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Does Learning a New Language Give You a New Personality?

by Cody Delistraty Dec 16, 2013

“Learn a new language and get a new soul.” — Czech proverb

WHEN JACQUES was 12 years old, his mother began speaking to him only in French, his father addressed him only in Greek, and he was sent to an English-speaking day school in Paris. Of course, Jacques — whose name is changed — was the same person whether he was discussing physics with his mother in Greek, economics with his father in French, or chatting about James Bond and the latest Die Hard with his friends at the American School of Paris. And yet, his personality seemed to ebb and flow.

“I felt probably ruder and more aggressive in Greek, clear and concise in French, and creative and longwinded in English,” he said. “You don’t really feel the difference while you’re doing it, but you do after.”

Although the debate rages on whether or not we gain new personalities as we acquire new languages, for those who are bilingual or multilingual, it often feels that speaking a different language turns you into a different person.

For those with asymmetrical linguistic abilities, one language might be particularly tiresome. Speaking it will force you to think longer and harder, and you may feel like you played a five-set tennis match after a conversation. Yet, it will also help you avoid “cognitive traps,” or linguistic shortcuts that can cause errors like giving obvious-sounding answers that, if one were to take a second longer to think about them, could correctly be determined to be wrong. Yet for the truly bilingual and multilingual, shifting between languages can almost immediately alter one’s personality.

Benjamin Whorf, a young man from Massachusetts, enrolled in Yale’s linguistics department under the advisory of Edward Sapir. A year later, in 1931, he informally hypothesized what’s now called “Whorfianism” or the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis,” claiming that language not only shapes one’s thoughts but also one’s experience of the physical world. Having compared English with Shawnee, a central Algonquian language spoken by only about 200 people, Whorf concluded that the language we speak fundamentally determines our understanding of the world.

It’s perhaps a little too Orwellian, too 1984, to think that changing languages might rewire our minds.

For instance, in order to say, “I clean a gun with a ramrod” in Shawnee, one must refer to the dry space of the ramrod (“Pekw”), the interior of the gun (“Alak”), and the motion one makes when cleaning (“H”), all of which makes up one word to explain the entire action: “Nipekwalakha.” Speaking Shawnee thus requires a native English speaker to think about the world in a fundamentally different way.

Yet these fundamental changes in how languages are constructed go well beyond endangered dialects.

In Greek sentences the verb comes first, and (as in Spanish) its conjugation usually reveals the tone and meaning of the rest of the sentence, supposedly allowing for more aggressive speech. Athanasia Chalari told The Economist, “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.”

In French, the subject and predicate need to be relatively close to one another in the sentence, otherwise it can quickly become confusing; therefore concision is key, and, with an unusually large vocabulary, French allows one to find extremely precise words with specific connotations. And in English words tend to be more malleable (“I Tweeted you” versus “I sent a Tweet,” for instance), easier to rhyme (useful for music or poetry), and the subject-predicate pairing can be spaced far apart without sacrificing coherency. Besides just bigger audiences, there’s a reason Phoenix and Daft Punk sing in English.

Yet, it’s difficult to differentiate between construction and culture. Is it the language itself that gives us new personalities or is it simply falling into the habits of the culture associated with that language? Are Scandinavians generally quieter because their language has fewer harsh sounds, or is it because most Scandinavians are generally weary of speaking with strangers unless they absolutely must?

Same goes with Hispanics. A study by David Luna and his colleagues at Baruch College revealed that bilingual Hispanic-American women who watched the same commercial about a woman doing housecleaning tasks described her as “self-sufficient” and “strong” when they watched it in Spanish; but, when they watched it in English, they noted that the woman seemed “traditional” and “dependent.” Does this mean that Spanish is a “stronger” and more “self-sufficient” language that affects how the speaker perceives her world, or were these Hispanic women just culturally predisposed to feel more aggressive about women doing chores?

Or what about a total shift in linguistic categorization? As described in Psychology Today, a Russian speaker learning English would associate “glass” and “cup” with their translations, “stakan” and “chashka.” Yet, in English we call all sorts of things “cups”: coffee to-go cups, Styrofoam cups, plastic cups, paper cups…whereas in Russian the emphasis is on the shape, not the material, so all of these “cups” would merely be “little glasses,” or “stakanchiki.” Therefore, in order for the Russian speaker to correctly learn English (or vice versa), he must pay attention to not just direct translations but categorizations (shape vs. material, in this instance).

Thus it is necessary to not only restructure how we think about culture, but also how we think about objects, words, and the very world around us. It’s perhaps a little too Orwellian, too 1984, to think that changing languages might rewire our minds (e.g., could the oppressed understand or even desire “democracy” if the word ceased to exist?), yet a comparative analysis between languages and a variety of studies finds that this is the case.

Then there are those like Harvard’s Steven Pinker, who argues against Whorfianism, essentially claiming that thoughts lead to language, and as long as one can think about something then one can formulate a way to say it. Yet, this is dubious at best. As Jacques cheekily said, “Discussing economics in French is a whole different story than talking about economics in Greek.” This post was originally published at Thought Catalog and is reprinted here with permission.

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