There are those who were born in a different country than their parents and just never felt quite the same connection to it as they did. There are those who decided to move later in life for career or university-related reasons. There are those who moved for love. All those people have different stories, different identities. And anyone who has experience with growing up in two cultures knows how complicated the struggle can be sometimes and how fragile an identity really is.
Our Marketing Assistant, Cecilia, had a similar and yet completely different story, “I was born and raised in Hamburg, Germany. I spent my whole childhood there, only having moved once, right around the corner! I don’t have any relatives who emigrated from Germany, let alone all the way to the States, and my family is actually pretty deeply rooted in Hamburg. My grandfather was a successful architect who built two landmarks in the city, while my great-great-grandfather was vice mayor of the city during his lifetime. I love Hamburg! It’s a huge, beautiful city right by the water, with a modern downtown area right next to the historical city hall – but I always knew my journey would lead me elsewhere.
How Can External Aspects Influence Your Personality?
“I left Hamburg when I was 15 to attend a boarding school in Pennsylvania for my last two years of high school. I was so beyond excited to leave and spend so much time in the country that had been my favorite vacation spot for my whole life that I never, not once, cried of homesickness. And while I was abroad, something funny happened: As we all remember, 15 is an awkward age. You’re probably a sophomore or junior in high school, you’ve somewhat settled into puberty, and things are finally a little less awkward though still equally as complicated in life. However, you’re also starting to grow up. You start to see the world around you and learn that other people have feelings and experiences as well, just like you. Now, given that I was spending my ‘formative years’ in the States, I actually developed a somewhat different personality when speaking English.
“This is a phenomenon that happens to a lot of multi-lingual people because often you associate each language with a different part of who you are. Perhaps at home, with your parents, where you are an obedient, well-behaved child, you speak French, while out and about, with your friends, getting to know the world, you speak English – that is bound to lead to different connections in the brain. For me, as I was right in that ‘growing up’ phase of my life, I became a much more confident person in English. Though my personalities have become a bit more balanced by now, back then, I was a very shy and insecure girl in Germany. But here, in my American high school, I was a prefect, a straight A student, and a theater performer. My confidence was through the roof – and I loved it.
Do Different Languages Trigger Different Personality Traits?
“I remember right after I graduated high school, we went to visit my cousin in New York, who was there on a three-month university exchange. My cousin is many years older than me and I had never really been close with her, but now that I was 17, we finally had some common ground to bond over and we quickly developed the beginnings of a real friendship. We would walk around the city, chatting away in German, and shop around for cool souvenirs. Interestingly enough, while having English conversations with the shop owners, twice my cousin looked at me and said ‘Wow, you’re sassy!’ – something she had never said to me in German. I think it was right around then that I realized the difference in my personality when switching between languages.
“Now I am almost 24 and have spent around seven years in the States: two years of high school, four years of college, and now one year of working. For my family at home, of course, I am ‘the American’ – which is funny because here in the US I am ‘the German.’ My boyfriend calls me American, but the US government would strongly disagree with him. Hamburg is my home in my heart, but at this point I know the Atlanta streets better than the ones in Hamburg.
Identity and Language – How Strongly Are These Two Really Connected?
“Identity is such a fickle and feeble thing; it seems almost only defined by whatever I am not rather than by what I am. How can I stand up and say, ‘I am this!’ if I can barely keep my personality straight between two languages? However, how can I then stand up and say, ‘I am not this!’ if I am always something to someone? But then again, who are ‘they’ to define me? Is it not I who gets to define who I am? Or what I am? Or is the subject of identity really out of our hands?
“Perhaps we need to let go of this idea of what makes us who we are. Perhaps it is time we accept the duality of both being something and also not being something. Maybe I am just Cecilia, a fan of video games and pop music who cries at Disney movies. Maybe I’m just not good at fixing bikes and can’t draw to save my life. Maybe I am none of this. And maybe I am all.”
Have you or someone you know grown up with two languages? How did it influence your personality? Can you tell a clear difference? And why do you think your personality developed the way it did? Share your personal story with me on LinkedIn!