From the corner of my eye I see my Mother watching me with a wry expression on her face.  I give her a look as if to say “quoi?!” and return to my conversation.  I am discussing, in French, the various differences between French culture and American culture with MB’s family; nothing out of the ordinary is being said so I am perplexed by my Mother’s seeming amusement.  Finally the conversation comes to an end and I stalk over to her in the corner.

“What was that, Mom?”  I ask, while mimicking the face she was giving me during the conversation.

“Oh, nothing,” she replies, fully delighting in her enigmatic-ness (it’s my blog and I’ll make up words if I want to).

“PUH-leeeeeeeeeese,” I say, giving her my lamest look of all time.  “Like I can’t tell when you have something to say.”  I lean towards the table and pour us each a glass of wine, handing one to her.  “So what gives?”

“It’s nothing, it’s just that your personality is really different in French.”

“Huh,” I ask (so provocative, clearly I’m not ever going to have a career in investigative journalism).

“I don’t know,” she continues.  “Your voice changes, you speak more high pitch but more softly, you make different gestures…you just seem more serious or something.”

“AHHHHHHHHH,” I grasp my chest in mock horror.  “Not serious!  How horrible, how upsetting – what will we do?  How will we fix this?!”

The wry look returns to my Mother’s face.

“Case in point,” she says and wanders towards MB and the other Frenchies to talk.


For some reason my personality does seem to morph when I speak in French.  I don’t know if it has to do with thinking so hard about what I am saying or if it is something in the nature of the French language* or if it is just that it gives me the feeling of playing a character.

I am not Americain, NON, I am FRANCAISE and must be-ave accordingly.  Do not geeve me deez look, Maman, I am being serious…(*dramatice pause*)…I am being French.”

(Note to parents: this is what happens when you send your child to too many acting classes.)

Ironically, this French “character” of mine is much more toned down than the American version, she is quieter, more pensive (read: trying to pretend she understands what is being said), and more hesitant to speak (read: trying to come up with how to put a sentence together)…in effect, she is a bit more boring.

Recently, I had this conversation with another North American expat** living here in the Grenoble area.  She (being a Canadian) grew up learning French in school and is almost 100% fluent but told me she encounters the same issues.

“I’m just not funny in French,” she lamented to me over a glass of wine (Oh my GAWD, again with the wine, I mean, how much wine does she drink?!?!?  A lot).  “I mean, every time I am with French friends I want to say, “I swear I’m funny in English.  But it just isn’t the same – the jokes are different and sometimes I’m freaked out to make jokes in French, like what if I awkwardly get it wrong.

This is yet another problem with trying to translate one’s personality to another language – humor.  Jokes are tricky, even in your own language, the last thing you want to do is use a wrong word or accidentally utilize a super offensive turn of phrase when you are trying to be jocular.  I mean, nothing falls flatter and more uncomfortably than that.

For example, you and a friend are talking and you accidentally say something in French that you think means one thing but in reality is anti-funny or worse yet, super offensive.  Your friend, knowing your language difficulty understands but someone else overhears and picks a fight.  You misunderstand what the fight-picker is saying and the fight gets worse!  Next thing you know, Tybalt has killed your best friend and to avenge him you then kill Tybalt and it all ends like this:


That’s right…in a creepy candle-lit room with poison and LOTS of kisses involving snot and possibly a necrophilia fetish.

…Or something like that.

I guess the point is that personalities don’t always make the complete leap over the language barrier.  A person might be hilarious in their own language and boring in a different language or vice-versa.  I mean, someone could just as easily be more out-going and hilarious in a foreign language than they would ever be in their native tongue; it’s like language schizophrenia.

So, I guess that is it.  There will be the American version on myself and the French version and I must learn to embrace my newly found personalities.

*For the record, there is also an Italian version of myself for the few times that I have made attempts at that language – in this version I am really loud and wave my arms a lot.  Truth.

** Also, my Canadian friend writes some pretty fun articles for – check her out!

22 thoughts on “Schizofrenchia

  1. like i said i was looking forward to this post. Agree with you on the mellowness one experiences while talking in french. I have a gut feeling that i wouldn’t be non boring if i were to speak in Spanish and Italian.To me, they are such colorful languages . They celebrate the boisterous laughter, being loud while talking. On the other hand, French is one of those languages where you are supposed to act all classy like Princess Grace of Monaco 😀 Some of us especially me having trouble talking like Princess Grace of Monaco all the time. For instance I have been shushed twice in open public spaces like a metro or a cafe cz the mamie sitting in the next table or next seat couldn’t stand the girlie cackle. This only reinforces me to speak softly in French.


