Reflection on Language – Language shapes Personality

I came in contact with a lot of languages during my exchange. I often heard people talk in French or German and a lot of my friends spoke Portuguese or Finnish. But the languages I used to communicate with in daily life were Swedish, second to English.  As all my courses at university were held in English and my social circle consisted mainly of international students, the main language of my life in Sweden was in English. Naturally, I also heard and read a lot of Swedish, since it is the local language. Therefore, I will split my reflection into two parts. One for my experience with Swedish and the second one about my communication in English as compared to Swiss German.

I learned a bit of Swedish before I went on my exchange. I finished a course in the language learning app Duolingo and I bought a book with a 30-day course on Swedish and I did most of it. I was pretty good at understanding Swedish in writing, like signs, menus etc. This was very helpful even though I think I could have managed without my preparations. Once you have learned a few key words that are different from English or German, you basically understand written Swedish. But written and spoken Swedish are two different worlds. Even though many Swedish words resemble English or German words in a text, in sound they’re not that similar. When spoken fast, I had a very difficult time understanding what was being said and only caught a few words here and there.
I can’t say that I speak Swedish now. Even though Swedish is not a very difficult language when one understands English and German, it is very much a problem that everyone in Sweden speaks English so well that the moment they realize that you are not a native Swedish speaker, they switch to English. So getting practice is difficult. You have to actively ask people to speak Swedish with you and you don’t really do that in daily life, especially if there’s a queue in a store and you don’t want to slow everyone down. Over time I started to understand the phrases I often heard at grocery stores or restaurants. I’m now able order food and make simple requests in Swedish to an extent where I don’t get the answer anymore in English and I understand it.

English on the other hand has improved in a sense in that I’m now so used to speaking and writing in English that I think in English most of the time too and it has become easier for me sometimes to express myself in English instead of German. As for speaking in a different language I think it changes your personality a bit. I feel like I am more open and forthcoming in English and more extroverted than when speaking in Swiss German. Hearing English predominantly in movies and TV has not only improved my proficiency of the language, but has also changed how I actively use it:  For example people have told me I’m good at small talk, which I’m not really when speaking Swiss German. Maybe it has also something to do with the fact that I often use English in situations where I need to be more open, like when I’m travelling or staying abroad. Therefore, I gained most of my experience in being extroverted when speaking English. One’s sense of humor can change too. There’s a very different humor that fits with English and that doesn’t fit with Swiss German in the same way. Because of the internet and pop culture there are many references one can make in English that just don’t work in Swiss German. Of course this goes both ways. Sometimes I still hit a point when I have a hard time saying something in English that would be no problem for me to say in German. But since returning to Switzerland, I sometimes feel that my means for expressing myself in Swiss German are limited, like I’m a different person somehow. I’m sure this will change as I just need some time to adjust to speaking in Swiss German again. Although the question remains if I’ll just adjust my language or also my personality.

Whether Finnish, Swedish, English or Swiss German, I gained a lot of experience in speaking different languages and I learned that languages are not just another code for the same thing but they also make up parts of a personality and can either limit, or with enough knowledge and practice, enable someone to express themselves.

Till Eicher

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