Monday, August 29, 2005

How Language Affects Personality

Forgive my sudden intellectual turn, but I just read an article by N. Ramirez-Esparza, et al. regarding bicultural individuals and how their personalities change depending on which language they are speaking. In this particular study, English-Spanish bilinguals responses to a personality test conformed significantly to expected cultural personality norms. For example, when they spoke English, participants tested as more extraverted, more open and more conscientious than when they took the same test in Spanish. [Please see the article for an indepth discussion of study design and results.]

This reminded me of a class on Japanese history I took in college and the concept of linguistic hegemony. As I understand it, the Japanese Emperor's control of his countrymen extended even to the words his subjects used. I believe the idea was that if there was no word for "treason," for example, then no one would think of it. It's a very difficult concept for Americans to grasp, since we're always coming up with new words to describe our new ideas.

But if you think of it in terms of this change in personality effect, it starts to make some sense. The way a language is constructed, the way it flows, the idioms that it uses, all are heavily laden with the expectations of the society that uses that language. For example, The author cites a study by Diaz-Guerrero which "found that Mexicans show an avoidant personality under stressful situations, whereas individuals from the US seek to confront them. (Ramirez-Esparza, p. 6). Similarly, while Americans lose their keys, in Spanish the phrase is "Mis claves se perdieron," i.e. "My keys lost themselves." Cool, huh?

This just happened to come up (on an email list) the day we dropped off the Korean University student we are hosting this semester. He spent the weekend between semesters with us--three very interesting days. Although Don swears he has very low English skills, he actually speaks English very well and we learned a great deal about South Korea from him (while teaching him to eat barbecue and make S'mores!) The study makes me wonder if his personality is more American now than it was before his intensive English seminar here over the summer. I'll certainly be aware of any changes between now and the next time we see him.

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