Tag Archives: bilingualism

Do Different Languages Confer Different Personalities?

This is the question that a reporter for The Economist posed in the November 5, 2013, issue. Here’s his findings:

LAST week, Johnson took a look at some of the advantages of bilingualism. These include better performance at tasks involving “executive function” (which involve the brain’s ability to plan and prioritise), better defence against dementia in old age and—the obvious—the ability to speak a second language. One purported advantage was not mentioned, though. Many multilinguals report different personalities, or even different worldviews, when they speak their different languages.

It’s an exciting notion, the idea that one’s very self could be broadened by the mastery of two or more languages. In obvious ways (exposure to new friends, literature and so forth) the self really is broadened. Yet it is different to claim—as many people do—to have a different personality when using a different language. A former Economist colleague, for example, reported being ruder in Hebrew than in English. So what is going on here?

Benjamin Lee Whorf, an American linguist who died in 1941, held that each language encodes a worldview that significantly influences its speakers. Often called “Whorfianism”, this idea has its sceptics, including The Economist, which hosted a debate on the subject in 2010. But there are still good reasons to believe language shapes thought.

This influence is not necessarily linked to the vocabulary or grammar of a second language. Significantly, most people are not symmetrically bilingual. Many have learned one language at home from parents, and another later in life, usually at school. So bilinguals usually have different strengths and weaknesses in their different languages—and they are not always best in their first language. For example, when tested in a foreign language, people are less likely to fall into a cognitive trap (answering a test question with an obvious-seeming but wrong answer) than when tested in their native language. In part this is because working in a second language slows down the thinking. No wonder people feel different when speaking them. And no wonder they feel looser, more spontaneous, perhaps more assertive or funnier or blunter, in the language they were reared in from childhood.

What of “crib” bilinguals, raised in two languages? Even they do not usually have perfectly symmetrical competence in their two languages. But even for a speaker whose two languages are very nearly the same in ability, there is another big reason that person will feel different in the two languages. This is because there is an important distinction between bilingualism and biculturalism.

Many bilinguals are not bicultural. But some are. And of those bicultural bilinguals, we should be little surprised that they feel different in their two languages. Experiments in psychology have shown the power of “priming”—small unnoticed factors that can affect behaviour in big ways. Asking people to tell a happy story, for example, will put them in a better mood. The choice between two languages is a huge prime. Speaking Spanish rather than English, for a bilingual and bicultural Puerto Rican in New York, might conjure feelings of family and home. Switching to English might prime the same person to think of school and work.

So there are two very good reasons (asymmetrical ability, and priming) that make people feel different speaking their different languages. We are still left with a third kind of argument, though. An economist recently interviewed here at Prospero, Athanasia Chalari, said for example that:

Greeks are very loud and they interrupt each other very often. The reason for that is the Greek grammar and syntax. When Greeks talk they begin their sentences with verbs and the form of the verb includes a lot of information so you already know what they are talking about after the first word and can interrupt more easily.

Is there something intrinsic to the Greek language that encourages Greeks to interrupt? Consider Johnson sceptical. People seem to enjoy telling tales about their languages’ inherent properties, and how they influence their speakers. A group of French intellectual worthies once proposed, rather self-flatteringly, that French be the sole legal language of the EU, because of its supposedly unmatchable rigour and precision. Some Germans believe that frequently putting the verb at the end of a sentence makes the language especially logical. But language myths are not always self-flattering: many speakers think their languages are unusually illogical or difficult—witness the plethora of books along the lines of “Only in English do you park on a driveway and drive on a parkway; English must be the craziest language in the world!” What such pop-Whorfian stories share is a (natural) tendency to exoticise languages. We also see some unsurprising overlap with national stereotypes and self-stereotypes: French, rigorous; German, logical; English, playful. Of course.

