TL;DR: Does your voice change when you switch languages? You're not alone. Learning a new language forces you to account for differences in etiquette, produce unfamiliar sounds, and even question your confidence. All these factors can affect your voice!
I grew up in a bicultural home, where switching from Spanish into English was a matter of crossing from the kitchen into my mother’s studio. By most accounts, I have a native-like accent in both languages, and I rarely find myself not knowing a word in either.
Two weeks ago, while hanging out with my English-speaking coworkers, I played a quick voice note that I’d sent to some friends back in Peru.
“That’s not really you, is it? You sound so much younger!”
That was me alright, with the same tendency to smack my lips during awkward pauses and to switch speeds at random in the middle of a sentence. Yet, my pitch was higher and my inflection flatter, making me sound slightly girlier. It was me, but at the same time, it was not.
A quick Google search showed that this is not an uncommon phenomenon at all. If you have noticed it happening to you, it’s not just because you have been taking our advice and reciting the catchphrase of your favorite foreign TV character.
You’re not imagining and that friend of yours who can speak French is not simply putting on airs. There are several ways in which switching languages can change our voices.
What Do You Mean by Different?
The first task ahead of us will be to define what counts as “different”.
Different linguists and language lovers have described this as:
- Feeling like you are “adopting a persona” when you are speaking in a different language
- Sounding tense or fake when speaking in a foreign language
- Lowering your register or volume when you switch languages
- Feeling like you’re not sounding like your target language should sound
So are we merely adopting another culture’s codes? Are we really changing our voices to suit a different personality, or are we imagining a different personality based on the sounds we are making?
Part 1 – Is It Just Politeness?
The way we modulate our voices is deeply entwined with many different social codes. When we are communicating in a foreign language, we always tap into these mannerisms to convey our meaning.
A lot of this comes down to the way certain languages work differently from your native language. For example, some languages are tonal, where the way you stress some syllables can change the meaning of certain words.
Is our new language changing us?
However, switching languages can also change the way we think about what we are about to say. For example, German and Spanish both have a special verb conjugation for people we are not very familiar with. English doesn’t, so it lets you keep the same air of familiarity with everyone.
Because of this, when a native English speaker switches to German, they may become suddenly more aware of this social distance. It’s not hard to jump from that to feeling suddenly more intimidated by strangers.
The act of adjusting our etiquette, and even our personalities, to a changing social context, is known as cultural accommodation. For people who grow up both bilingual and bicultural, there seems to be an unconscious adjustment triggered by the act of switching languages.
Back in 2010, a study tried to quantify the effects of this accommodation. They took a group of bilingual and bicultural Hong Kongese (who could speak both Cantonese and English fluently, and who had lived in both Hong Kong and the UK), had them fill out personality tests in both Cantonese and English, and then conducted interviews with both Hong Kongese and English researchers.
They expected to see them express more “Western” values, such as extraversion or individuality while talking to English interviewers. However, they were surprised to see that these differences persisted in the written test.
What’s more, when asked to describe themselves (whether during the interview or in writing) the subjects consistently chose to highlight different adjectives.
Those of us who grew up as third-culture kids are often left feeling like we have two very different personas. With one foot on each side of the river, it would be impossible to decide which one is really us.
In my case, this is further confounded by having two names. My legal name is very Spanish, and very hard to pronounce or spell for English speakers. Because of this, I often use my middle name (Alfie) in my Anglo-Caribbean life.
Ximena and Alfie are both me, but Ximena definitely uses “please” a lot less, is quite more direct, and prefers to drink wine. Alfie is better at queueing, uses more medical terminology, and is fonder of rum on the rocks. They’re both me, and I like both rum and wine.
So far, these differences are mostly cultural and seem confined to those of us who are either fully bilingual or who have lived abroad for most of our lives.
However, there is a much more widespread (and puzzling) counterpart to that: the way that the physical aspects of our voices also change. This process starts long before we become fully fluent.
Part 2 – Why Do You Sound Like Your Younger Sister?
As soon as we cross the barrier into “conversational”, many of us drop a couple of registers, keep our volume low, and unconsciously begin straining our voices. Here’s why:
You sound different because you’re making different sounds
Up to a certain point, some of the adjustments we have to make to our voices are deliberate, and they just help us make foreign sounds better.
French is a good example of this: a lot of its sounds are made at the front of the mouth. If you are a German native speaker, you are probably more used to producing noise at the back of your mouth, so switching to French will automatically make your register higher and softer.
At the same time, we need to account for the fact that some languages will pronounce the same letter slightly differently. For example, when Spanish speakers say “pa”, they often sound a lot like an English speaker saying “ba.”
If you are constantly having to account for this when you switch a language, it may drive you to be hyperaware of the way each sound and vowel vibrates within your mouth – making you sound more deliberate or reserved. At the same time, it may make your listeners judge your speech differently.
This pretty interesting study from 2013 tested this. The researchers found that you could play a voice clip with the same syllable to a group of bilingual people, and they would transcribe it differently depending on whether they were told the person in the clip was a Spanish speaker or an English speaker.
Using a foreign language can also affect your confidence slightly, which may make you unconsciously alter your pitch and volume.
On this video, Hadar Shemesh offers a beautiful explanation about how fear and anxiety can make your voice “carry” less around a room.
Is this bad?
In the short term – no. Granted, if you are often feeling anxious about your accent, you may be turned off from language learning altogether.
That being said, it’s perfectly natural to go through a weird stage when trying to learn a new language. The process has several plateaus, and for the most part, being able to notice your own pronunciation errors is overall a sign of progress.
There’s a downside to constantly using an “unnatural” voice when you speak. If you are constantly speaking outside your natural register, you could be slowly straining your vocal cords.
According to this 2017 study, the physical effects of straining your voice when switching between languages are very real and could create tissue damage later in life.
Learning a new language offers you access to new cultures and codes.
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