Does Multilingualism Result in Multiple Personalities?

There is a Czech proverb that goes like this, “Learn a new language and get a new soul.”

The idea that different languages confer different personalities has been around for a long time, and many researchers have tried to verify this theory. Studies have been conducted to examine the effects of bilingualism on one’s behaviours and worldview, and some of them revealed very interesting insights.

Berkeley Emeritus Professor Susan Ervin-Tripp’s study in which she asked Japanese-American women to complete the same set of questions in both Japanese and English found that the subjects proposed very different answers depending on the language they used.

But was that due to some inherent qualities of the languages, or the cultures that the languages were associated with? How differently would the answers have turned out, if Professor Susan Ervin-Tripp had studied Japanese-Korean or Japanese-Chinese instead?

The thing is, there is much more than just language and thought involved – there’s also culture. When you learn a new language, you pick up more than just vocabulary and grammar rules – you also adopt aspects of a new culture, which include attitudes and mannerisms. After all, language is not just a tool for communication, but an expression of culture as well.

Asian cultures like Korean and Japanese, for example, demand a level of deference for one’s elders that isn’t found in the culture of some Western societies. A westerner who’s learning Korean, therefore, might find himself behaving a lot more respectfully and reserved when he’s speaking Korean, whereas a Japanese who’s also learning Korean might not feel that great of a difference in his behaviours.

It seems most of the time what is perceived as a sudden change in personality when a multilingual person switches between languages is largely a shift in attitudes and mannerisms in response to a change in context. If I’m talking to my friend in English, and all of a sudden my Chinese teacher enters the room – you bet there will be a sudden change in my demeanor and that I will instantly sound 120% more polite and reserved than I was a few seconds ago. The change is often automatic – we receive cues from our environment and we react accordingly.

Multilingualism does not always equal multiculturalism, however. Most of us in Malaysia, for example, are multilingual, and are comfortable with switching between languages during the course of one conversation, sometimes even mixing them. Our culture is a hodgepodge of several, and the local version of English, affectionately coined as ‘Manglish’, is a mix of English, Bahasa Melayu, Mandarin Chinese and a handful of other languages, including Chinese dialects.

Code-switching, for us, is not always a response to a shift in cultural context. We sometimes do it just because we feel like it, or if we can’t remember the word for something in the language we are currently speaking. As a result, most of us do not experience this multiple-personality phenomenon, at least not to the extent that the theory suggests.

Many people also forget the fact that multilinguals are rarely equally fluent in all the languages they speak.  As Professor François Grosjean, the author of Bilingual: Life and Reality, puts it, “Bilinguals usually acquire and use their languages for different purposes, in different domains of life, with different people.”

I have been told numerous times that I sound smarter and more confident in English. I’m sure you’ll agree that it is quite impossible that this is due to some inherent quality of my mother tongue, Mandarin Chinese, because there are plenty of smart and confident Chinese people everywhere.

The reason is this: my English vocabulary is larger. Like Professor François Grosjean said, people acquire languages for different purposes. I grew up speaking Mandarin Chinese with my family, and up until secondary school, that was the only language I was truly fluent in. After I started attending secondary school, however, I started to teach myself English via reading. I read a lot. English became the primary language I use for reading.

It is also the language I associate with things of academic nature, because that was the language I had to use in university. As a result, I tend to come off as more intelligent or articulate when I’m speaking in English, and to a certain extent, more confident. It has nothing to do with the language of Mandarin Chinese itself.

It’s not that I don’t feel the difference in how I act when I switch between languages. I do. After all, language does, in some ways, influence how we think. Learning English, for example, has changed the way I perceive and interpret the concept of time.

You see, there are no tenses in Mandarin Chinese. We still use indicators to differentiate between events in the past, present and future, but time as a concept is in no way as clearly defined as it is in English. I remember struggling a lot with tenses – especially perfect tenses. I couldn’t tell the difference between ‘I bought the ticket’ and ‘I’d bought the ticket’, because to me, they were both events that occurred in the past.

Cultures play a role in shaping our personality as well. Collectivist cultures, for example, promote traits that help maintain interpersonal harmony, such as humility, selflessness, willingness to cooperate and compromise, and a tendency to avoid conflicts. Individualist cultures, on the other hand, encourage independence, assertiveness and a generally more ‘self-centered’ worldview that focuses on the rights and concerns of the individual rather than the society.

I have highlighted in another post here about how honorifics have influenced the dynamics of several relationships in my life, especially with people who are older than me. My mannerisms change depending on the languages I speak. But I can’t help but question how much of it is due to the languages themselves, as opposed to the cultures and domains I have come to associate the languages with?

Are there multiple personalities in me, as the theory suggests, or are they just different expressions of a multifaceted identity?