In this case, Ms Chalari, a scholar, at least proposed a specific and plausible line of causation from grammar to personality: in Greek, the verb comes first, and it carries a lot of information, hence easy interrupting. The problem is that many unrelated languages all around the world put the verb at the beginning of sentences. Many languages all around the world are heavily inflected, encoding lots of information in verbs. It would be a striking finding if all of these unrelated languages had speakers more prone to interrupting each other. Welsh, for example, is also both verb-first and about as heavily inflected as Greek, but the Welsh are not known as pushy conversationalists.

Neo-Whorfians continue to offer evidence and analysis that aims to prove that different languages push speakers to think differently. One such effort is forthcoming: “The Bilingual Mind” by Aneta Pavlenko, to be published in April. Ms Pavlenko speaks to François Grosjean here. Meanwhile, John McWhorter takes the opposite stance in “The Language Hoax”, forthcoming in February. We’ll return to this debate. But strong Whorfian arguments do not need to be valid for people to feel differently in their different languages.


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The Power of the Bilingual Brain

Jeffrey Kluger in Time, July 29, 2013:

Never mind how well spoken you might be now, you will never again be as adept with languages as the day you were born. Indeed, the youngest person in any room is almost always the best linguist there too. There are 6,800 languages in the world, and since you can’t know where you’ll be born, you have to pop from the womb to be able to speak any one of them. That talent fades fast — as early as nine months after birth, some of our language synapses start getting pruned away. But well into your grammar-school years, your ability to learn a second — or third or fourth — language is still remarkable.

That, it turns out, is very good for the brain. New studies are showing that a multilingual brain is nimbler, quicker, better able to deal with ambiguities, resolve conflicts and even resist Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia longer. All of this is prompting public schools to implement language-immersion programs for kids as young as kindergarteners, as I report in the new issue of TIME; nowhere is that more evident than in Utah, where 20% of all public schools offer K-12 dual-language instruction, with students taking half their classes every day in English and half in either Spanish, French, Mandarin or Portuguese. To date, representatives from 22 other states have gone to Utah to learn more about the program.

The kids in bilingual classes in Utah and elsewhere aren’t thinking much about the nature of their brains when they go to school each morning; they’re only aware of the rich and lyrical experience of living and learning bilingually. But scientists — particularly neurologists, psychologists and educational specialists — are watching closely. In a polyglot world, a largely monoglot nation like the U.S. is at last moving to catch up — and not a moment too soon.

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Bilinguals Have Faster Brains

If this article doesn’t demonstrate the importance of learning a second language, I don’t know what else will!

Article by Sydney Lupkin for ABCNews.com, January 9, 2013:

Speaking two languages can actually help offset some effects of aging on the brain, a new study has found.

Researchers tested how long it took participants to switch from one cognitive task to another, something that’s known to take longer for older adults, said lead researcher, Brian Gold, a neuroscientist at the University of Kentucky. As he spoke to ABCNews.com from his cell phone, he said he was also in a grocery store choosing between gala and granny smith apples – a perfect example of switching between cognitive tasks in everyday life.
“It has big implications these days because our population is aging more and more,” Gold said. “Seniors are living longer, and that’s a good thing, but it’s only a good thing to the extent that their brains are healthy.”

Gold’s team compared task-switching speeds for younger and older adults, knowing they would find slower speeds in the older population because of previous studies. However, they found that older adults who spoke two languages were able to switch mental gears faster than those who didn’t.

But don’t go out and buy Rosetta Stone just yet. The study only looked at life-long bilinguals, defined in the study as people who had spoken a second language daily since they were at least 10 years old.

First, Gold and his team asked 30 people, who were either bilingual or monolingual, to look at a series of colored shapes and respond with the name of each shape by pushing a button. Then, they presented the participants with a similar series of colored shapes and asked them to respond with what colors the shapes were by pushing a button. Finally, researchers presented participants with a series of colored shapes, but they mixed prompts for either a shape or a color to test participants’ task-switching times.

The bilingual people were able to respond faster to the shifting prompts.

