My Many Identities: Speaking More Than One Language

I know we all have different versions of ourselves. We have the version of lounging at home on the couch, we have our social selves and we have our work persona. But when it comes to speaking more than one language, I feel like I also have different identities.

I speak three languages, English, Spanish and French. Spanish and English are my mother languages. I even learned how to read in Spanish before English. French is my third, which I started learning in high school. Though multiple people think this is an amazing accomplishment on my part (and it is something I am proud of), it can sometimes be very difficult to distinguish in which language I am speaking, thinking, dreaming, etc.

It is a constant question I have been asked since I was little: what language do you think in? It’s not a black and white response.

When I only spoke two languages, I used to explain it by saying it depended on who I was surrounded by and what I was doing. Obviously, if I am with someone who speaks Spanish, I think in Spanish. If I am reading a book in English, I think in English. Today, it is much more complicated than that. I live in a country that speaks French, which I learned much later in life. On a normal day, out of English, Spanish and French, I probably spend 90% of it speaking French, and 8% English and the other 2% Spanish.

When I started my studies at the Sorbonne, I didn’t expect to have the headaches I had by the end of the day.  The level of French used at university is something completely different from the day to day life. I also didn’t expect to be coming back to my apartment and having an experience of feeling misplaced, and a slight home language sickness. I would come home and put on something on Netflix in English or Spanish. My mind was asking for it. Even trying to call the Frenchman could sometimes be difficult because all I needed was to feel like the languages I grew up with, the ones that made me, were not being forgotten.

Here is the thing I love learning about languages: I love that each one has its own personality, its own way of expressing things. The other day while speaking with the Frenchman, I translated “the elephant in the room“. He looked at me confused, not understanding what I was trying to say. I explained it meant that it’s a feeling between two people that is not being talked about but both know is there. It’s an expression that is not used in French. Which comes down to my point that each language has its own personality. Hence why I sometimes feel I have multiple identities. In each language, I express myself differently. English is my first language, the language I used when going to school, communicating with my dad and most of my American friends. To me, English has always felt like a language that is very direct, very precise. In fact, Humans of New York interviewed someone who said my exact feelings about the difference between speaking English and Spanish:

“English is a very precise language. I like to use it when I’m describing technical things. But when I’m talking about my feelings, I find it easier to use Spanish.”“Why is Spanish best for describing feelings?”“Latin people have a lot of feelings. So they have a lot of words to describe them.”

I have always felt that when I speak Spanish, my intonation varies a lot more than when I speak English. I am more active with my hands. I am more expressive. I would be what my American friends said, “the hot-blooded Spaniard”. Speaking French, I am very much more reclusive, especially when meeting people for the first time. My accent is neither Spanish nor American, so it doesn’t give me that place of being one or the other (which I would never want to be, I like being known as the Spaniard/American). Once I do feel comfortable with people, I open up more, and when I make mistakes, I like to joke about it. My philosophy when learning a language is that we can’t be afraid. Mistakes are going to be made, so instead of having a defensive attitude, I will beat you to the punch with the joke. I have always felt that both French and Spanish are a lot more romantic than English as well.

When I was back in the states over the summer, I did experience reverse culture shock. A lot of it had to do with the language. There would be little slip ups of me replying in French to people, and there would be times when I would want to translate certain French phrases to English or Spanish (which tends to be the opposite when I am in France). It was also difficult to understand the concept of my friends loving everything and everyone. Americans LOVE to use the word loveI love this, I love that, I love you, love ya’! In French and in Spanish, saying love is used rarely, so that the word keeps its depth. The first time I told the Frenchman I loved him was a mistake. I wasn’t there yet. I just wanted him to know that I liked him, and enjoyed spending time with him. In French, there is no difference between the words like and love, they’re both aimer, but it depends on what context you are using the word. In this situation, when I wanted to say “I like you”, I should have added a bien to the end of the phrase. So it would have been je t’aime bien instead of the je t’aime, which is what I used. It was an awkward situation to be in, not knowing the difference, since we had only been dating for a few weeks. Now that we have been dating for a few years, I do tend to say “I love you” to the Frenchman more than he’s used to, which is where my American leaks into the language.

A friend from high school recently visited me in Paris, and I asked her how my English was holding up. She told me not much had changed. “You were always mixing up expressions back then because of Spanish. I understand what it must be like. You have multiple languages speaking in your head.” It was nice to have someone point that out, something I sometimes felt self-conscious of. Now, I have learned it comes with speaking more than one language. I have a mix of so many places, and that’s something beautiful.

