Learning Your Way to Yourself

The acquisition of any foreign language comes with struggle. Not just the burden of memorizing a new lexicon or the labor of demystifying an unfamiliar syntax, but the struggle of making oneself understood in the target language. It’s not easy!

Naturally, many mis-communications are committed as fluency is built upon a mountain of mistakes and micro-lessons learned. Language learners are not robots (yet!), however… they desire not only to communicate information, but to express themselves. They want to show their personalities, to be themselves in the target language.

Orlando Kelm, teacher of Spanish and Portuguese, observes:

My experience is that it just kills some people to not be able to say something in a foreign language without the same intensity, passion, and flowering language as in their native language. If they can’t say it like they would in their own language, they end up not saying anything at all. Other people are OK with their more limited, simple, and brief non-native version. Basically, if you are not willing to go with the simplified version, you’ll have more difficulties in speaking the foreign language. With time and practice your simple version will develop, but not if you aren’t willing to start with whatever you can pull out of your brain in the initial phases.

Although I have nowhere near Dr. Kelm’s years of experience with language learning, I, too, have witnessed this phenomenon in many learners, and I’ve had to deal with it myself. To make matters worse, I’m not a terribly outgoing person, and I’m not a fan of small talk. These qualities are not conducive to practice in the target language!

It may be that this problem is most pronounced for those with a very strong identity. Someone who is always the life of the party may have a really hard time being that guy that’s hard to understand and that doesn’t make much sense. The quick-witted jokesters may find it especially painful to never be funny in the target language (for a very long time). These learners may feel if they can’t be themselves to the people they meet, they’d rather not meet those people.

For me, my identity didn’t get in the way so much. I enjoyed the challenge of communication in Chinese, as humbling as it was. I repeatedly put myself in situations where I needed to talk, and then I would just say anything I could think of to say. This comes naturally to the outgoing, talkative types, the people that hate silence. For some of us, though, it’s incredibly difficult! With this approach, you rarely end up talking about what you really feel like talking about (largely because everything is dumbed down to your language ability), but you actually end up talking, most of the time, which is exactly what you need as a new learner.

Essentially, what I did amounted to changing my personality in the target language. I became someone who frequently started conversations with strangers, someone who asked questions which sometimes were none of my business, someone who would keep small talk going indefinitely.

Over time, I found it easier and easier to express myself in Chinese. I could even start making simple jokes. My efforts were working, but I realized that I had donned this alter-ego which placed me in a certain developmental trajectory. It was one which, as far as I could tell, could only be fully realized by someone totally unlike me. Maybe working at becoming a brilliant story-teller, or public speaker, or comedian (xiangsheng?) — in Chinese — would be the best thing possible for my language abilities, but I realized that that just wasn’t me. As my identity reasserted itself, I began acting more like myself, but also more like a native speaker in some ways, because I had lost my sociable fearlessness.

This is a good problem to have, though, because you have choices. If you’re still struggling in those early stages, you’re faced with one fundamental choice over and over again: to talk or not to talk. For this scenario, Dr. Kelm’s advice is as good as it gets:

Next time you are part of that beautiful sunset, turn to the person next to you and tell him/her what is in your heart, even if the actual words are just “sunset good.”


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. you should try bangla. as though the fricking Sanskrit isnt bad enough, the grammar and lack of rules about everything from verb conjugation to writing out vowels, it just pure awesome all wrapped up with a bow.

  2. Do you think you’ll ever get there, though? I agree with many of the friends of mine who know me in both languages who say that I seem like a different person in either language. It’s not due to any particular simplification, however, rather but cultural differences and different ways of looking at things that the different languages entail. Perhaps different languages occupy slightly different areas of the brain, resulting in a slight difference in thought process. Others’ perception of us is different when filtered through different languages as well.

    • I’m an American transplant that’s picked up Mandarin as a second language over the past number of years I’ve lived in China, just like Mr. Pasden here. I find it interesting that your demeanor or “personality”, so to speak, changes with the language you speak. As much as possible, I suppose I try to retain my “true” self across all cultures, but when it comes down to it, yes, cultural differences will eventually influence the way you speak and the subjects you even choose to talk about.

      For example, it’s a habit of mine to state semi-rhetorical questions, particularly existential ones that often question status quo, so commonplace in American English (i.e. “How does that even make sense?”; “Why would they even think to do that?”; “Why can’t they just fix that?”). These off-hand remarks usually invite other [English] speakers to respond and serve as basis for further discussion/debate/ridicule/etc.

      Whereas, when I blurt one of these out in Chinese (i.e. “这有什么意思?”; “他们怎么想到这么做的?”; “他们为什么不弄好这个问题?”), it’s almost like a conversation killer. Not only do typical Chinese conversations rarely question status quo/entrenched problems, but if prodded to respond, most will end that line of inquiry with either a “没办法” (“There’s nothing that can be done”), or even an indignant “你真无聊” (“You’re so lame [for asking such an unanswerable question]”).

      And so, my “natural” personality has, in Chinese, been somewhat cowed into a meeker, less confident (also influenced by the stigma of looking Chinese while speaking quite imperfectly, quickly attracting impatience and unhelpfulness, particularly from servicepeople) version of myself, one that’s generally less cynical guy-next-door and more too-eager-to-please local underling that questions little and praises abundantly.

      Personally, I loathe this transformation. But cynicism can come off rude to certain reverence-based cultures. Thus, the filter.

      I wonder if Mr. Pasden, being a long, long-time China expat–or anyone else, for that matter–has any further insights or experiences along these lines. Challenges? Breakthroughs?

  3. @Poagao might just be you :). i know a number of people, extended family included, who are definitely the same in both languages, whatever they may be.

