A wolf in sheep’s clothing

How language can change your personality

The extent to which a person has mastered another language can have a significant impact on the image other people have of him or her. I never really thought about that until I moved from Holland to Sweden many years ago. The only skills I had in my backpack were the linguistic basics I had picked up during a three-month Swedish course and my firm resolve to speak only Swedish from the day I set foot in the country, to stop me from falling into that comfortable trap of reverting to English, from which it would be hard to escape.

A noble ambition, no question about that. However, the result was that I stammered and stuttered my way through life during those first few months and barely understood a fraction of what people said to me. A bit risky when negotiating a mortgage or a loan for a car, but that’s beside the point.

The fact is that I experienced a total change of personality at the same time. From a rather extrovert kind of person who always has a ready answer (or sarcastic retort if required) I morphed into a shy, passive, insecure and above all very quiet wallflower as soon as I switched to Swedish. Not in my head; there all the smart answers and sharp-tongued replies were ready. But by the time I had managed to find the right words and grammatical constructions the moment was long gone. And so I just kept my mouth shut. 

Even worse, in many cases I didn’t understand even half of the story told by my conversation partner.  If I still didn’t have a clue after asking three times,  I usually decided to just grin sheepishly.

And so my new Swedish friends and acquaintances got to know me as a withdrawn, incommunicative introvert, who never voiced an opinion and started grinning vaguely at the most inappropriate moments. And above all I was seen as being totally devoid of a sense of humor: I missed most jokes and gags completely and making a joke myself was of course unimaginable, apart from the unintentional ones. Like the time I told an acquaintance that I owned a second-hand dog. “And I have a second-hand husband,” she guffawed, almost dying of laughter.

I have now pretty much mastered the language and as I improved my language skills, I reverted more and more to my own Dutch self.    

However, I do wonder sometimes if my Swedish friends secretly wouldn’t prefer that shy, silent little person from the early days of our friendship. That actually matches their own modest, even-tempered culture perfectly. But despite the shocked looks I sometimes get when I make one of my blunt remarks or shoot straight from the hip, I must say that I enjoy life best when I’m being myself.