BY: ALEKSANDRA TARABIC
So goes the Czech proverb, “learn a new language and get a new soul.” As Benjamin Lee Whorf, an American linguist, maintained in the 1920s, it could be said that each language holds a worldview that its speakers identify with when using it. These worldviews will go on to influence said speakers, affecting the way that they behave and the manner in which they respond to specific situations. This ideology is referred to today as “Whorfianism.”
Recent studies have focused on the link between bilingualism and biculturalism—some even dubbing the two mutually exclusive. The mentioned connection between language and culture is expectedly complex—and no doubt affects the relationship between language and personality—one of its biggest influencers being the relatively recent growth in immigration and globalization. Currently half of the world’s population is bilingual, and that doesn’t include the multilinguists out there.
With so many of us experiencing the world with no borders in our sights, our inhibitions are coming down, and our opportunities are going up (in number). Certain studies have gone so far as to prove that bilingual individuals will experience numerous cognitive advantages because of this one attribution. Being fluent in another language gives us an advantage in linguistic development, perception and “brain flexibility.” In other words, this research shows that bilinguals have a more well rounded perception of the world, and take as a more global concept, this physical space that we’re living in.
However, being bilingual does not exclusively make us bicultural. It’s possible that, when an individual is speaking in the second language (L2), they are translating their culture from their first language (L1), which is the case with many business people, who learn L2 for practical reasons, thus not fully immersing themselves into the second culture. In situations like these, we will not see a shift in “personality” in the individual. Many studies have supported this claim in that they have attributed personality differences in bilinguals as the function of cultural shift.
For added clarity, bicultural bilinguals are defined as having incorporated two cultures within themselves, and can speak two languages fluently. Using a specific language will trigger specific processes in the brain—processes that are reflected in this individual’s culture-specific concepts, mental frames, values and reactions. All of the previously mentioned are defined as aspects of the individual’s cultural-identity. When switching languages—a bicultural bilingual will change behaviour, as a result of the application of something called “cultural accommodation.” This theory maintains that a change in language leads to a change in cultural identity—easily mixed up with personality.
Thanks to the Theory of Cultural Frame Switching, the concept can be further conveyed through a series of examples, one of which (conducted by psychologist Ervin) in particular included a group of French and English speaking men and women (bicultural bilinguals) responding to a Thematic Appreciation Test. In this study (1964), it was concluded that when speaking in French, more women (but not men) spoke of achievement themes than in English. Ervin described this as being due to American culture not being as concerned with social roles. It was further concluded that French communication contained more verbal aggression in stories—explained by the psychologist as the result of French education emphasizing oral argumentation as a response to insults.
It is to be understood, ultimately, that one does not actually switch from one personality to another when switching spoken tongue of choice—but rather switches attitudes towards different contexts.
Of course, this is one of those topics that is up for debate, but when you think you have got your opinion cemented, take a moment and think—what language did you do the contemplating in?