There has been extensive research on language and how it influences the way people think. It has been found that much like other elements of culture, language has a great impact on the way a person sees and interprets things around them. It is not surprising that as a result, those who speak more than one language may find that they change the way they perceive the world depending on what language they are using.
It is estimated that around half of the world’s population is bilingual. Moreover, bilingual individuals tend to be bicultural – this means that they have two internalised cultures which affect the way they think, feel and act. These ideas stem from the three studies explained below:
Study 1: Spanish-English bilinguals
A 2006 study, led by Nairan Ramírez-Esparza and her colleagues, looked at how bilingualism affects a person’s personality. It asked Spanish Americans to answer a personality test in both Spanish and English in order to analyse and measure the ‘Big Five’ personality traits: extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness and neuroticism. The authors of the study explained that the research was done with Spanish-English bilinguals as it is believed that Spanish and English values differ tremendously.
The results of the study showed that Spanish-English bilinguals were more extraverted, agreeable and conscientious when using English. One of the reasons behind this was stated to be the fact that individualist cultures (such as the United States) promote traits like assertiveness, achievement and “superficial friendliness”.
Thus, the 2006 study found that bilinguals tend to “display different values and attitudes when responding to questionnaires in different languages”. In other words, the participants’ answers reflected the values and attitudes of the culture whose language they were using.
Study 2: Japanese-American bilinguals
In 1968, Susan Ervan-Tripp conducted a study, asking Japanese-American women living in San Francisco to finish the following sentence in both Japanese and English: “When my wishes conflict with my family …” The responses she received were surprising and reflected the idea that our cultural frame shifts and influences the way we think when we switch languages. This was evident when one participant gave two completely different answers:
Japanese: “When my wishes conflict with my family, it is a time of great unhappiness.”
English: “When my wishes conflict with my family, I do what I want.”
This, once again, reflects the attitudes and values of the respective cultures as one shows the importance of family whereas the other prizes individualism and self-sufficiency.
Study 3: Portuguese-French bilinguals
Michèle Koven conducted a study in 1998, asking a group of Portuguese-French bilinguals to recount a story about a difficult experience in the two languages. These stories were recorded and were later played for fellow Portuguese-French bilinguals who had to describe the personalities of the speakers. The results were interesting as the fellow participants described the same speaker as having different personalities. That is, when speaking in Portuguese, the woman had been described as being ‘shy, diplomatic, and even “a victim”‘, whereas she had been described as being ‘tough, outspoken and willing to stick up for herself’ when she had spoken in French. The same speaker was described as sounding like both a ‘victim’ and a ‘fighter’ and the reason for this striking difference was her choice of language.
Learn a new language and get a new soul.czech Proverb
Being bilingual means that you are able to view, experience and interpret the world in different ways. Nevertheless, it is important to note that Jill Hadfield explains that this depends on the way you have learned your second language: “It is arguable that if all you use a language for is to translate or fill blanks in decontextualized sentences such as “The pen of my aunt is on the table,” you will not develop a [second-language] identity”.
Ultimately, learning a new language through exposure to its culture allows you to tap into your identity and discover aspects of yourself which you did not know were there. You might find that your personality shifts as you become funnier or more confident depending on the language that you use. Try and notice how you change – you might be surprised!