Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On Being Myself in Different Languages


When I was studying abroad and returned to visit my family in Japan for an extended period, I remember my mother observing that my face looks different from the beginning of the visit compared to after I have been staying in Japan for a while. My husband has commented that when I am on the phone speaking in Japanese, I speak with a higher tone voice, with different mannerisms. I’ve found myself struggling to express myself sometimes in Japanese (especially for more logical arguments) and other times (more emotional matters) in English, even though I speak both of these languages fluently.

Then it all started to make sense when I read a series of articles about how speaking in different languages and being exposed to multiple languages from childhood affect who you are.

I believe that knowing another language can provide you with different perspectives and enrich your life, but I never realized that my actual thoughts can be different when I am speaking in one language vs. another, to the point where my decisions may turn out differently when I think/speak in another language.

Despite the fluency level, a foreign tongue can never be your mother tongue. My vocabulary at this point, especially in conducting business or speaking about specific topics like science, is much greater in English, and yet when I am tired, I have a much easier time processing spoken Japanese vs. English.

I am not surprised to learn that one tends to be more rational when thinking in a foreign language. There may be a level of effort, ever so slight, that the brain must exert to work in that foreign tongue which presents a frame of mind that is farther apart from the core emotions.

I’ve often thought about how certain languages reflect a more holistic view, or casual with the use of subject (i.e., identifying who caused the action). Some are precise and/or its grammatical structure emphasizing the importance of identifying time or directions, while others define time and directions in a larger context vs. using our selves as a frame of reference (e.g., asking someone to sit next to you, vs. sit on the mountain side).

All this can add up to having a different sense of self, depending on what language you are speaking. For me, I’ve realized my thoughts become kinder and more compassionate when speaking in Japanese. The expressions consider others, even when my original thoughts didn’t, and the spoken expressions in turn become a feedback system affecting my next thoughts to be more compassionate.

I am both delighted and concerned by realizing how fluid the sense of self can be (and yet we treat “the self” as static in time and place). I’m hoping this realization can help me more compassionate by thinking in Japanese in situations where I have to dig deep to be more compassionate.

Photo: Street art in Godsbanen, a center for arts and culture in Aarhus, Denmark, which makes me wonder if our artistic expressions affect our sense of self and shape our thoughts, rather than artistic expressions merely being a product of our thoughts.


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This entry was posted on August 26, 2015 by in Culture, Identity, Japan, language, Linguistics, Uncategorized and tagged .
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