Author Topic: Do different languages confer different personalities?  (Read 7456 times)

Offline Ascien

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Do different languages confer different personalities?
« on: November 17, 2013, 02:02:38 PM »
This is from The Economist blog section called "Johnson" after the English writer & creator of "Dictionary of the English Language" Samuel Johnson. It's talking about multilingualism (bilingualism specifically) & people with this ability exhibiting different personalities or worldviews in their other language(s). Also up for consideration are the differences in verb use at the start of sentences or the end, & bi-culturals & bi-linguals.

_http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2013/11/multilingualism

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     Johnson took a look at some of the advantages of bilingualism. These include better performance at tasks involving "executive function" (which involve the brain's ability to plan and prioritise), better defence against dementia in old age and—the obvious—the ability to speak a second language. One purported advantage was not mentioned, though. Many multilinguals report different personalities, or even different worldviews, when they speak their different languages.

It’s an exciting notion, the idea that one’s very self could be broadened by the mastery of two or more languages. In obvious ways (exposure to new friends, literature and so forth) the self really is broadened. Yet it is different to claim—as many people do—to have a different personality when using a different language. A former Economist colleague, for example, reported being ruder in Hebrew than in English. So what is going on here?

Benjamin Lee Whorf, an American linguist who died in 1941, held that each language encodes a worldview that significantly influences its speakers. Often called “Whorfianism”, this idea has its sceptics, including The Economist, which hosted a debate on the subject in 2010. But there are still good reasons to believe language shapes thought.

This influence is not necessarily linked to the vocabulary or grammar of a second language. Significantly, most people are not symmetrically bilingual. Many have learned one language at home from parents, and another later in life, usually at school. So bilinguals usually have different strengths and weaknesses in their different languages—and they are not always best in their first language. For example, when tested in a foreign language, people are less likely to fall into a cognitive trap (answering a test question with an obvious-seeming but wrong answer) than when tested in their native language. In part this is because working in a second language slows down the thinking. No wonder people feel different when speaking them. And no wonder they feel looser, more spontaneous, perhaps more assertive or funnier or blunter, in the language they were reared in from childhood.

What of “crib” bilinguals, raised in two languages? Even they do not usually have perfectly symmetrical competence in their two languages. But even for a speaker whose two languages are very nearly the same in ability, there is another big reason that person will feel different in the two languages. This is because there is an important distinction between bilingualism and biculturalism.

Many bilinguals are not bicultural. But some are. And of those bicultural bilinguals, we should be little surprised that they feel different in their two languages. Experiments in psychology have shown the power of “priming”—small unnoticed factors that can affect behaviour in big ways. Asking people to tell a happy story, for example, will put them in a better mood. The choice between two languages is a huge prime. Speaking Spanish rather than English, for a bilingual and bicultural Puerto Rican in New York, might conjure feelings of family and home. Switching to English might prime the same person to think of school and work.

So there are two very good reasons (asymmetrical ability, and priming) that make people feel different speaking their different languages. We are still left with a third kind of argument, though. An economist recently interviewed here at Prospero, Athanasia Chalari, said for example that:

"Greeks are very loud and they interrupt each other very often. The reason for that is the Greek grammar and syntax. When Greeks talk they begin their sentences with verbs and the form of the verb includes a lot of information so you already know what they are talking about after the first word and can interrupt more easily."

Is there something intrinsic to the Greek language that encourages Greeks to interrupt? Consider Johnson sceptical. People seem to enjoy telling tales about their languages' inherent properties, and how they influence their speakers. A group of French intellectual worthies once proposed, rather self-flatteringly, that French be the sole legal language of the EU, because of its supposedly unmatchable rigour and precision. Some Germans believe that frequently putting the verb at the end of a sentence makes the language especially logical. But language myths are not always self-flattering: many speakers think their languages are unusually illogical or difficult—witness the plethora of books along the lines of "Only in English do you park on a driveway and drive on a parkway; English must be the craziest language in the world!" What such pop-Whorfian stories share is a (natural) tendency to exoticise languages. We also see some unsurprising overlap with national stereotypes and self-stereotypes: French, rigorous; German, logical; English, playful. Of course.

In this case, Ms Chalari, a scholar, at least proposed a specific and plausible line of causation from grammar to personality: in Greek, the verb comes first, and it carries a lot of information, hence easy interrupting. The problem is that many unrelated  languages all around the world put the verb at the beginning of sentences. Many languages all around the world are heavily inflected, encoding lots of information in verbs. It would be a striking finding if all of these unrelated languages had speakers more prone to interrupting each other. Welsh, for example, is also both verb-first and about as heavily inflected as Greek, but the Welsh are not known as pushy conversationalists.

