One of the characteristics of an advanced learner is being able to actually think in your second language rather than needing to translate back to your mother tongue. Cultural context is really important for language learners, too. So, after spending years learning about a language and the culture that goes along with it, surely the way you speak and present your ideas will become similar to people from that culture.
In my experience as a language teacher and learner, I’ve found that people seem to be split into two quite distinct groups on this. Generally, people who learn a language in a classroom and don’t have much chance to interact with native speakers of that language, won’t take on many of the cultural traits that go with their new language and their personality will remain relatively unchanged in their second language.
Of course, there are exceptions to this. Some people who learn a language at school make a real effort to learn about the cultural background that goes along with it. Usually this is because they are actually interested in the culture, though, rather than just learning about it to improve their language skills.
The second group of people tend to treat the language and culture with equal importance. Often they are people who are actually living in a country where their second language is spoken. Sometimes, they are learning to communicate with friends or new family members. Other people may be learning a language because of a specific interest in that culture (e.g. many people learn Japanese to watch anime and learning Korean to follow TV drama in Asia is very common).
I’m often amazed by the things students from this second group say to me. Some students tell me they are pessimistic in their native language but optimistic when they speak English. There are others who have trouble talking about their emotions in their own language but have no problem telling me all about their hopes and dreams in class. There are even some of my students whose posture and physical gestures are completely different when they speak English to when they speak their mother tongue. Generally, it’s the students like this who reach their goals fastest.
I have personal experience of this, too. My life is fairly evenly split between three languages. I speak English when I talk to my family in the UK or at work. I’m fairly serious and polite in English. When I speak Indonesian on the streets or with friends, I love making jokes and I’m really outgoing. When I speak Balinese at home, I swear a lot (especially when I’m driving) and I generally say what’s on my mind a lot more directly than I would in the other languages.
Of course, speaking another language isn’t going to affect your main morals and ethics, but it can be fun being ‘someone else’ for a few hours a day. Is your personality different when you speak another language?
Wil Procter is a blogger and English teacher. He shares tips for advanced English learners at http://wilsworldofwords.com/. Follow him on Twitter @WilsWords.