‘150% people’: Thai, English, and expanding selves

Do you feel like a different person sometimes when you speak different languages? Amy Zhao discovers other do too.

By | Sat 1 Jun 2019

In 2001, Ukrainian American linguist Aneta Pavlenko put out a survey asking one simple question: “Do you feel like a different person sometimes when you speak different languages?” She received responses from over one thousand multilingual speakers from around the world — nearly two-thirds of whom responded in the affirmative.

In March, I sent out a similar, much less official, mostly curiosity-driven Google form survey to multilingual speakers in Chiang Mai. Coincidentally, I got the same results: two-thirds of respondents said yes, they did notice a change in personality, worldview, or way of thinking when they spoke in a different language. (It should be noted that I am not a linguist, and my survey garnered 50 responses as opposed to Pavlenko’s thousand, and that’s only if you count the one native Klingon speaking troll.) As a bilingual speaker myself, the responses resonated with me. I’ve often sensed a shift in my mannerisms when I switch from Mandarin to English, Mandarin being spoken primarily with my family whereas English is used in daily social and work life.

What surprised me, however, was that when native Thai speakers reflected on expressing themselves in English, ‘confidence, ‘openness’ and ‘assertiveness’ were the traits most frequently mentioned. “I feel a lot more confident expressing myself in English,” one person wrote, echoing many others. It didn’t make sense to me that these Thais could be more confident, assertive, and open in their second language than their first. Wouldn’t they be more comfortable in their first language? The one they didn’t need to think about, didn’t need to study and knew more words in?

But for Jaem Prueangwet, whose essay “What does it mean to be Thai?” published in Citylife back in March, English was always about more than the language: it was access to Western culture and an escape from a culture and people he felt had rejected him. At a young age, faced with bullies who teased him about everything from his looks to his lack of masculinity, he told himself, “I am gonna get so good at English, and I will leave this country one day.” As he got older, he made foreign friends whenever he could, a common move for young Thais eager to improve their English. Slowly, Jaem found himself more comfortable expressing himself and his emotions in English, but he also struggled with confusion about his identity as a Thai person. “My ability to express my feelings in Thai was stalled at some point,” he wrote in his essay. “I became a good listener but I could never express how I felt back.”

Though the boundaries of Thai and English, east and west are perhaps more pronounced and painful in Jaem’s story, he is far from the only one navigating them. With English as a mandated fixture in the Thai national educational curriculum, more and more Thais are becoming confident, if not fluent in English, especially those who live in cities. There are obvious practical benefits of learning English – for work, education, and travel, to name a few. But for many Thais, English has also become a way to express their identities in new and different ways, be it their emotions, confidence, and personality, or for Jaem, their gender and sexuality: English is not just another language skill, but a means for accessing an expanded self.

Different language, different identity?

Some differences between Thai and English are obvious. Greetings, for one, vary – in Thailand, you’d have to be oblivious not to notice the wai and sawasdee, vastly different from the wave and ‘hello’, ‘hey,’ or ‘what’s up’ you’d get in an English-speaking country. But in interviews with native Thai speakers, two Thai cultural concepts came up again and again as key differences in the ways English and Thai are spoken. The first was the concept of hierarchy. Engrained in Thai culture, hierarchal positions are reflected in the complex system of pronouns in the Thai language; pronouns can vary depending on age, position, and gender. The second was a more abstract concept: the idea that open expression of emotions and of self in public is discouraged. Jaem gave the example that in Thai schools, “if you speak too much in the classroom, your classmates will start looking at you like, ‘why are you speaking too much’, ‘puut maak’, ‘you want to show off’.”

I met with a group of three enthusiastic International Affairs students studying at Chiang Mai University, curious to hear their perspectives on the topic. We met at the American Corner, a study centre and hangout-spot for those interested in learning the English language and American culture. Jointly supported by CMU and the US Embassy, the space is brightly lit and stocked with American magazines, books, and even a few movies, with maps of America lining the walls. When we first sat down, they asked me where I was from, and I told them, not expecting them to know where or what my small state of Connecticut is. But they glanced at the maps only briefly before smiling and saying, “Yes, we know Connecticut.”

When I asked them if they felt like different people when they spoke English, they hesitated at first, exchanging looks with one another. For a moment I thought they were going to say no. Instead, they told me story after story of how English had impacted their identities and expanded their worldviews. “When I speak English, I feel like I’m a different person,” said Sandy, a junior from Phayao province. “When you speak English, you speak to foreigners – that’s why you don’t have to hide your personality. Sometimes you have to hide [your personality] from Thai people,” she explained. She said that tradition often keeps them from saying what they actually want to say in Thai contexts, but in English, she feels a greater freedom to say what she wants and to show her personality. “Speaking English makes me feel very, very confident,” she remarked. “Sometimes when I speak in Thai I’m a little bit shy.”