Neo-Whorfians continue to offer evidence and analysis that aims to prove that different languages push speakers to think differently. One such effort is forthcoming: “The Bilingual Mind” by Aneta Pavlenko, to be published in April. Ms Pavlenko speaks to François Grosjean here. Meanwhile, John McWhorter takes the opposite stance in "The Language Hoax", forthcoming in February. We'll return to this debate. But strong Whorfian arguments do not need to be valid for people to feel differently in their different languages.     

There's also been a "loss-aversion" test using Daniel Kahneman's model for language study where the original language was measured against a foreign one where system 1 & 2 were in action. S2 being deliberate & slow & primed in advance of the "foreign-language test" of bilinguals. I can't really say whether this change in personality or worldview is true as I grew up speaking only one language - English. That said, I know words, phrases & can even (if pushed) come up with a few sentences of dialogue in a few languages, but I don't detect any differences. I'm assuming that not knowing the language fully is why (& practice) but, since this is an international multilingual research forum, I wonder if any of you have come across this "different personalities/worldview" before The Work or since?
"Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal & undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervour about convincing & converting other people to his view." (Festinger, 1964)

Offline Mrs. Tigersoap

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Re: Do different languages confer different personalities?
« Reply #1 on: November 17, 2013, 03:30:06 PM »
Very interesting article, H-kqge!

While I personally would not say 'different worldviews', I have noticed a somewhat different attitude/personality when I speak English, for example (my mother tongue is French).

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In part this is because working in a second language slows down the thinking. No wonder people feel different when speaking them. And no wonder they feel looser, more spontaneous, perhaps more assertive or funnier or blunter, in the language they were reared in from childhood.

Yes and no. It depends on your level of knowledge of the foreign language and whether you are bicultural or not, I would say. I tend to be blunter and more assertive in English because my knowledge of vocabulary and of levels of formality are more limited than in French BUT my knowledge is not SO basic that I cannot make puns, etc. I would say I'm bicultural. But this could be something specific, as over the years, English has become my go-to language for almost everything: I read 99% of the time in English, I watch almost solely English-speaking movies, when I have to jut down notes and make lists, I make them in English.  Like many people speaking several languages, I tend to jump from one language to the another mid-sentence, because it's quicker that way (or because some stuff just don't translate). I use English whenever I can because IT IS a more straightforward language and I like that. I'm a straightforward kind of gal.  :P And my sense of humour is closer to that language than to French.

But in Dutch, for example, I cannot be anything at all (it's like I have no personality) because my knowledge is limited to every day things and professional vocabulary. I rarely read or watch movies in this language. I am not bicultural in that language. I just communicate and that's it. Maybe it takes all my energy to wait until the end of the sentence (where the verb is generally placed) to know what my interlocutor is saying.  :D

What could 'alter' the personality as well is the fact that when you hear or read a foreign language, you tend to remember ready-made expressions and you use them afterward AS IS rather than start from scratch, so to speak. You fall back on these sentences because it is saves energy. Your expressions and way of speaking are therefore primed by what you read and watch. When I speak English, I could use things such as 'too school for school', 'don't do the crime if you can't do the time', etc. the equivalent of which I would simply not use in French because there are no such things. So in that respect, I may have a different personality i.e. say things I would never say in French.

As for being ruder in some languages: as a foreign speaker, I think you never fully understand the impact of some words and insults. Because I deal with so many nationalities on a daily basis, I have picked up quite a few rude things to say in many languages that I don't even speak (Spanish, Italian, etc.). I find them funny because I think it reflects a lot about the culture behind the language (interesting how some cultures emphasize the rude references to animals, others to God, others to the mother of the interlocutor) but also because whenever I tease a coworker by saying these rude expressions, they have this look on their face (a mix of hilarity and horror) and they say they half-regret teaching me those things. But these expressions mean nothing to me, I don't 'feel' their rudeness, it's just words. It's not like in French. I'm shocked by rude things in French!

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What of “crib” bilinguals, raised in two languages? Even they do not usually have perfectly symmetrical competence in their two languages. But even for a speaker whose two languages are very nearly the same in ability, there is another big reason that person will feel different in the two languages. This is because there is an important distinction between bilingualism and biculturalism.