I am a jumbled, beautiful mess of cultures.

Bisous, Besos, XOXO, 


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15 thoughts on “My Many Identities: Speaking More Than One Language

  1. As a someone who had great difficulty learning a second language (Bahasa Indonesia) I admire your ability to talk and think in three languages. I have hopes for my granddaughter who is learning Mandarin. She seems quite good with the accent because she started so young.

    • Thank you so much! I really appreciate it. That is amazing that your granddaughter is learning Mandarin (I have heard it is a very difficult language). The earlier they start the better! She will be able to see the benefits that speaking more than language give her. Does she enjoy it? It gets harder to learn languages later in life (doesn’t mean it can’t be done!)

  2. I really enjoyed (loved! haha) reading your post, and it inspired me to write one such post myself. I am now in the process of learning my sixth language, living in the fifth country. But all my languages have different places in my head and I generally say I am completely fluent only in three. And even in these three I have different levels of fluency, like a different approach to the languages. I guess it has to do with the different personalities attached to each language. I think this is always a very interesting conversation to ave among polyglots, so thank you for sharing your experiences!

    • Thank you so much for reading! I really appreciate it. It’s nice to hear that other polyglots have the same issues. What languages are you fluent in? It’s amazing that you speak six! I am learning my fourth (Italian – but get it mixed a lot with Spanish since they can be similar at times haha). I can’t wait to read your post!

      • I’m half Italian and half Polish, so I grew up with those two languages. Then there is English. On a lower level I have French and Spanish, both studied in school but I never lived in a country with those languages long enough to get them to the next level. I can read and can communicate, but I lack proper fluency. The sixth language is Swedish, because I live in Sweden now. Been able to get away with mostly English for the past 3 years, but the time to become a speaker of Swedish has come now.

  3. I speak mostly English but I can also speak Bahasa Indonesia and Swedish. I have also studied Japanese and German and currently trying to learn a bit of French (what a hard language! but I love wine too much so I’m forcing myself to learn some). I totally understand how thinking in different languages can really mess you up. Last night as I was finishing off a bottle of wine at dinner, there were so many Swedes around me so I starting thinking in that language. I like to say that its the language that when I’m in a slightly tipsy stage or sleep deprived state, that is the language I think and speak in! hahahahaha

    • French is very hard! I studied it in high school and thought I could speak it somewhat decently before moving to France and I got a big reality check haha. I studied German and find it a lot harder than French actually. And Japanese is really pretty. I agree that wine brings out our true selves! Thank you for reading. I really appreciate it.

  4. I LOVE this post! I’m an American who only speaks English and a bit of French (though I’m heading to Paris to spend a month in an immersion course because I so desperately want to reach fluency). My husband speaks both English and Spanish, and I often wonder if I should have studied Spanish first. But I can’t help that I love French so much. I want to try to foucs on French before moving on to Spanish next. I wish I could relate to what you’re describing because (though it sounds like it can be confusing in terms of your identity), it seems so beautiful and complex. I am a more emotional person who lives in an American culture with a very technical language, as you put it (which is so accurate), so I often long for more romantic ways to express what is really in my head and heart. I can’t wait to see how my thinking evolves as I progress in my study of French. In the meantime, I’ll be following your blog! One thing I can say for sure is that you’re an excellent writer in this particular language! : )

    • What a lovely comment! Thank you so much. I am so excited for you to come to Paris and get to spend a month in this wonderful city. I absolutely love it here, and I hope you do as well! Once you get a grasp of a second language, it gets easier to grasp other languages. I am now studying Italian, and both French and Spanish help me out in that field. Speaking multiple languages helps us grasp a better understanding of ourselves due to the different ways each one expresses itself. And no worries about the LOVE haha. When I speak English, I definitely use it a lot. I think I noticed that going back home over the summer though just because that is not a thing here. Thank you so much for following, and for the lovely compliment! Safe travels!

      • Thats so good to hear that it gets easier to grasp each new language. And I really like (I’m fighting using “love” here, haha) the idea of getting to know myself and how to express myself better through various languages. The work that I do is all about increasing people’s self-awareness and communication skills, so this will be the perfect challenge for me! I wish you all the luck in your quest to learn Italian! Looking forward to reading more from your perspective. : )

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