I Am What I Speak
We’ve all heard it before: countless studies and anecdotes suggest that polyglots adopt different personalities depending on the language they speak. One article I read suggests that something as embedded as morality can shift when one uses a foreign language. Such is the power of being able to speak in different tongues.
So who am I? As I celebrate the welcome adoption of my sixth language, I find myself noticing little ways in which I, as a person, change when I speak Portuguese: a beautiful, musical language that enchants me the more I attempt its mastery. What began as a strange twist of Spanish (apologies to all Portuguese speakers) is now possibly one of my favourite languages to speak.
When I speak in English, I’m all that I am. This comes as no surprise: being my first language, English has been the medium through which I’ve expressed the best and worst of my days. On beautiful days I sing reams of poetry in the cadences of English. On moody days I’ve snapped, whined and complained in its harsh staccato.
The following is unfortunate, but true: when I speak in Korean — my mother tongue — I’m someone I’m not proud of. Even though Korean is the language that moves me most viscerally, I almost always come off as reserved, quiet, and slightly temperamental. Many moments of self-diagnosed psychoanalysis later, I’ve realized that this is a large part to do with how I’ve interacted with the Korean language: the dullness of Korean school, the embarrassment of having an unconventional accent and the inability to connect with the values of my birth culture have all rendered me uncomfortable when I speak Korean to anyone beyond my immediate family.
In light of this, who am I in Portuguese? My baby language, three months into rearing. Countless interactions with new family members, street vendors and the beckoning calls of day-to-day life in Brazil have begun to shed light on who I am, and I am this: someone I admire. Someone whose company I enjoy. I have no qualms about exchanging friendly words with strangers who show me how the twisting streets of Avenida Sete de Setembro work. In stores, I have short conversations with vendors about where I’m from, why I’m here and what I love most about Bahian cuisine. When I speak in Portuguese, I’m almost always smiling: a habit that inevitably elicits smiles from others.
The fact that I regularly interact with community leaders — be it Hanna, the director of our program, Débora, the founder of my project Canteiros Coletivos, or the homestay mothers that basically make Candeal what it is — has subconsciously trained me to open myself to the people around me, and encouraged to appreciate the potential people have to be positive energies in my life. The fact that I live in a tight-knit community inspires the kind of trust I’ve never found in my neighbourhood in Hong Kong. My self-awareness — the knowledge that I am a student here to learn — or, rather, the lack thereof, means I am more willing to step out of my comfort zone and throw myself into different, often exhilarating, experiences (like entering a Capoeira Regional roda without any previous experience). All of this and more come together to form who I am when I speak Portuguese, a language which has stolen my heart.
I still have half a year left in this land, and many more moments to live. Inevitably, I’ll experience moments where I’ll have to qualify my constant optimism and introduce a more rounded version of myself to this language. But until then, I’ll take advantage of who I’ve grown to be thus far, and see what the brighter side of this life has to offer me.