Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Language and Personality - idle thoughts

Having read a number of posts on Developing Intelligence about Language and Cognitive development in general (which, if I might add, I must recommend), I was reminded of something that I was interested in a few years back – the influences of language on what would be best described as personality, especially on those lucky enough to be described as genuinely bilingual. These are just a few thoughts of mine, in no way scientifically verified, simply conjectures based on personal experience and conversations with others.

My Mother Tongue is English. I can also speak Dutch and French – although not in any way trilingual, I am perfectly capable of a lot more than basic communication with natives of the two languages. One thing I have noticed when speaking Dutch over the period of a few days, is that I notice a slight difference in behaviour, even attitudes, in myself. Now this is of course pure speculation, speculation which friends of mine agree with when it is pointed out to them. This 'phenomenon' seems at first glance rather trivial, and indeed I have treated it as such, until I read “Language and Thinking-For-Speaking” on Developing Intelligence. The paper that this post describes is concerned with the relative classification of nouns with respect to gender specific qualities, tested on people whose languages have grammatical gender (German and Spanish). For example, subjects were asked to give adjectives describing a series of words, for instance 'Key' (masculine in German; feminine in Spanish). If I might borrow the same quote that Chris at Developing Intelligence used to illustrate the results:

"There were also observable qualitative differences between the kinds of adjectives Spanish and German speakers produced. For example, the word for "key" is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish. German speakers described keys as hard, heavy, jagged, metal, serrated, and useful, while Spanish speakers said they were golden, intricate, little, lovely, shiny and tiny. The word for "bridge," on the other hand, is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. German speakers described bridges as beautiful, elegant, fragile, peaceful, pretty and slender, while Spanish speakers said they were big, dangerous, long, strong, sturdy and towering."

Further discussion of this paper suggests that language may have an effect on non-linguistic thought in a profound way. Given my personal experience, and more general observations, my query is whether truly bilingual or trilingual persons may possibly display slightly different personality characteristics when in a particular 'language mode'. Based on this paper, that answer seems to be a resounding maybe – or rather it leaves this phenomenon as a possibility rather than an impossibility. As I've mentioned, these are thoughts of mine, not empirically proved theories. However, I do think it would be interesting to see if studies were conducted with multilingual people were conducted to assess this. Quite how personality traits would be 'measured', I am not sure. Perhaps like/dislike judgements in combination with other standard psychological tests. These people would naturally have to be 'immersed' within the testing language before any testing could be useful, and course the multitude of other factors, such as differences in contemporary culture between the language groups – but I maintain that it would be interesting at the very least if conducted properly. As a tongue-in-cheek final question: Are multilinguists all suffering from a latent multiple personality disorder?

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