"Bilinguals, Two different personalities?"

"Bilinguals, Two different personalities?"

I sometimes think I should have been a psycholinguist, because bilingualism is my great fascination. You’re speaking and thinking in different languages; even if they are related it’s like being someone else, like donning a new personality every time you switch languages!

And this isn’t just my own tic; almost every bilingual has noted that they speak differently and even behave differently when speaking different languages, and even scientists have observed the phenomena: The famous Professor Susan Ervin-Tripp once performed an experiment involving Japanese-American bilinguals to complete sentences in both Japanese and English.

The results were interesting: When they finished the sentences in Japanese, they were much more subdued and family-oriented, while in English they were more independent. For example, the sentence beginning ‘When my wishes conflict with my family . . .’ was finished by one study participant with ‘. . . it is a time of great unhappiness,’ in Japanese, but with ‘. . . I do what I want’ in English!

Decades later, Professor David Luna and colleagues at Baruch College performed a study involving Hispanic-American bilinguals. He asked the participants to interpret advertisements picturing women. First, he asked their interpretations in Spanish, then, six months later, in English. In Spanish the bilinguals described the women in the ads as self-sufficient or extroverted. In English, however, they used much more traditional and family-oriented language to describe the same images.

Recent research indicates that bilingual speakers can outperform monolinguals in certain mental abilities, such as editing out irrelevant information and focusing on important information, said Judith Kroll, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Penn State. These skills make bilinguals better at prioritizing tasks and working on multiple projects at one time.  Kroll said that these findings counter previous conclusions that bilingualism hindered cognitive development.

“We would probably refer to most of these cognitive advantages as multi-tasking,” said Kroll, director of the Center for Language Science. “Bilinguals seem to be better at this type of perspective taking. “The received wisdom was that bilingualism created confusion, especially in children. The belief was that people who could speak two or more languages had difficulty using either. The bottom line is that bilingualism is good for you.”

Researchers trace the source of these enhanced multi-tasking skills to the way bilinguals mentally negotiate between the languages, a skill that Kroll refers to as mental juggling.

When bilinguals speak with each other, they can easily slip in and out of both languages, often selecting the word or phrase from the language that most clearly expresses their thoughts.

However, fluent bilinguals rarely make the mistake of slipping into another language when they speak with someone who understands only one language.

“The important thing that we have found is that both languages are open for bilinguals; in other words, there are alternatives available in both languages,” Kroll said. “Even though language choices may be on the tip of their tongue, bilinguals rarely make a wrong choice.”

This language selection, or code switching, is a form of mental exercise, according to Kroll.

“The bilingual is somehow able to negotiate between the competitions of the languages,” Kroll said. “The speculation is that these cognitive skills come from this juggling of languages.”

Kroll’s symposium at the meeting included distinguished language scientists who have investigated the consequences of bilingualism across the lifespan. Ellen Bialystok, Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology at York University, Toronto, was instrumental in demonstrating that bilingualism improves certain mental skills.

According to Bialystok, the benefits of bilingualism appear across age groups. Studies of children who grow up as bilingual speakers indicate they are often better at perspective-taking tasks, such as prioritizing, than monolingual children. Experiments with older bilingual speakers indicate that the enhanced mental skills may protect them from problems associated with aging, such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Researchers use MRI and electroencephalographs to track how the brain operates when it engages in language juggling.

They also use eye-movement devices to watch how bilinguals read sentences. When a person reads, the eyes jump through the sentence, stopping to comprehend certain words or phrases. These distinctive eye movements can offer researchers clues on the subtle ways bilinguals comprehend language compared to monolinguals.

Kroll noted that the enhanced brain functions of bilinguals do not necessarily make them more intelligent or better learners.

“Bilinguals simply acquire specific types of expertise that help them attend to critical tasks and ignore irrelevant information,” Kroll said.

At four months, babies can tell whether a speaker has switched to a different language from visual cues alone, according to a University of British Columbia study.

Researcher Whitney Weikum found that infants are able to discern when a different language is spoken by watching the shapes and rhythm of the speaker’s mouth and face movements.

The findings suggest that older infants, raised in a monolingual environment, no longer need this facility. However, babies growing up in a bilingual environment advantageously maintain the discrimination abilities needed for separating and learning multiple languages.

Babies use visual speech information to tell the difference between someone speaking their native language and an unfamiliar language.

The researchers tested three groups of infants – ages four, six and eight months – from monolingual English homes and two groups of infants –ages six and eight months – from bilingual homes.

They showed each group silent video clips of three bilingual French-English speakers, who recited sentences first in English or French, and then switched to the other language.

Their findings suggest that visual information alone will prompt the babies at four and six months to pay closer attention and watch the video for a longer period when the speakers switch languages.

“We already know that babies can tell languages apart using auditory cues,” says Weikum. “But this is the first study to show that young babies are prepared to tell languages apart using only visual information.”

The researchers found that six-month-old babies from both bilingual French-English and monolingual English homes could tell the languages apart visually.

These groups would watch the video clips for a significantly longer period if the speaker switched languages.

