learn to listen more, contemplate what I want to say more, or feel less self-conscious about saying (what I perceive to be) the wrong thing, then these personalities can begin to merge back into a better whole.
They are all, ultimately, me so they can work together to bring out the best in Helen, Hélène, Helena, to bring out the best in Me.
En France, in England, in Deutschland – Same, but different