Study abroad and come back with multiple personalities


The sun sets on the Seine River, where travel columnist Brielle Saggese will spend the next four months.  Brielle Saggese

It’s been three full French days of guttural “-rr’s,” pursing “-ou’s” and drawling “euh’s” and honestly, I don’t sound American. 

But honestly, I don’t sound quite French either. 

Whenever I make a joke, or meet the neighbors or ask the pharmacist if he carries dry shampoo, sure, my words come from French, but my personality comes from English.

Before these past three days, I would have never recognized the connection between my language and personality. But now, the French and English are in full-on battle once more, only this time in my conversation.

To research this connection, a study by psychology professor Nairan Ramírez-Esparza asked multi-lingual subjects to describe their personalities in both Spanish and English. 

When subjects spoke in Spanish, the study found them to talk about their families, favorite hobbies and personal relationships. But in English, the same subjects talked about their careers and professional achievements — clearly showing how a personality can adapt its values according to its working language and culture.

Now I happen to like my American personality — I hope most people like the personality they’ve got — but I was willing to give this theory a shot. So to go with my new French vocab, I went shopping for a French personality to match. 

This sounds a bit psychologically questionable, but actually, is quite fun. If the French have one thing in common, it’s some colorful characters to copy. 

Take my host mother, for example. On the outside, she’s an older woman with silver hair and a grocery list always within arm’s reach. But once she begins to speak, she transforms. 

The brow furrows, the hands fly through the air and the words are haphazardly strewn together. That is until she gets to a very enunciated “pas,” the French negative. 

Those “pas’” explosive “p’s” punctuate every sentence in which she warns what I should not do, what cheese knife I should not use and which consonant I should not pronounce. 

A personality, for sure. 

Then there’s the owner of a café across the street from my school. He explains the different types of coffee with French words, of course, but even more so with the French’s favorite kind of theater: body language. 

Noisette: an espresso with a bit of steamed milk. He pinches two fingers together and squints his eyes. 

Café allongé: an espresso with hot water — closer to what Americans call coffee. He flips his wrist upward and rolls his eyes "un peu." 

Café au lait: what the French consider a children’s breakfast drink. He cranes his neck forward and purses his lips for a curt, “non.” 

Another personality.

Then there is the woman who lives a floor below me. My host father introduced us, I replied, “enchantée,” and she complimented my accent. 

No one has ever complimented my accent. I liked her immediately. 

She lets her sentences trail off at the end with a simple shrug and a smile. A personality.

It’s taken me 21 years to develop the personality I have today, so I don’t think I’ll be finding my French alter ego over night. But if, scientifically, there’s supposed to be some French character inside of me, you can bet I’m going to try to find her.

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