    1. WHAT?! This is crazy talk – you have the essence of Princess Grace…clearly. HA – just like me, eh? I can’t believe you got “shushed”. But yeah, I do think you are spot on with the way French makes you feel – like you should definitely be classy whereas Italian and Spanish are a bit more “let loose”. Speaking of – when are you coming to visit? We need to class it up soon!


  2. Sorry but the French aren’t known for comedy so much so it’s natural that one isn’t that funny. Swearing in German is rather conducive, recounting a fling in Italian rolls off the tongue, whispering in Japanese is fail proof. That’s why psycolinguistics interests me so much!


    1. LOVE your list!! HA – and yes, swearing in German does seem like it would make sense. Have you seen that hilarious youtube video: What German sounds like to other languages? It’s a trip! I always think Spanish feels like a party too. 🙂 Thanks for reading!


  3. Ding, ding, ding!!! Another MAJOR truth be told post from you to me. Yes, definitely. I think you know that I was a theatre actress in the States and had paid a lot of money to develop my deep, full voice. Then I moved to France. 😦 Where did it go? Come back voice, I miss you! Yes, funny, come back too! I promise to stop being so sarcastic since that is the only way I can express, humor, really, I will. Little Hipster Girl, I miss you most of all…


    1. HAHA! I know exactly what you mean – my friend and I were swearing up and down that we used to have wit but now it has all but disappeared…my thought process when speaking is so different that I can’t think of funny things off the cuff anymore. Ah la la – c’est la vie! It is interesting how it happens though – a lot of people who I ran this idea past told me “YES – it is the same for me!”

      Hope you are well!!!!!!


  4. A very interesting post. I think that most people change personalities once they are reasonably fluent in another language. My now adult children were brought up, in France, bilingually and I am still amazed when I hear them speaking in French, particularly if they are recounting something they have already told me in English.
    They have different facial expressions, different gestures and different voices and I assume it’s the same for me.
    I have an Australian friend who is a real Francophile so likes me to speak to her in French. It always takes a few minutes to get used to the change of personality.
    Wtih regard to humour, don’t worry, it will eventually come. I think I might have actually developed a keener sense of humour and greater wit in French than English over the years. With two languages up your sleeve you’ll have an immense facility for word play as time goes on.


    1. That is so interesting in regards to your children and the differences you notice when they are speaking different languages. I was wondering if it was something that just came when you learned a language later in life or if it worked if you were truly bilingual – so fascinating!

      Phew – you are an inspiration – I hope that someday I can get by French into decent working order. It is slow going for me!! 🙂


  5. I thought we weren’t going to talk about the wine. After that box of rosé I was funny in neither French nor English.

    Also, thanks for the shout out and linkage! I’m shamelessly proud of my KStew story :p


  6. Hey, how true is this! I think if I were fully fluent in french it may be easier to ‘just be me’ , but because I just plod along…..I tend to fall back on the pulling of faces! (Which probably has me coming across as a complete loony). Love your post as always 🙂


    1. Thanks so much!! I’m with you – I like to think that maybe if I were fully fluent more of my real personality would come out but judging from some of the other comments I think it must be normal to be a bit different in other languages. All very interesting! 🙂


  7. Glad to hear I’m not thebonly one. My voice changes in French too and after 11 years here I’ve picked up those annoying gestures and sounds like making a “farty” sound when I don’t know something. It’s weird, yet enriching, n’est ce pas?


    1. OUI! I do the farting sound too – it always gets a lot of laughs when I am back in U.S. It really is funny the stuff that you pick up without even noticing. Thanks for reading!! 🙂


  8. I for one am much funnier in French than in English. Normally, I am quite serious, but in French, I say what I think are mundane truths, but that I later realize nobody expects to be uttered, and everybody looks shocked and then cracks up. At my gym class, we were doing arm exercises, which the instructor promised would help us avoid dreaded batwings of flab. I pointed out that I do the same damn exercises every day, not just at the weekly village gym class in the community center. In fact, I have done them for a good 25 years, and yet, look, I have flabby batwings! The others were laughing so hard I suspect a couple of them peed their pants. I didn’t understand what was so funny. I was completely serious. The dratted exercises had no effect at all!


    1. Love this – I was just waiting for someone to say they were funnier in French! Also – I think frankness in speaking can sometimes throw the French off – they tend to be so much more subtle. I can see how the arm comment would crack them up. P.S. if you find the secret to getting rid of batwing arm let me know!


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