However, by eight months, only babies from a bilingual French-English home and familiar with both languages were able to tell the languages apart visually.

“This suggests that by eight months, only babies learning more than one language need to maintain this ability.

Babies who only hear and see one language don’t need this ability, and their sensitivity to visual language information from other languages declines.”

 People who are bicultural and speak two languages may actually shift their personalities when they switch from one language to another. Language can be a cue that activates different culture-specific frames.

The authors studied groups of Hispanic women, all of whom were bilingual, but with varying degrees of cultural identification. They found significant levels of “frame-shifting” (changes in self-perception) in bicultural participants—those who participate in both Latino and Anglo culture.

While frame-shifting has been studied before, the new research found that biculturals switched frames more quickly and easily than bilingual monoculturals.

The authors found that the women classified themselves as more assertive when they spoke Spanish than when they spoke English.

They also had significantly different perceptions of women in ads when the ads were in Spanish versus English. “In the Spanish-language sessions, informants perceived females as more self-sufficient and extroverted,” write the authors.

In one of the studies, a group of bilingual U.S. Hispanic women viewed ads that featured women in different scenarios. The participants saw the ads in one language (English or Spanish) and then, six months later, they viewed the same ads in the other language.

Their perceptions of themselves and the women in the ads shifted depending on the language. “One respondent, for example, saw an ad’s main character as a risk-taking, independent woman in the Spanish version of the ad, but as a hopeless, lonely, confused woman in the English version,” write the authors.

The shift in perception seems to happen unconsciously, and may have broad implications for consumer behavior and political choices among biculturals.

Florence, fluent in both Dutch and French, has come across an interesting phenomenon in her bilingual personality which she briefly tells us about.

Recently, I began asking myself to what extent we change when we speak a different language. Does our perception of reality change? Our emotions?  Our attitudes? You may wonder why this question bothers me so much. The answer is that I, myself, have the impression that when I am telling a story, or describing a situation, I recount it slightly differently depending on the language I am speaking.

I am bilingual and bicultural. My parents are French, but we moved to Rotterdam when I was three years old, and I was brought up there. I learned Dutch in kindergarten, while playing with other kids, and then at school. At home we always spoke French, but I considered Dutch my first language during my school years and studies. I moved back to France a few years ago and have been living there so far.

I get the impression that my personality slightly alters when I switch from speaking Dutch to French (and vice versa). For example, when I am talking about the same subject with my Dutch friends via Skype, and then recount the story to my French friends; I feel that I present the story in a different light. In Dutch, I am more tolerant, open and sympathetic, while in French, I am more calculative. It doesn’t sound like a big problem, but it is a strange feeling, when you cannot express exactly what you actually think of something or someone, because it changes depending on the language you speak.

I started to read about this phenomenon and it seems that I am not the only one with this linguistic split personality. For example, Alexia Panayiotou, a psychologist and economist from the University of Cyprus, did a study on English-Greek bilingual children. She read them the same story in both languages and asked them to comment on this story. The differences in their reactions were significant: In Greek they were more sympathetic and cared for the hero, while in English they were rather indifferent. In another study, Chinese-English bilinguals were asked to describe themselves in each respective language and surprisingly their self-esteem and self-description differed depending on the language they were using. In English they reported higher self-esteem and described themselves in more individualistic terms, while in Chinese they perceived themselves mainly as members of groups they belonged to.

Such findings make me realize that language is immersed in culture, we learn languages in particular contexts, and that these contexts influence our perception of reality and our way of expression. And that translating from one language to another requires much more than linguistic fluency!

This is so true! I have Danish parents, grown up in France, and now living in Holland for the past 9 years. I am a different person in each language, adapting myself to the culture of the people who speak it. I have always wondered how the language could affect the message so much. It also affects my tone of voice and my emotions.

As a bilingual Japanese and English speaker, I find myself less likely to accept praise when speaking in Japanese than when speaking English. Furthermore, a colleague once told me that even if he can’t hear me, he can tell which language I am using from 15 meters away, by looking at my posture, gestures and general body language.  

I grew up speaking French and Czech (I come from a mixed marriage) and realized over the years that I tend to be more cynical, detached and also quieter when I tell a story in Czech, tuning it down, whereas I’ll say the same story louder, more colorfully and enthusiastically in French.

It is impossible to become really fluent in the language without absorbing some of the culture, which includes facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures, etc. I grew up in a bilingual household, American-Spanish. In Spain when you are discussing something in a group you will not be taken seriously unless you raise your voice, talk over your opponents and show a lot of strong emotions which signals passion and people respect that. But in the States if you argue in the same way you would be dismissed as someone who cannot control himself.

 I speak English and Spanish fluently. But get this…. when I talk to girls in Spanish I just seem more at ease and natural. I do a lot better in this frame of mind. I notice in English everything gets taken too literally. Spanish is a whole lot more playful and gregarious a language. The people also respond well to its flirtatious nature and awkward moments are very rare, unlike English.

That’s an amusing observation. Lots of people seem to find languages like Spanish, or Italian, or French particularly flirtatious or friendly. I can’t remember anyone saying this about, for instance, German.