“How was your trip?” various family members asked me the week we returned from El Salvador.
“Loved it,” I’d say, “I didn’t want to leave.”
“Really?” they would respond, “But, why?”
Clearly I had not answered as expected.
When people asked the “why” though – I began to fumble.
“I don’t know, I’m just happier there. I haven’t really processed all that yet,” I’d say, to blank stares as they waited. Surely there must be a reason!
“The colors are brighter there,” I’d offer, feeling foolish.
How can the colors be brighter there? Is that scientifically possible?
All I know is that here in my suburban neighborhood in the United States, my house and all the other 150 houses in the neighborhood, are some variation of the same color – white, cream, beige, eggshell. When I take a walk in our neighborhood, there’s nothing to see. It’s boring cookie-cutter house after another.
In El Salvador, houses are bubble gum pink, lemon yellow, parrot green, and sky blue. Even everyday objects there – laundry baskets, chairs, flowers, seem more colorful. It makes me happy. I walked literally miles on the streets, distracted by all there was to see, without growing tired.
I tried again to explain, “why” I hadn’t wanted to leave El Salvador, taking multiple verbal paths that went nowhere.
“I feel more inspired there” was another dead end.
Finally – “Here in the United States, everyone keeps to themselves. They stay locked in their houses. In El Salvador everyone goes out. Strangers talk to each other, and everyone has a story to tell.”
One of my family members spoke up, “But why would you like being in a place that is more social when you’re anti-social? You always say how shy you are.”
“But I’m not anti-social in El Salvador! I’m not shy when I speak Spanish!” I countered immediately. More blank stares.
Someone changed the topic of conversation, faces turned away from me and I was left to wonder if I was crazy.
Since that day of failing to express myself, failing to communicate, failing to connect with my own family in my native language, I have thought about the “why” a lot. Now, I wondered, not just “Why am I happier in El Salvador” but “Why am I not shy when I speak Spanish?” … None of it made any logical sense.
And then I found an article on PsychologyToday.com called, “Language: My Spanish Side.”
“Bilingual people display differing personality traits depending on which language they are speaking, researchers have found. Psychologists at the University of Texas, Austin, asked bilingual Mexican-Americans a set of questions designed to assess personality, such as “Are you talkative?” and “Do you tend to be disorganized?” Many participants changed their answers when questioners switched from Spanish to English or vice versa.”
After I read that article I nearly cried with joy. I’m not crazy! I’m just bilingual!
Other recommended reading: Articles by François Grosjean, Ph.D – a Professor of psycholinguistics and the author of “Bilingual: Life and Reality.”