Sep 2014

Do you speak another language? Do you have an alternate personality?

These two questions might seem bizarre but research has shown that when you learn a new language it often involves acquiring a second personality!

Let’s first address several compelling advantages of bilingualism: the brain’s improved performance to plan and prioritise, a better defense against dementia in old age and – of course – the ability to communicate in a another language other than one’s native tongue. What many people don’t realise is that another effect of being multilingual is also, reportedly, acquiring a different personality when speaking a different language. Do I sense a strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde?

Of course, most people report the consequences are positive. I’ve noticed this switch in myself: I often communicate in a more confident, assertive manner and have a greater desire to gesticulate when I speak Spanish than when I do English. It suddenly and often dawns on me that I am unconsciously imitating my neighbours. Undeniably, body movements, hand gestures and facial expressions can change with the use of another language. Psychologists have discovered that people take on the characteristics of foreign nationals when they switch into their language Does this herald the idea that language shapes thought, opinions and behaviour?

In general, bilingual people demonstrate certain strengths and weaknesses in the first and second language. And, working in the second, learnt language can slow down the thought process. As a result, they often feel different when speaking this language. Hence, by and large, the natural spontaneity, humour or confidence of speaking in their childhood language is lost. Conversely, this can, however, also be true: an uptight introvert can suddenly become an easy-going extrovert. This can make for a refreshing change: time out from being yourself! In fact, you could almost reinvent yourself when you travel to or move to live in a foreign country and have to learn and speak in the local language>.

Bilingualism does not necessarily denote biculturalism: a Cuban in Miami might conjure up different thoughts and feelings of family, friends and memories of ‘home’ when speaking in Spanish as opposed to when he is speaking in English. We switch between different ways of interpreting events and feelings – a phenomenon known as frame shifting. Certainly, bilingual people that are active in two different cultures are more prone to doing this, and language is the trigger.

Is there any other reason as to why people often change personality when they speak in a different language? Well, yes: each language has inherent properties, which influence the way a speaker thinks and behaves. The crux of the matter can be found in grammar and syntax. Each foreign language seems to take on a whole new personality. Whilst Greeks begin their sentences with a form of the verb that includes a lot of information, enabling easy interruption, Germans believe that putting the verb at the end of a sentence is especially logical. This is why the way in which we communicate often labels us with stereotypes.

People are constantly in the process of changing and evolving, and learning and speaking a different language is an excellent way to find out who you really are and what are your likes and dislikes. As the Czech proverb quotes: “Learn a new language and get a new soul”.

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