ManU, a junior and Chiang Mai native, elaborated further. “English really, really changed my identity,” he said. Speaking English, he explained, is often more straightforward and direct when compared to speaking Thai. ManU also related his self-expression in English to the differences between the two languages’ pronoun systems. “In Thai society, we have hierarchy – like young and old. We have specific words to use with specific groups. But in English, it’s all equal. Like when I speak to my father or my professor I can just use ‘you ‘and ‘I’. But in Thai you have different words, and it shapes your thinking to be under that system. But in English it makes you free to talk to people; you don’t have to worry about age or gender.”

Bonnie, a senior who intends to work in the US after graduation, had a slightly different perspective. “In the past, I used to have different personalities when I spoke Thai versus English,” she remembered. Through her friendships with exchange students in high school, Bonnie developed her English fluency early. But when she was placed with an American roommate her freshman year, she experienced a much closer proximity to English. It became too difficult to keep switching personalities with language. She came to the realisation that “If I am me, I just want to have one personality.” As she described her relationship with the two languages, she laughed and said, “I’m just trying to get it all together.”

To linguist Yuphaphann Hoonchamlong, the idea that Thai English speakers would find themselves more confident in English or that learning English would influence their personalities, despite it not being their native language, is no surprise. “When you learn a new language, you learn a new culture, and then your worldview shifts,” she said. A Thai language professor at the University of Hawaii, she’s currently interested in studying the communications aspect of language, or how people interact through language. “If you speak a language, at that instant you may subconsciously conform to the expected behaviours of that culture,” she explained. This means that for many Thais, the social expectations change when they switch to English; they are no longer expected to conceal a level of their personalities. While confidence might normally be associated with native fluency or assumed to be a static personality trait, for Thai speakers of English, it’s often actually more related to their understanding of English cultural norms.

But Professor Yuphaphann also cautioned that language is only one part of culture. “Change comes from contact with culture,” she clarified. That contact can come through language, like it has with everyone in this story, but it can also come through people and location, which aligns with Bonnie’s observation that learning English in itself didn’t change her personality, but the people she interacted with did. Professor Yuphaphann added that it’s worth noting that the people I’ve been talking to are city people and cities are inherently places where Thais can come in contact with more foreign cultures than someone living in rural Thailand.

150% People

Professor Yuphaphann told me that her favourite quote about language learning comes from Malcolm McFee, a missionary who coined the term ‘150% Man.’ She explained it to me like this: “When you learn a new language and you learn a new culture, if you are good in that language and then can operate in that language comfortably, then you become a 150% person.” It’s this idea that when you become bilingual, you are no longer simply 100% Thai, or American, or otherwise. When you go back to your native language and culture, she says “you include part of the culture of this additional culture that you know too.” Professor Yuphaphann has experienced this herself, telling me, “After studying in the US for years, when I went back to Thailand I kind of felt like I was a weird Thai…I am no longer 100%.” She laughed. “Maybe 80% Thai and maybe 70% American.”

Shachee Mehta, a native speaker of English, Gujarati, Thai, and Hindi who lives in Chiang Mai, can attest to this. When she first moved to Thailand, Shachee struggled to learn Thai at her international school. Learning Thai wasn’t just learning vocabulary and grammar, but the culture, too. Shachee described “unspoken rules” in Thai culture that were totally foreign to her and made navigating the new language even more difficult. For a seven year old in a new country, culture, and school, Shachee described the adjustment as “overwhelming … I wasn’t in my own skin anymore, I was like a whole other person.”

And yet now, as an adult, Shachee says she’s the most approachable when she speaks Thai. Despite the rough start, speaking Thai was the one way to make friends at her international school, and so her Thai language tone reflects that – “Thai for me is more about funniness, humour, making fun,” she said, explaining that her tone is usually “very high pitched, cute sounding almost.” Her different personalities in different languages no longer distress her; the language that started out as uncomfortable and foreign is now an irreplaceable part of her. “Now I’ve embraced it as part of my personality,” she said.

Perhaps Shachee’s story can give some hope to any multilinguals out there struggling with multiple identities. As a Mandarin-English speaker, I don’t necessarily think that the percentages need to – or even can be – split for us 150% people, whether 75/75, 80/70, or otherwise. I’d also caution Thais enthusiastic about English and Western culture that there is no good in abandoning your native language and culture for a new one, because as an Asian American who once did that myself I know all too well how much heritage rejection hurts, and I think Jaem would agree. But what the ‘150% people’ term offers is a sense that these other languages become a part of us: rather than a divided self, they are a part of one expanded identity. As Bonnie said, “I’m just trying to get it all together.”