“Learn a new language and get a new soul” is a famous Czech proverb, suggesting that when speaking a different language, a person experiences a change in their personality—they become a different person altogether! Being bi- or multilingual has a number of benefits, but can it be stretched so far as to say that it makes you a new person?
For a long time, this assumption has raised eyebrows and its authenticity has been questioned. A number of experiments and surveys have been carried out by psychologists and psycholinguists to determine the extent of the effect of being multilingual on one’s personality.
While there is still an ongoing debate over this topic, the boat seems to be tipping towards the answer “No”. However, the answer is not black and white, but rather shades of grey. That means that while being multilingual does have some effect on a person’s conduct and behavior, and their own opinion of “self”, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it causes split or multiple personalities.
There was a study conducted over 40 years ago by the late Professor Susan Ervin-Tripp that touched on this subject. In the study, she worked with Japanese-American women who spoke both languages. They were given an incomplete sentence that they had to complete. The same half sentence was given in both the languages. She found that the same person completed the sentence differently in the 2 languages.
Professor David Luna and his colleagues carried out a similar experiment working with Hispanic-American women. The women were asked to interpret an advertisement featuring women. They were asked to do it first in one language, and after a gap of 6 months, in the other language. The researchers discovered that the Spanish interpretation of the advertisement spoke of more independent women, while the English interpretation portrayed women to be more dependent on their families, and notably more traditional.
These experiments show that a change in language didn’t just result in differences of “how” the people expressed their opinions, but rather changed “what” those opinions were.
Multilingual does not mean multi-personality
According to Dr. Francois Grosjean, the above change is a result of culture, rather than language itself in any direct sense.
An experiment was carried out in 2006 involved a group of American and Mexican speakers who were evaluated on certain characteristics. This was done by conducting interviews in both languages. Most of the test subjects showed a difference in these characteristics when answering in different languages. However, these differences were consistent with the cultures in general. For instance, most subjects seemed more extroverted when speaking in English than when speaking in Spanish. This also tends to reflect the behavior between monolingual Americans and Mexicans.
Different languages are usually a representation of different cultures. Each culture is unique, boasting its own traditions and beliefs. When a person shifts from one language to another, they shift between those different cultures. While a different culture may not entirely change a person’s demeanor, mannerisms and thinking, it will cause some changes. Another factor that must be considered here is that most multilingual individuals revert to specific languages in certain situations. Humans adapt themselves to different situations and act accordingly. Therefore, the change may be due to the shift in situation, rather than the language. For instance, when talking to a person in authority, regardless of language, your manner of talking will be formal and polite. On the other hand, when talking to a friend, your manner of talking will be different, as will your views.
Multilingual means multi-personality
While the theory discussed above supports the belief that being multilingual does not affect your personality, there are other arguments made by some researchers that state precisely the opposite. An experiment was carried out in which people who spoke Persian and English were asked to fill out forms—evaluations of themselves based on various characteristics like selfishness, humility, etc. All the participants were from a somewhat similar age group, came from similar social and economic backgrounds, and had spent the first part of their lives in Iran. The experiment was carried out in both languages, i.e., the participants had to fill out the forms in both languages. They were divided into 2 random groups, and one group was given the English questionnaire first, while the other was given the Persian form first, and the two tests were separated by 3 weeks. The study group consisted of both men and women, and all of them showed a remarkable and very prominent differences in self-evaluation depending on the language in which they answered. When answering in English, all the participants seemed to have a more realistic view of themselves, as compared to when they answered in Persian.
This experiment showed that the difference in a person is much deeper than a basic cultural or situational difference.
Being a topic that remains under debate, it’s hard to currently take a stand on this matter. Both views show that changes in language do affect our mannerisms, thoughts and behavior, although whether or not that change is enough to be called a different personality is debatable. However, what all researchers agree upon is that learning a new language is always a good idea. It helps to keep the mind active and more flexible, and increases the connectivity among people of the world!
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