In a NY Times column, “Using the Foreign to Grasp the Familiar,” William Grimes talks about writers who publish in languages other than their own. He starts off with Francesca Marciano’s story “The Other Language,” in which “an Italian teenager named Emma falls in love with English”:
Ms. Marciano, who grew up in Rome, acquired English more or less as her heroine Emma did, as a teenager. She lived in New York in her 20s and, while spending 10 years in Kenya, wrote her first novel, “Rules of the Wild,” in English after a failed start in Italian. Today she lives in Rome, but English has become her second skin.
“You discover not just words but new things about yourself when you learn a language,” Ms. Marciano said. “I am a different person because I fell in love with English. I cannot revert. I cannot undo this. I am stuck.”
Two waves of emigration from the former Soviet Union, the first in the late 1970s, the second after the nation’s collapse, have yielded a bumper crop of Russian writers who have made English their own. Some, like Gary Shteyngart, and Boris Fishman, whose first novel, “A Replacement Life,” is being published by Harper in June, came to the United States as children and absorbed English by osmosis. Others, like Ms. Litman, Lara Vapnyar, Kseniya Melnik, Olga Grushin and Anya Ulinich, left the Soviet Union in their teens or early 20s, late enough in life to make the transition to another language a conscious effort.
“They are all very fluent, but their sense of the language is different,” said Karen Ryan, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Stetson University in Florida, who has written extensively on Russian émigré literature. “There’s a sense of play and inventiveness, which is true of all transnational writers.”
Grimes goes on to discuss Aleksandar Hemon, Ha Jin, Yiyun Li, and others who have chosen to write in English, as well as Andrei Makine, a Russian who “dazzled the French with Le Testament Français (published in the United States as Dreams of My Russian Summers), which won the Prix Goncourt and two other literary prizes in 1995.” and Yoko Tawada, “a Japanese émigré who lives in Berlin and writes in German,” who “has won a devoted following for uncanny, dream-shrouded works like Where Europe Begins.”
And Alice Robb’s New Republic piece “Multilinguals Have Multiple Personalities” is worth a read (thanks, Dan!); it starts with Noam Scheiber explaining why he stopped speaking only Hebrew to his three-year-old daughter: “My Hebrew self turns out to be much colder, more earnest, and, let’s face it, less articulate. In English, my natural sensibility is patient and understated. My style in Hebrew was hectoring and prosecutorial.” Robb goes on to discuss research on the subject:
Between 2001 and 2003, linguists Jean-Marc Dewaele and Aneta Pavlenko asked over a thousand bilinguals whether they “feel like a different person” when they speak different langauges. Nearly two-thirds said they did. [...]
In 1964, Susan Ervin, a sociolinguist at the University of California, Berkeley, set out to explore the differences in how bilinguals represent the same stories in different languages. She recruited 64 French adults who lived in the U.S. and were fluent in both French and English. On average, they had spent 12 years living in the U.S.; 40 were married to an American. On two separate occasions, six weeks apart, Ervin gave them the “Thematic Apperception Test”: She showed her subjects a series of illustrations and asked them to make up a three-minute story to accompany each scene. In one session, the volunteer and experimenter spoke only French, while the other session was conducted entirely in English.
Ervin then analyzed the stories, looking at the different themes incorporated into the narratives. When she compared the two sets of stories, she identified some significant topical differences. The English stories more often featured female achievement, physical aggression, verbal aggression toward parents, and attempts to escape blame, while the French stories were more likely to include domination by elders, guilt, and verbal aggression toward peers.
In 1968, Ervin—by this point, “Ervin-Tripp”—designed another experiment to further explore her hypothesis that the content of bilinguals’ speech would change along with the language. [...]
In 1998, Michele Koven, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, spent a year and a half carrying out ethnographic research with bilingual Parisian adults whose parents had immigrated from Portugal. [...]
Like many people capable of such interactions, I feel very different when speaking different languages, so I’m fascinated by this stuff, even if it will probably never be possible to fully explain it.