It's a detail in the article, but I don't really agree with what the author says about 'perfectly symmetrical competence in their two languages'. I have met hundreds of crib bilinguals (because of my studies and of my job) and I have yet to meet one who has a perfect knowledge of both languages orally AND in writing. Usually, their spelling is terrible in one of the languages (usually the one they spoke at home and which was not the language used at school). Actually, during my Translation studies, on the very first day, the Linguistics teacher asked who had two mother tongues. All those who raised their hands were invited to special remedial classes in their 'weak' mother tongue. It was routine for crib bilinguals to fail because one of their mother tongues was simply not up to scratch in writing.

Online Kisito

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Re: Do different languages confer different personalities?
« Reply #2 on: November 17, 2013, 06:54:31 PM »
The article is really interesting and your analyses also. I speak unfortunately only French, but I am fascinated by the linguistics. My son is 13 years old he speaks German and French usually. When he speaks German he seems to have a very direct, almost aggressive attitude and when he speaks French, he seems to be much more quiet. I do not know if it is due to the education, to the language or when I see how other languages ​​as French.
As I have already expressed it here, if the English language is considered as the most evolved, it is by bounced the most distant from the original language, which in my opinion must be most  perfect, because it didn't need all this subtlety of words and verbs. And it always seemed to me that this original  language that we spoke before Babel was made by telepathy. Recently I dreamed that I was in an Arab Country in the XIIIth century. An imam railed women in Arabic, other persons and myself spoke Arabic. And I became aware in the dream that I understood the language and that I spoke it, while in my life I do not speak arabic. It is willing to say that the languages are only exploitations of a telepathic language or at least which is beyond semantics.
It's my own view, but it always seemed to me, that more our language evolves more we intellectualize more we go away from the original source !
All our knowledge come of sensations; and the sensation varies according to the individual, therefore the man is the measure of any things, it's by him that they are or are not.  Protagoras

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Re: Do different languages confer different personalities?
« Reply #3 on: November 17, 2013, 07:37:45 PM »
It's a detail in the article, but I don't really agree with what the author says about 'perfectly symmetrical competence in their two languages'. I have met hundreds of crib bilinguals (because of my studies and of my job) and I have yet to meet one who has a perfect knowledge of both languages orally AND in writing. Usually, their spelling is terrible in one of the languages (usually the one they spoke at home and which was not the language used at school).

I absolutely agree.  I think that the perfectly symmetrical competence in two or more languages is exceedingly rare, or non-existent.  Observing many families including my own, the only way to be perfectly bilingual beyond the age of 5 or 6, one has to double up the school program in both languages.  That is true even if the family practices full bicultural immersion.   

Offline Tomiro

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Re: Do different languages confer different personalities?
« Reply #4 on: November 17, 2013, 08:01:29 PM »
There's also been a "loss-aversion" test using Daniel Kahneman's model for language study where the original language was measured against a foreign one where system 1 & 2 were in action. S2 being deliberate & slow & primed in advance of the "foreign-language test" of bilinguals. I can't really say whether this change in personality or worldview is true as I grew up speaking only one language - English. That said, I know words, phrases & can even (if pushed) come up with a few sentences of dialogue in a few languages, but I don't detect any differences. I'm assuming that not knowing the language fully is why (& practice) but, since this is an international multilingual research forum, I wonder if any of you have come across this "different personalities/worldview" before The Work or since?

I haven't really observed this in myself (or in most people), but I could think of a few people that act and sound very different when speaking in another language that they are at least moderately skilled in. Kind of like how people tend to express themselves differently when talking to say their boss, their wife, an old friend, and so on. Only that in this case they could be talking to the same person, but a similar outward change seems to take place when they change language.
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Offline Saieden

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Re: Do different languages confer different personalities?
« Reply #5 on: November 17, 2013, 08:20:29 PM »
It's a detail in the article, but I don't really agree with what the author says about 'perfectly symmetrical competence in their two languages'. I have met hundreds of crib bilinguals (because of my studies and of my job) and I have yet to meet one who has a perfect knowledge of both languages orally AND in writing. Usually, their spelling is terrible in one of the languages (usually the one they spoke at home and which was not the language used at school).

I absolutely agree.  I think that the perfectly symmetrical competence in two or more languages is exceedingly rare, or non-existent.  Observing many families including my own, the only way to be perfectly bilingual beyond the age of 5 or 6, one has to double up the school program in both languages.  That is true even if the family practices full bicultural immersion.


