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Nice article, but I find it hard to agree with the conclusion. Naturally it's 'the environment, the culture' that change the personality. It seems also natural, though, for this change to be strongly connected with the language associated to that environment or culture. In this way, the language being used could affect the personality directly, even if the cause of that is indirect. This is what both of the given references seem to indicate: in the experiments they report, the context is kept as constant as possible, with only the language being different. For example, the incorporated American individualism in those otherwise family-centered Japanese immigrants revealed itself when they were writing in English, with no change in place, situation, or whom they're 'talking' to. Personally, I've already experienced myself and witnessed in others, changes in personalities seemingly caused by a language change alone: even when talking with the same person, in the same place, in the same context - just in a different language.
If I would speculate, I'd say this effect might be more present in bilinguals who didn't learn their second language as kids (that's at least the cases I've seen). Maybe because, as you have more of a shaped personality by the time you learn the language, you can develop a new personality associated with the new language, without it blending much with the original one.:-) Just speculation.
Also it's to be expected, of course, that when speaking in a language of which one doesn't have as good a command, the confidence and ease will decrease - as seems to be the case of the 'bilingual 1' quote. So, summing up, it seems very natural that one can be conditioned to change attitudes when changing languages if the two are often enough associated with each other. Like a business-like attitude in English, if the language is only used at work, or like it seems to be for the bilinguals 2 and 3 quoted in the beginning of the article. To make it clear: I do notice it's said 'no.direct. causal relationship', but my point here is that this initially indirect causal relationship can develop into a direct one, in the same fashion the dog begins to salivate in direct response to the bell sound in Pavlov's experiment. I too think it is unfair to discard these experiments by simply referring to 'different contexts', when obviously some work had been put into making those contexts very similar. It would be too subjective to comment on my own behaviour in my three languages, two of whom I learnt as a child, and one as a young adult, but certainly as a student in interpreting school I had teachers who showed different sides of their personality depending on the language they were speaking.
One in particular, whose languages had been learnt in childhood, was quite strict and a bit intimidating when speaking one, and more friendly in the other. And yes, this is due to context: in one of the two cultures in question, a teacher is a strict and intimidating person, and less so in the other.
The way she taught was obviously influenced by these cultural elements, which were - all - part of her personality. Whatever the direct or indirect influence of this context, if you were in a room with her and she was giving you a hard time, it was a good idea to manipulate the conversation over into the other language! I'm like the last commenter, a trilingual - bilingual from birth in Spanish/English in a bicultural, binational household. I learned portuguese, my third language, after age 18. I used portuguese a lot when I was younger, for school and work.
But in the past few years, I've not practiced or submersed myself in portuguese or brazilian culture much. This was noticeable to a friend when I visited Brazil recently - she said, your portuguese is fine, but you sound American - and she meant that my linguistic attitudes didn't come out Brazilian.
It took me about a week to remember how to 'be' in the third language (not that I did it consciously). Anyway, this article resonated with me a lot. Thanks for posting. I wholeheartedly agree with the conclusions, in spite of their 'subjective' quality.
A more rigorous, scientific study would have to be longitudinal - across a lifespan, actually - as I am realizing now that I am in my mid-40s. My story in a nutshell: Born in Argentina, where I only had two linguistic stimuli for the first two years of my life (plus my time in utero); I am a simultaneous bilingual, Spanish-Italian (or Italian-Spanish, depending on whether we place the mainstream language first and the nuclear 'home' language second or vice versa). I was brought to the United States at the age of 2 and 2 months. Here, I gradually became exposed to my the third of my native languages, English. However, I have noticed time and time again, since childhood, that my knowledge and use of academic discourse in English is far higher than that of most of my monolingual peers but my use of figurative language is usually dubbed 'quaint' or 'foreign' (in speech) or 'avant-garde.' While I always thought of my English as accent-less, most native speakers from either side of the pond instantly categorize me as a second language speaker. On the other hand, my use of Italian - my parents' language - is at the same level as that of my peers, even including use of humor or irony).
