no mencionéis vosotros la guerra

October 17, 2006

A pretty duff article in the Telegraph a while ago picked up by something called digg which I have only just heard of.
A second language ‘changes personality’

If only Basil Fawlty had learnt a little Spanish. Psychologists have discovered that people take on the characteristics of foreign nationals when they switch into their language – and such a change in the embittered hotel owner could well have improved life for the hapless Manuel.

The personality changes, however, run deeper than a desire to gesticulate wildly when talking in Italian or to plunge into gloom when speaking Russian. According to research, using different languages alters basic characteristics traits such as extroversion and neuroticism.

Researchers at the University of Texas made the discovery while studying the personality traits of bilingual English and Spanish speakers in the United States and Mexico. ….

The results showed that English-speaking Americans are typically more conscientious, agreeable and outgoing than native Mexicans, but also less neurotic.

As someone noted, if these research conclusions really were as reported (unlikely) Basil Fawlty would probably have made life more difficult for Manuel rather than less if he had learned Spanish.

One digger opined that  ‘the syntactic location of memes within grammar, as well as the different networks of connections in vocabulary has an effect on the path along which thoughts, conversations and all manifestations of personality develop. A good example would be to think of the assotiations (sic) you have with the word “brown.” In English you might think of brown things like chocolate, dirt, shyte etc… but how closely is the word “tea” associated with that color in our language? Pretty far away. Yet in Japanese the word for brown, “chairo,” litterally means “tea-color”.’ In Thai ‘brown’ is ‘sugar colour’ but knowing that hasn’t changed my personality.
I suspect that learning a language is like travel- some people’s minds are broadened by it; others have their prejudices confirmed. I think I make a conscious effort not to have my personality changed when I switch to another language- I’m not trying to be a Malay or whatever, just someone who can understand and make himself understood.

Another digger argued that it isn’t the new language that changes personality but the exposure to a new culture and the ‘global viewpoint of the world’ that results. Changes ideas, yes, personality, not so sure. I do find, though, that if I am unsympathetic to the culture of a people I have difficulty in getting very far in their language.
I was wondering whether it works the other way round. that is whether extroverts, for example, are likely to learn languages more successfully. Being adaptable certainly helps- the expatriates over here who have never learned Thai tend to be pretty mired in their old ways. But then I’ve known people who are quite hostile to other cultures who are brilliant language learners.


One Response to “no mencionéis vosotros la guerra”

  1. SilverTiger Says:

    I am extremely sceptical about the theory that speaking a foreign language changes your personality. In fact, it sounds like pseudo-scientific garbage of the first order. At the very least, you would have to establish that a speaker’s personality changes (what is the measure of a person’s personality, how do we measure changes in it?). Secondly, we would have to eliminate other possible factors such as changes being caused by the company in which the speaker is speaking the language.

    I see that its perpetrators appeal to memetics, that other popular pseudo-science.

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