How Much Does the Language We Speak Shape Our Identity?

Will speaking a foreign language change the way you see the world?

Posted Nov 21, 2014

"She cloaked herself in another language,

played in its brocade shades of meaning

discovered deep pockets of puns,

Surprise linings of double entendre." –Ronnie Scharfman

A white English-speaking child, growing up in the apartheid period in South Africa, I knew at a very young age that I wanted to write. I realized even then that in order to do this, it was necessary to know who one was. What else was I going to write about? The other alternative and perhaps equally appealing, was to become an actress, but even then I felt I needed to discover who I was. How did one find out such a thing? Who was I? In what tradition would my work follow?

I felt it necessary to leave the country where I was born, to put on the cloak of other languages (as my friend Ronnie Scharfman has written so eloquently), ones that were not my mother tongue. I wanted to leave my home, my mother, and a land of injustice and racial divide.

I lived first in Switzerland, and then in Italy. I went on to France, where I eventually did my studies in psychology and finally to America, the country that George Bernard Shaw famously said is separated from England by a common language.

Did the fact that I learned to speak French fluently, and to some lesser degree Italian, help me to find myself? I have written of the loneliness of finding myself in a strange French family at 17. Speaking a foreign language presents, of course, many difficulties: the frustration of not being understood, and the feeling of being stupid, reduced to a smaller vocabulary, without the familiarity with the expressions, the fine-tuning of your own language. It is almost impossible to really appreciate poetry, for example in another language—or so it seems to me.

Yet ultimately and despite the difficulties involved, I do believe one becomes different, other, speaking another language. A language where the words do not have the echoes from our childhood, where the vocabulary is not associated with childhood connotations enables us to look at life in a slightly different way. We even move differently, gesture differently, even perhaps walk differently. In some ways, this new identity is liberating.

I remember a patient at the Salepetriere, the big mental hospital in France where Freud worked with Charcot and where I was doing an internship, coming up to speak to me in English. The doctors were amazed; the woman had been silent or almost silent for so long. Her English was not very good, but she would not speak to anyone else in French yet somehow felt free enough to speak to me in this foreign language, which must have seemed less threatening to her. We think too of Anna O, Breuer's famous patient who coined the term "talking cure" who lost her own language, German, for a while but was still able to read Italian and French and translate them into English.

Somehow, while speaking a foreign language, it gradually became possible to voice certain opinions, to speak of matters that might have seemed taboo in English. Is that because the French are less squeamish about certain matters? I remember the ballet teacher in Paris going around my daughter’s class and tapping the little girls in their pink tutus on their behinds and telling them to “Rentrez le petit popo!”—untranslatable but certainly direct! Was it because I was reading Freud in French?

And when I learned the lovely language of Italy, and felt there more welcome even in my reduced capacity to express myself, I think I changed again.

Of course, our identities are formed in so many different ways: by the people around us, the books we read, our heroes and heroines, and above all perhaps by the work we do—but speaking a foreign language can lead one to create a different disguise and help to understand who we are.

I am the author of many books, including Becoming Jane Eyre and the Dreaming for Freud.