Researchers then gathered 80 more people for a second experiment: 20 young bilinguals, 20 young monolinguals, 20 old bilinguals, and 20 old monolinguals. This time, researchers used fMRI scans to monitor brain activity during the same shape- and color-identifying tasks. Gold and his team found that bilingual people were not only able to switch tasks faster – they had different brain activity than their monolingual peers.

“It allows a sort of window into how the brains of people who have different cognitive processing abilities and are processing the same stimuli in different ways,” said Kristina Visscher, a neurobologist at the University of Alabama School of Medicine who did not work on the study.

Visscher called bilingualism a “beautiful natural experiment,” because people grow up speaking two languages, and studies have shown that they reap certain cognitive benefits from switching between languages and determining which to respond with based on what’s going on around them. The University of Kentucky researchers took it a step further by using brain imaging, which she said was “exciting.”

Gold said he grew up in Montreal, where he spoke French at school and English at home, prompting relatives to question whether his French language immersion would somehow hinder his ability to learn English.

“Until very recently, learning a second language in childhood was thought of as dangerous,” he said. “Actually, it’s beneficial.”

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New Jersey’s First Spanish-English Charter School

Katie Colaneri, nj.com, August 27, 2010:

Hoboken made state history today as the site of New Jersey’s first Spanish-English charter school.

Hoboken Dual Language Schoolofficially opened its doors to the community in a ribbon-cutting ceremony, bringing to fruition the hopes of the school’s co-founders Jennifer Hindman Sargent and Camille Korschun Bustillo.

“It’s a very emotional day for us and a thrilling one,” Sargent told the crowd of children, parents, teachers and city officials that gathered in front of the Boys and Girls Club of Hoboken on Jefferson Street where the school will make its home.

Among those present for the ribbon-cutting were Mayor Dawn Zimmer, Freeholder Anthony Romano, and 4th Ward Councilman Michael Lenz. Several members of HoLa’s inaugural class sat on the steps of the Club, wearing white t-shirts embossed with their new school’s logo.

Also present for the ceremony was Ruban Ramos who was not there as a state assemblyman, but as the parent of one of HoLa’s 132 K-through-second grade students.

“We all know we live in a world without borders,” he said moments before he helped snip the ribbon. “And today, us parents are taking a leap of faith and saying, ‘We want our children to understand another language because we want to give them the tools to be successful in this world.”

On a political note, Ramos thanked former governor Jon Corzine who approved HoLa’s charter last September.

“We saw it as a really unique educational opportunity,” said Tom Azzolini whose 8-year-old daughter Montana will start second grade at HoLa on September 7th. “We feel it’s like a value-added thing that  she’s going to get a good education and now she’s being given this other tool which in and of itself is great.”

“I think it’s going to be a pretty coveted school to get into in Hoboken, granted that educational opportunities are not as good as they could be… so it offers another alternative.”

Students were admitted based on a lottery conducted in January of this year. Each year, the school will add a grade level until it is a full-fledged K-5 elementary school.

“The school features an emphasis on the arts, an experimental approach, and a multicultural perspective. Studies show that students in dual language programs tend to outperform their monolingual peers academically,” stated a recent press release from the school.

HoLa will feature enrichment and after-school programs designed to compliment their daily bilingual education which school director Maria Acosta said will encourage multicultural appreciation and give the students and edge in the future job market.

“The benefits are endless of being bilingual, biliterate,” she said.

This was the appeal for one Hoboken mother whose son will enter one of HoLa’s two Kindergarten classes.

“Cross-cultural communication, even if he’s dealing with people from a non-Spanish speaking country, helps him be more sensitive to all cultures even if his background is just in Spanish,” she said.

Sargent and Bustillo originally proposed HoLa as a program for the Hoboken public schools which was met with strong resistance by some parents who felt funding would be better used elsewhere in the school system. This, Bustillo said, was what ultimately pushed them to apply for a charter.

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