My Second Language Personality


I’m in a pub, having a slivovice in tea to clear out some the head cold demons. I am writing in my notebook and enjoying a quiet night alone. My level of bliss might be higher if the man at the table across from me weren’t constantly engaging me in conversation.

As a second language Czech speaker, chatty strangers are a serious X factor in my content. As a non-fluent speaker, any interaction sets me on edge. I move into a mental space hinged on comprehension and appropriate response. If the speaker picks that up, they may grade their language and patiently give me time to respond. They may correct my mistakes. These are features of a pleasant interaction.

On the other hand, people might speak quickly, and largely ignore my responses. They shake their heads in confusion after I respond, leaving me in a panic about what I’ve just said. This is in part no doubt a byproduct of too many occasions on which I’ve tried to say “shoe” and ended up saying “god, I’d love to see you in my grandmother’s bikini.”

There are also urinal chatters, for whom I believe there is a special place in linguistic etiquette hell. When one is holding their genitals, they should be free of all pressures to communicate reasonably.

Recently I have had two extended conversations with strangers with whom I was sharing a table. One guy shared a table with us at a pub and we spent about ninety minutes chatting about history, books, family, travel, and even tiptoed through the minefield of politics. He was polite, spoke so we could understand, and helped us root out some vocabulary when we needed. The experience was wholly positive and I left feeling both appreciative and good about my Czech.

I met the next guys were – oddly enough – at the same pub. These guys were more challenging as one of them not only wanted to talk politics, but we were not in agreement and he spoke very quickly and demanded responses as such. His friend had a better understanding of what two low-level language speakers can handle and decided that supranational decision making biases within the European Union on the topic of slow migration might be out of our zone of intelligently discussable topics. He spoke more reasonably, and when we moved away from politics, things were pleasant. Again, mostly positive, but exhausting.

Tonight’s conversation goes like this:

Him: “Piss. Haha.” Some more words. “Piss again. I piss.” I think something about trees. “Do you piss?”

Me: “Hm. Interesting.”

Him: (nods head at my response) “Once I pissed on…(says clearly) bad idea. (laughs) I knew one doctor from Egypt.” More exposition. “Hahah. Piss. Whore. Understand?”

Me: “I understand.”

Him: (nods thoughtfully) “Piss. I am learning….” A word I’d have to dislocate my jaw to pronounce. “Shit.”

He begins another monologue and though I keep catching the occasional “piss” and other random connectors and nouns, I can’t put it into a cohesive discourse. I wait until a pause and bury my head in my notebook. His voice tells me this will not thwart his advances.

This kind of stranger interaction is the worst kind. He just wants to talk and doesn’t seem (or want) to notice that I am clueless. I can only respond with vague comments – I see, I understand, Interesting, Yeah, That’s funny.

But I do wonder about his POV of the interaction. That is, what does he think of me? In my mind, there’s no way I can be coming off as a cognizant conversationalist, but anyone who mentions piss this often in one conversation with a stranger probably hasn’t ordered a full stack of pancakes, so who knows? As regards the time and content of my responses, he might think I am rude, thoughtful, or a laconic stranger who keeps his opinions to himself. It makes me laugh to think that I might be perceived in this way. This is because laconic and I are not companions and in my first language I typically speak first and think later (boy that’s worked out well for me in the past). So it’s interesting to think that I have a totally different personality in Czech; my second language personality.

I have experienced this in students. I used to teach a doctor who was intelligent and capable and whose CV supported that – chief of thoracic surgery at a clinic in Prague. In English, however, she spoke in a wavering, cracking voice, literally gulped in fear, and breathed so quickly that she came off as someone who couldn’t order a taco without crapping themselves. Another guy spoke his limited English literally punctuated with profanities to the degree that he sounded like Al Capone’s public relations coach. When I mentioned his use of vulgarities to a mutual friend, he said, “Oh, he doesn’t do that in Czech.” In fact, in Czech his demeanor, intonation, and pace seemed far more mellow and polite.

Surely there’s a reason for all of this. In my case, I am not nearly as fluent in Czech as I am in English. So while in English I am wittier and more impulsive, this is only because my brain can instantly process information its hearing. I have a far more expansive vocabulary in English, one that allows puns, as well as nuanced comments and jokes. Meanwhile in Czech I am too busy trying to comprehend the language and, if that goes well, put together a response that doesn’t make me look like an imbecile. Moreover, I don’t possess the same range of vocabulary, so my responses will come out simpler, more considered, and more metered.

The Czechs have a saying (which I’m probably botching) – naučte nový jazyk a získat nové dusí or learn a new language, get a new soul. Like many idioms, I think there’s truth in it. And I guess it’s nice that in some language my soul is less impulsive and more thoughtful, even if he’s not as witty or can’t talk politics.

I look back over at the man still talking at me and wonder if his English-speaking soul would talk about piss so much.

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