Yet, until I was 16 years old, I had never set foot in Italy and had only communicated with parents, grandparents, 1 aunt and 2 uncles in Italian. Of course, my parents always made sure I had original age-appropriate literature in Italian and Spanish as well as English. My parents were formidable! Even as I engaged in school in English, they made sure I equally continued to develop our other two languages at the same pace, across all domains, and in culturally appropriate ways.
As for changing my personality: people around me noticed the differences, in all three. I also change the pitch of my voice; it is mellower, lower in Italian and Spanish than in English (more my true sound), but this also speaks to the phonology - English has more nasals.
When I finally went to Italy for the first time, at age 16, I also noticed something else: my body was not rigid. For the first time ever, I felt what it was to have relaxed shoulders.
This continues to this day. I automatically relax my muscles, unconsciously, whenever I'm in Italy.
Until then, I had never noticed how navigating another culture, in spite of having been raised in it, affects even those parts of the body not engaged in speech/language processing. I have two brothers, both born in the US, and they have always been identified by others as 'American.'
They are also both bilingual, but do not easily code-switch to the same extent as I do. In Italy, people normally assume, based on mere physical observation (stereotyping), before he even speaks, that he is not Italian and that he does not speak the language. It is fascinating how those first two years of my life, unremembered consciously, are actually so very important in setting the child/adult UG switches! This was a very interesting article to me, as I am a bilingual.
I do have to agree that my personality change occurs with environment and cultural changes. I moved to America and learned English when I was eleven so I grew up with two cultures. I always speak Swedish with my family, but with American family friends or at work(my sister and I work at the same place) I speak in English with them. My personality changes no matter where I am or who I am with whenever I change my language. My sister has commented many times that it's very eerie and seems like I'm not even the same person. There are some very interesting articles in your blog, Francois, and I want to congratulate you on your most recent (2010) book. This subject on personality in language use raises many questions, and I agree that we change how we act, our body language, and facial expressions depending on the language we are using, and of course the context (academic, government meetings, family, etc).
Since 2 of my languages are Sign Languages, the Deaf have commented on my signing in American Sign (which I now use rarely but learned before the second sign language), now has a Colombian flavor to it. So even in non-spoken languages, there are differences in the way we express ourselves. I personally would tend to think that it is not a personality 'change', but simply the expression of another part of our personality that is not shown as strongly in our other languages.
You have made a great point that I failed to see before, I still believe that the environment in which you learn a language also affects the way you act when speaking it. As an example, I'm a quiet person (in Spanish) and I find it hard to change that when all my friends know me that way, but when practicing English with other friends (online/writing) I'd joke around a lot. Now everytime I have a chance to speak English I feel my mind works differently, it immediately switch to a more relaxed looking for the joke kind of person. If I compare my messages on boards (forums) one in Spanish and other in English both about the same subject (smartphones) I also see differences.
I'd say the attitude you display when learning a new language which is affected by the environment or source from which you learn sticks with you. It was a nice reading, if you get to read this comment, props to you.
Interesting post, and a topic I think needs further study, but I don't entirely agree with your last conclusion. Some of my collaborators and I have recently been conducting research where we look at unconscious or 'implicit' attitudes and self-concept among bilinguals. We have a number of findings (which I'd be happy to share when we finish writing them up). One of the main points though is that even when we use a measurement tool (Implicit Association Tests) that removes most demand characteristics and self-presentation, we still see significant changes in attitudes and self-concept by language. (For a precursor to out current work, check out Ogunnaike, Dunham & Banaji, 2010) Of course, this is not to say that self-presentation is irrelevant (surely it plays a role), but it's pretty clear in our data that it's not the entire story. I'd love to chat more at some point. Cheers, Steve.
Grosjean, I'm a multilingual Belgian. (Dutch, French, English, Portuguese some German and Spanish). Trying to observe myself as objectively as possible, I still have the impression that I do feel a shift in my personality depending on language. I'm more confident speaking in English than in my mother tongue (Dutch).