I remember in the last years of school, saying to a bilingual peer of mine that that Afrikaans (his home language, though perfectly fluent in English), taken as a second language, must be really easy for him, because I myself could get away with minimal effort while at the same time having very poor vocabulary, simply because most of the grammar questions boiled down to an almost algebraic solution. It struck me that it was actually pretty hard for him, because no one actually speaks like that. so what would feel completely natural to him could be totally wrong (in the test/exam) and had to have extra vigilance for that. Since then, I've noticed that the difference between written English and spoken English is much narrower than the difference is in Afrikaans, and I wonder now how it's like with other languages.


Regarding the above about doubling up the school program, I think the more general requirement for bilingual symmetry would be to use both languages equally in all types of contexts, which, of course, is practically impossible. Even unilingual people are not "symmetric" in their spoken and written language, having different flavors of expression depending on the situation and audience.
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Offline Ascien

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Re: Do different languages confer different personalities?
« Reply #6 on: November 19, 2013, 05:16:03 PM »
Quote from: Mrs. Tigersoap on November 17, 2013, 02:30:06 PM 
While I personally would not say 'different worldviews', I have noticed a somewhat different attitude/personality when I speak English, for example (my mother tongue is French).

 
Quote
In part this is because working in a second language slows down the thinking. No wonder people feel different when speaking them. And no wonder they feel looser, more spontaneous, perhaps more assertive or funnier or blunter, in the language they were reared in from childhood.

Yes and no. It depends on your level of knowledge of the foreign language and whether you are bicultural or not, I would say. I tend to be blunter and more assertive in English because my knowledge of vocabulary and of levels of formality are more limited than in French BUT my knowledge is not SO basic that I cannot make puns, etc. I would say I'm bicultural. But this could be something specific, as over the years, English has become my go-to language for almost everything: I read 99% of the time in English, I watch almost solely English-speaking movies, when I have to jut down notes and make lists, I make them in English.  Like many people speaking several languages, I tend to jump from one language to the another mid-sentence, because it's quicker that way (or because some stuff just don't translate).

Hello Mrs Tigersoap. That was my first thought, that a certain attitude could emerge rather than a personality switch, & it would be determined by the level of knowledge & understanding of the foreign language as you said. From my limited understanding of the few languages that I picked up, I could only feel a difference when I used them. French I never could get the hang of, (if I remember rightly, a word in English usually has several in French or vice versa) German always sounds harsh & when some German speaking people are angry or annoyed, it/they just comes across as aggressive. I had lessons in these 2 in the early nineties & haven't used since, but I preferred German & would consciously try to sound softer! Since i'm the only one I know that likes foreign language movies (I've always enjoyed subtitles) I started to pick up bits from others like Italian, although I never really had a chance to learn it; but the rate I picked up some words made me think I would have done well as it seems a fun language.

Spanish was the last that I was learning about five years ago & easily the one I understand more than others. But I was very formal in the limited way I used it, it couldn't be helped. Swearing is always easy to pick up (some languages more than others) & I mainly took them from sports & movies. I did find myself jumping in mid-sentence to English & back to Spanish regularly, that was the way I improved.

Quote from: Mrs. Tigersoap
 
What could 'alter' the personality as well is the fact that when you hear or read a foreign language, you tend to remember ready-made expressions and you use them afterward AS IS rather than start from scratch, so to speak. You fall back on these sentences because it is saves energy. Your expressions and way of speaking are therefore primed by what you read and watch. When I speak English, I could use things such as 'too school for school', 'don't do the crime if you can't do the time', etc. the equivalent of which I would simply not use in French because there are no such things. So in that respect, I may have a different personality i.e. say things I would never say in French.

I agree.

Quote from: Mrs. Tigersoap
  As for being ruder in some languages: as a foreign speaker, I think you never fully understand the impact of some words and insults. Because I deal with so many nationalities on a daily basis, I have picked up quite a few rude things to say in many languages that I don't even speak (Spanish, Italian, etc.). I find them funny because I think it reflects a lot about the culture behind the language (interesting how some cultures emphasize the rude references to animals, others to God, others to the mother of the interlocutor) but also because whenever I tease a coworker by saying these rude expressions, they have this look on their face (a mix of hilarity and horror) and they say they half-regret teaching me those things. But these expressions mean nothing to me, I don't 'feel' their rudeness, it's just words. It's not like in French. I'm shocked by rude things in French!