  4. I once read an article about how to partially beat the Turing test (that determines whether a machine is intelligent by letting it convince a jury of interlocutors): Faked intelligence. Let your software produce”witty” or “philosophical” statements with random statemens that pick up pieces from the input of the humans. It is supposed to work quite well.

    This visit in China I found that this strategy can be adapted to produce “fake fluency”. It goes as follows:
    1. Impersonate the quiet but deep kind of personality.
    2. Try to get the gist of what is going on.
    3. Slowly prepare your attack. You have time, because the details don’t matter.
    4. Come up with your “witty remark”. Chengyus work best, because they are fixed and don’t require much language flexibility.
    5. Enjoy.

    This works especially well if your Chinese friends expect you to understand nothing at all – which is the default setting. And it is most fun when the rest of the table is actually talking about you, your country or your culture – thinking you don’ get it anyway.

    So this can sort of help for “expressing oneself”. Unfortunatelly it doesn’t provide the means to really exchange information.


  5. The ability to be funny in a new language is not directly related to the level of fluency…

  6. Nathan Dummitt Says: August 18, 2009 at 9:54 pm

    As Goethe said, “We live as many lives as the languages we speak.” That is, one of the benefits of learning a foreign language is the chance to cultivate a completely different personality: to live a simultaneous second life.

    Without all of the associated online-gaming creepiness.

  7. I’ve definitely witnessed people struggle with language learning because a) they don’t want to sound ‘stupid’ or too simple and b) they are just embarrassed by their level. Either because of other foreigners around or native speakers. I think getting over that is a not only a big step towards progressing but also just a valuable, humbling experience in itself.

    The ‘just say anything’ attitude reminds me of something someone said to me once. It was an older Canadian guy who had just moved to China after living in Thailand for many years. He was impressed with my Chinese but I reminded him that being fluent in Thai was pretty damn impressive (and in my opinion more linguistically ‘hardcore’) We talked about all that and he summed up learning the language while living abroad by saying, “Well, you either learn it or you don’t”. It’s simple, but I think that sums it up quite well.

  8. John, this was awesome and actually pretty inspirational. I think a similar thing is happening to me as i progress with my chinese. It’s nice to see this put into words by someone as experienced as you. Thanks!

  9. “he quick-witted jokesters may find it especially painful to never be funny in the target language “

    Does this category actually exist, ? In my experience, I’ve envied the jokester types exactly because they could already build huge rapport and keep a content-less or otherwise dead-end conversation going ever since they were at the 101 beginners level just because they could keep the native speakers amused with their jokes (even with a vocabulary of 100 words or less) in lieu of having anything relevant or meaningful to say to plug in the gaps in comprehension.

  10. Ditto JB. This is an absolutely great post. Thanks, John.

  11. I agree with JB and Prez Life, great post.

    Personally, though, I don’t want to merge my Chinese and English personalities back into a single one. They’re not much different, but “Chinese me” is much better suited to living in China than is “English me,” while “English me” is generally more sarcastic and acerbic.

    Perhaps my two identities just didn’t split as radically as yours, and so I feel less need to reign it in? I dunno.

  12. Poagao,

    I doubt I’ll get all the way there, but I think I can manage at least a rough approximation. 🙂

  13. Hannah Mae Says: August 20, 2009 at 8:24 pm

    “Sunset good”… Yep, that’ll be me! Inspirational stuff though, John. Thanks.

  14. I experienced something very similar. While generally shy, I found I had to be outgoing in Chinese if I wanted to master it. I had a rather powerful epiphany one day when I realized that no matter whether I spoke good Chinese of lousy Chinese I was still going to sound like a stupid foreigner. I suddenly lost all my fear. It was a given I would be speaking rotten Chinese, I could stop worrying about it; it was completely liberating.

  15. The reverse is true too. If your personality is silly and immature, then there wont be much of a difference between your actual personality and your language acquiring alter ego.

  16. Agree with @justin. Half my jokes fail even in my native English, but that has never stopped me trying, either in English or Chinese. Simple jokes often work the best, and physical humour doesn’t even require language.

    And if only I could resist attempting puns in Chinese, I might actually be able to regain a little of my dignity too!

  17. Great post John — it’s something most all of us who have learned/are learning a foreign language have felt. I’m a decently outgoing person, and it drove (and continues to drive) me nuts that I can’t communicate that personality fluently.

    In a lot of ways that can work as a motivator to get better, but as you mentioned, and as I’ve experienced, it can equally be a buzz kill on the road to fluency.

    Fantastic and inspirational advice – cheers!

  18. You – and your reference – nailed it. I LOVE my language (English). I love speaking it, mixing it, playing with it, sharing it, being passionate in it, creating with it, etc. In Brazil, it kills me to have lost this art… And, I can tell that it’s affected my language-learning process.

    I remember lamenting to a Brazilian friend one day that there was a whole other side of myself that I wanted to share with him, but that I was still unable — b/c I lacked the ability.

    Fortunately, with time, I’m getting there now. It’s been a long slog for me — with Portuguese, no less. I can’t imagine for you & many of your readers learning languages that are so very different from our native one.


  19. comedian, 可以是“喜剧演员”,“相声演员”,不是“相声”

  20. cathy,

    There are no exact equivalents between American-style “comedians” and Chinese xiangsheng performers. Xiangsheng is a fairly popular choice for foreigners interested in “going all the way” with their Chinese abilities, however, which is why I made the reference. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that Dashan is the protoypical example.

  21. […] the past, I’ve speculated on how the second language acquisition process contributes to changes in the personality of the learner. Recently an article called Multilinguals Have Multiple Personalities on New Republic caught my […]

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