I have the impression I can be more precise plus I feel less embarrassed about having an accent. The same in Portuguese. Maybe it's the societal pressure under some circumstances (like job interviews) to strive for speaking the standardized Dutch, which nobody uses in Flanders, thus, it feels awkward to use it.
Portuguese (Brazil) doesn't have this. There is no official standardized correct way of speaking. You're free to speak as you wish.
This might be external factors, but I really do feel that the difference is related to the language itself. English, not being a very logic language, but with its very extensive, subtle and precise vocabulary makes me feel exactly like that. Sometimes I even wondered whether I could be schizophrenic, because I really feel like a different person when speaking English. A bit lack acting, I guess. Whereas Portuguese (Brazilian variant) can also be used in such precise fashion.
Yet, there are other niches of preciseness. For example, it's got a more extensive and subtle vocabulary for amorous matters, whereas for technical issues, it seems lacking.
It makes me feel like a more vibrant and empathic person. Written Dutch stimulates my creativeness because, like German, it makes possible that one invents new combinations of words that can be understood easily by fellow Dutch speakers.
I speak various of these languages in the same situation, for example at home with my wife and/or son and somehow, I feel different using the different languages even in these situations. Sincerely, Frederik PS: If you need more subjects for your studies, I'd gladly participate. Very interesting comments. And I feel the same. French native speaker, I´m almost bilingual in Brazilian Portuguese, and speak fluently English and Spanish. I´m clearly different when speaking one language or other. English being more a professional language, I´m usually more direct, straight forward, objective.
In Portuguese, I would be more informal. In Spanish probably more sensitive and finally in French I would spend more time explaining and explaining. I consider that these behaviors are related with languages characteristics and the environment where I learnt them. I'm a polyglot and I feel no change in personality when I switch languages. If we accept the 'nice effects' of language on behavior (often stereotypes about being more or less serious, romantic, rational, etc) we should also accept that languages can cause other 'less nice' effects like making us more or less racist, homophobic or suicidal. It's curious how people say 'I feel more talkative in Spanish but nobody says 'I feel more suicidal when I speak.' If language shaped personality, the fact that some countries have a high suicide rate would not be based on sociocultural factors, but rather on the language they spoke.
Greenland has the highest suicide rate. Is it because they speak Greenlandic or due to other sociocultural factors? In the Soviet Union homosexuality used to be a crime punishable by prison and hard labor. Was it because they spoke Russian or because of cultural issues related to religion?
And if the Russian language made you 'be homophobic', shouldn't all Russians hate gays? If language affected thought, why would change in thinking be possible? In a list of countries by GDP Qatar ranks #1.
Its official language is Arabic. We could conclude that the Arabic language promotes wealth. But if that is so, how come Yemen (also Arabic speaking) ranks #140?
Slavery was common in the United States some time ago. Was there something about the English language that made their speakers become slave owners? And if that were true, why didn't it apply to everybody? Slaves spoke 'West African creole English'. What was there in that language that made them be so 'obedient'?
Everybody interested in this topic might want to read McWhorter's The Language Hoax. I am Anglo-French, brought up in a British context, living in France. I feel that my French friends do not know the 'real' me. Despite a perfect grasp of both languages, my mind does not fill the same spaces when I speak one or the other language, with English I find more nuances, more playfulness.
The French language, like its grammar, is more convoluted and explicative, where English is more ironic and blunt. I feel myself having to modulate what I say in French, taking care not to shock or upset.
So there is the notion of how my communication will be received and perceived that also forces me to modify my behaviour. Great article! English is my native language but I lived with Poles for many decades and have been to Poland 3 times and have close to native fluency in that language. I have always noticed that I am much nicer in Polish.
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I tend to be impatient and snappy in English, a language that lends itself brilliantly to insults, while I am much more tolerant and easy-going, Type B if you will, in Polish. When I want to calm down my mental state if I'm worked up or upset, I switch to Polish, and it works!
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