Ha! I've had similar experiences. Most of my co-workers have been Spanish or Portuguese speakers (most are from Portugal but there's a fair amount of south Americans too) & some laugh (the men) at my useage (& are pleasantly surprised that I can converse) & give more profane expressions, & the women look shocked (momentarily) then tell me that I can't say that & why. The explanation is always funny to me & give them the English version which in turn, means nothing to them. It seems some foreign language speakers are always ready to teach rude words to those still learning theirs.


My son is 13 years old he speaks German and French usually. When he speaks German he seems to have a very direct, almost aggressive attitude and when he speaks French, he seems to be much more quiet. I do not know if it is due to the education, to the language or when I see how other languages ​​as French.


Phew! I thought it was just me!

It's a detail in the article, but I don't really agree with what the author says about 'perfectly symmetrical competence in their two languages'. I have met hundreds of crib bilinguals (because of my studies and of my job) and I have yet to meet one who has a perfect knowledge of both languages orally AND in writing. Usually, their spelling is terrible in one of the languages (usually the one they spoke at home and which was not the language used at school).

I absolutely agree.  I think that the perfectly symmetrical competence in two or more languages is exceedingly rare, or non-existent.  Observing many families including my own, the only way to be perfectly bilingual beyond the age of 5 or 6, one has to double up the school program in both languages.  That is true even if the family practices full bicultural immersion.   

Perhaps the very best interpreters?

There's also been a "loss-aversion" test using Daniel Kahneman's model for language study where the original language was measured against a foreign one where system 1 & 2 were in action. S2 being deliberate & slow & primed in advance of the "foreign-language test" of bilinguals. I can't really say whether this change in personality or worldview is true as I grew up speaking only one language - English. That said, I know words, phrases & can even (if pushed) come up with a few sentences of dialogue in a few languages, but I don't detect any differences. I'm assuming that not knowing the language fully is why (& practice) but, since this is an international multilingual research forum, I wonder if any of you have come across this "different personalities/worldview" before The Work or since?

I haven't really observed this in myself (or in most people), but I could think of a few people that act and sound very different when speaking in another language that they are at least moderately skilled in. Kind of like how people tend to express themselves differently when talking to say their boss, their wife, an old friend, and so on. Only that in this case they could be talking to the same person, but a similar outward change seems to take place when they change language.

Yeah, some of my Portuguese colleagues are pretty jovial in English but seem slightly aggressive in their native tongue. With west Africans (mainly men) they sound super aggressive & I don't really need to understand all that they're saying, they tend to gesticulate like it was going out of fashion. In English, everything's.. less so.
"Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal & undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervour about convincing & converting other people to his view." (Festinger, 1964)

Offline CdeSouza

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Re: Do different languages confer different personalities?
« Reply #7 on: June 19, 2017, 04:28:34 PM »
Ever since learning German in University I've wondered if different languages (particularly grammar) lead to different views about authority.

To a degree, Germans (maybe an unfair stereotype, but in light of WWII) always seemed to be more obedient. Both Germans and the French also seemed to suffer more under serfdom whereas the English seemed to have more of a history of rebellion. Even travelling through those three countries and knowing people from those countries, Brits in general did strike me as more anarchic in temperament (broadly speaking of course and there are always individuals who run counter to stereotypes). In German the rules are very strict and regimented compared to English, with French (a language I've learned since childhood) falling somewhere in between. In English there seem to be as many exceptions as there are rules, in French it is much stricter and German is much more rigid still. Just an idea I've toyed with over the years.

Neitzsche wrote a fair amount about language (especially grammar) and how it binds a persons thinking in Beyond Good and Evil, a book I've been meaning to re-read for a while now.

Offline Martina

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Re: Do different languages confer different personalities?
« Reply #8 on: July 20, 2017, 04:10:18 PM »
Yes. I think different in different languages, but I also think is because of the amount of vocabulary (shortage:). What really falls me hard is writing. When I write on English, I have to think in English which is much restricted then in my native language, and I sound like little child. I think too long so I forget the important things . Thank you for having spell check.

Offline Saffron Flower

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Re: Do different languages confer different personalities?
« Reply #9 on: August 03, 2017, 10:56:50 PM »
Lots to think about with this question....i was thinking about countries which have alot of regional language differences like France and the UK. Some still have dialect and i've noticed in some of these places  there's alot of irrevential humour which wouldn't work in a standardised language format. The Scots and the Irish are great for this. There's lots of chatter, cheekiness, interrupting, story telling with verbal musicality and intonation. It's very descriptive, colourful and loud! Alot of this, i guess, is about community sharing and bonding?