Can You Really Know Someone In A Different Language?

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I've become obsessed with the show Switched at Birth. With the information I've just given you, you've probably already guessed the storyline. Teenage girls, raised by the wrong parents.

And plot twist! One daughter is deaf.

There are silent scenes in the show where everyone is just signing and I'm reading subtitles. (You know how much I love subtitles!) I've gotten the whole family pseudo into it. It has resulted in Ella trying to speak to me "with her hands." And Billy, tearing up with me at the drama, waving his arms, hollering, "Why do you always make me watch these things?"

It's a fascinating show, especially the romanic relationship between the hearing daughter and her deaf boyfriend. (Sorry if that's a spoiler for you...)

There was a conversation between the boy and his mother, who is also deaf. She said something that has stuck with me: "She doesn't know your language. She will never know you."

Billy does know my language. Still, when we first met I was worried he wouldn't truly "get me." I have such a love affair with words that I have been asked more than once, by native English speakers, if I read the dictionary for fun. I do not. (I cannot say the same for my friend Thesaurus.)

But I do not know his language. And sometimes I worry that it could be a problem. Naturally, I like to run crisis scenarios by him for practice. For example, I'll concoct a situation where he's in the hospital, his only injury being the part of his brain that knew English. "What will we do????" I badger him dramatically.

"Um... you'll learn Spanish," he says like it's that easy. Or laughing, he replies, "Or probably I'll re-learn English before you can learn Spanish." It's the perfect time to punch him... aiming for the part of his head that speaks Sarcasm.

In reality, though, I know Billy is really funny in Spanish. It's not that he's not funny in English. But whenever he speaks Spanish, people are laughing. I always wish I could keep up.

I feel like I've always known his funny side. It's one of his main attributes that attracted me. But I also notice that in English-only settings, he's a little more quiet. He's not constantly cracking jokes.

We were leading a workshop at CCDA a couple years ago, and I made an off-handed comment about this topic. In response to a question, I mentioned that sometimes I feel Billy is a different person in English and in Spanish. Afterwords, a man came up to us. "Thank you for saying that," he told me. "My kids say that to me all the time. They think I'm a different person depending on the language. I thought it was just me!"

Recently, I came across this article in New Republic. They noted a commonality "that people who are actually fluent in two languages also feel their personality shifting as they switch between languages." Fascinating!

But it does leave the deep questions from Switched at Birth ruminating in my mind. Can you really know someone when you don't share their language?

Obviously, I'm counting on that answer being yes. But I also think I have to acknowledge there may be aspects of others we can only truly know when we learn their language. It doesn't mean we can't connect. And of course, there is an aspect to marriage that is lifelong discovery, so maybe language just happens to be a more obvious layer in our particular case.

What do you think? Have you seen personality shifts with language?

I'm linking up with the August 2014 Synchroblog: Connection. Check out other links below:

Jerry Wirtley – Connection
Michael Donahoe – Connection
Minnow – Our Dis-Connect
Carol Kuniholm – Disengagement and Connection
Leah Sophia – Touch of Life
Karen “Charity” Aldrich – Wuv True Wuv


  1. yes! i see this all the time here in south africa because most people speak at least 5 different languages. often people who seem mostly polite, subdued, etc. in english will bust out in raucous laughter, raise their voices animatedly, seem almost argumentative when making a point in another language.

    and for myself--i'm not fluent in korean, but still, i find myself adopting a difference stance and posture when i'm speaking (or trying to) in korean vs. in english. in fact, i find myself switching personalities (not on purpose) a bit even when i'm switching between the english i speak on the mainland and when i'm with people in hawaii.

    i think some of it, in switching between languages, is one's comfort and fluency not only with the language itself, but the culture. things can't ever just be translated word-for-word since language is so tied into cultural norms. a friend of mine (whose first language was not english, but an african language), when greeting an older (white) woman at my church, spoke to her so quietly and meekly that i questioned him about it afterward, and he explained that he was trying to be respectful and show proper deference to her age and station (he is normally more boisterous). i realized it was an interesting cultural crossover kind of thing, where he had brought something true in his home culture into the western culture.

  2. {Can I just start by saying that I'm glad I'm not the only ::ahem:: 30-something that is hooked on this show? I'm also thinking of starting a Pretty Little Liars fan club for all the 20- and 30-somethings. ;) On one hand, I'm totally embarrassed that I love these shows, but on the other hand....I LOVE THEM SO MUCH. ha}

    Anyway, I love these reflections and questions because I find language *so* fascinating! I think what is interesting about learning a second language is the depth and richness certain words and phrases can bring that they don't have in another language. Some things, while you can translate to get to the "definition," have deeper connotations that are felt when you know the original language.

    An interesting thought I had while reading this is the idea of code switching. I read somewhere (it's been driving me crazy bc I can't remember where!) that linguistic studies have shown that Ebonics (I have no idea if there's a more appropriate/current term for it--so please feel free to correct me, lol) is actually very complex linguistically. There are so many people who are able to code switch depending on the environment they're in, and after reading that, I had such a different perspective on it. (Have you seen this? http://www.ted.com/talks/jamila_lyiscott_3_ways_to_speak_english)

    When I was studying abroad, I remember my profs telling us that language is a tool for connecting with people and a way that we could more deeply know them and their culture. For me, it was such a better motivator when I started to see it that way than my previous (very academics-focused) perspective. Anyway, don't be discouraged with your Spanish! Poco a poco (that's what I keep telling myself!).

  3. So I've never seen Pretty Little Liars... but now I want to! ;) And I think your point is spot on. Language is truly about connection more than mechanics. The link you shared didn't work for me for some reason. Maybe tweet it to me? Thanks!

  4. Those are great examples, Jen. I do love watching folks code switching. If you didn't already, check out the New Republic article I linked to. It has some fascinating studies of how folks behave differently in different languages.

  5. Can I just say the "language" can also mean much more than which dialect you speak? You know my husband. You may be very surprised to learn that I am quite non-verbal. I write much better than I speak. Having to learn each other's languages has been one of the very most challenging aspects of our relationship.

  6. Communication is certainly a consideration in all healthy marriages and relationships. :)


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