bilingual? you may have multiple personality disorder

July 22, 2013

Multilingual image

Granted, not the mental disorder but a language triggered personality change that is both fascinating and very healthy!

There are many reasons why teaching a language is fun and interesting to me. Bonds are built between students and teachers in a way that is uncommon when comparing it to a “regular” student-teacher relationship. If you are a language learner you are usually in it from your own desire to become fluent or learn the basics, different from a high school student often taking classes as part of a curriculum. More often than not these students are not emotionally or seriously invested in the class. What makes languages fun and interesting is precisely the student’s mental investment. The more involved and confident you are in what you can achieve, the better the lessons are, the more you learn and the more fun you can have. This is one of the reasons why we incorporate student bonding and tourist attractions to our children English summer camp program. 

Many techniques are used in teaching a language. A lot of it depends on what level you are at and what your goals are. Regardless of the language of choice, learning with someone implies showing your weaknesses in that language and being vulnerable. Vulnerability is a tricky subject because it reveals our fears and disables us in a way, of the potential true progression we can achieve. But herein lies the reason of this post. Vulnerability is the cause of the most fascinating aspect of teaching or learning a language: Multiple personalities - [Tweet that!]. Ok, not the mental disorder but a more fun and healthy one.

You see, in my experiences as an English and Spanish instructor I have very often come across this phenomenon. After spending some time with each student and when they have enough fluency or confidence in the language, the way they express themselves changes. Let me elaborate since of course change is needed when speaking another language. What I mean is the behavior, the mannerisms. It almost feels as if you are speaking to a different person. There is a famous Czech proverb that says, “Learn a new language and get a new soul”. Maybe there is something to this proverb.

Let me give you an example. One student of mine stands out in particular, Keith. The vast majority of my semi-fluent to fluent students showed the same change in personality, but with Keith it was much more prevalent. He was so much nicer when speaking Spanish than English (native English speaker). Not to say he was not nice when he spoke English. By all means a very nice, noble and caring person. Nonetheless in Spanish he showed a much sweeter personality and his mannerisms in my opinion blended better with Spanish. In English his personality was a bit drier and to the point. 

Similarly, English learners displayed a friendlier personality when expressing themselves in the foreign language. This leads me to say that not only is more “friendliness” present when switching from English to Spanish but also from Spanish to English. What at first I thought was an English to Spanish only consequence is really present from the latter to the former as well. 

There is some research on this but not enough to draw conclusions. Studies suggest that when speaking a second language, individuals often feel disguised in different clothes, so to speak. So they acquire behaviors that more closely suit the language or culture they are expressing themselves in. Or they feel fancier and in some cases friendlier. Jean-Marc Dewaele and Seiji Nakano conducted one of these studies. They questioned 106 multilingual students at Birkbeck College in London. A very revealing part of the study was precisely the above point: Students felt more poetic and emotional if they switched to a language that was perceived by them to be more emotional. For those of you who have the time and interest to look at the study in depth you can find it here.

The switch appears to happen more commonly in fluent students or those who are close to fluency. It makes sense since individuals who are learning the basics do not have enough vocabulary and syntax to carry a conversation. Kerstin Hammes, a multilingual language expert has this to say about her beginner students: “With most of the students, it's too early to tell because they are only just getting to a stage of expressing themselves free from set phrases and very basic vocabulary. I notice that there are differences, but they aren't consistent. In one student, his tendency to joke and have fun becomes more pronounced - it's like speaking the foreign language sets him free. In another, there is the tendency to be very well-spoken in English which leads to frustration when it cannot be reproduced in German”. Kerstin emphasizes that once students get over the barrier of limited vocabulary, their personalities tend to come out stronger. For more on Kerstin or if you want to become one of her English, French, German or Spanish students (she’s that good!) please follow this link.

No conclusive evidence exists to suggest that there is in fact a change in personality and my intent is not to imply it either. My goal is to point out what myself and many other instructors have noticed in years of experience. What is it about a language that triggers the change? It is possible that there is a very subtle acquisition of the culture of said language and it somehow comes to the surface when we switch languages.

It is my belief that vulnerability plays a crucial role in this change. People who are learning a second language and are talking to native speakers feel vulnerable because it is a language they do not dominate. It is in a sense a weakness they do not easily want to show. It is very common in students of second languages to be coy when speaking to native speakers as to avoid making mistakes or sounding foreign. Insecurities in second language learning are based on fears of not blending in. You want to speak the language but you also want to sound natural, especially if fluency is your goal. This same vulnerability I think, makes us be extra cautious. You are not at “home” when you are speaking a second language so you want to be friendly. Additionally we express ourselves slower to sound clearer and this in turn reflects in our non-verbal communication as well. The combination of these factors results in an altered version of our personality.

Have you personally or through someone you know experienced a change in the way people behave themselves in different language?

Until next time!