Split Linguistic Personalities

by Translation Guy on August 10, 2011
33 comments

In a recent study by psychologists at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, researchers discovered that bilingual Chinese English speakers have a split personality, at least when they are speaking English and Chinese. “[Native] Chinese students who were fluent in English appeared more assertive and aggressive and open to new experiences,” which are the kinds of personality traits often associated with blue-eyed foreigners in a Chinese cultural context.

In Scientific American, writer Nathan Collins reports that the personality effects of language also varied depending on whether the interviewer was a Westerner or Chinese, even when both used English. “Personalities are not fixed. Instead the language a person is speaking—and with whom―can lead individuals to take on the personality traits of the culture associated with the language or the person.”

In my own bicultural household, I get grief from my wife for the way I act in Japanese. Seems I come off too fake, plus I speak Japanese like a girl. Apparently my NYC “Fuck you and have a nice day” persona plays better for her, but come to think of it she complains about the way I act in English too. Fuggedaboutit.

So I’m going to tell a story about Japanese wives. The other night, our friend and client Jim Nolan, a great immigration lawyer BTW, invited us to a Tea Ceremony at Urasenke, just north of Turtle Bay. I first discovered Sado or the Way of Tea as an immigration dodge when I was an illegal alien in Japan, but grew to love the green tea slurp and never refuse an invitation. Anyway, on this particular occasion, there was a bunch of bilingual Japanese East Side-type wives in our party.

Now at tea, it was all Manyoshu, ancient court poetry style, very refined, and the women were talking about the etiquette of not stepping on the cracks between the tatami mats. (For 30 years, I’ve been walking all over those cracks; wish someone had told me that sooner.) All proper, all correct. After the tea ceremony (and a couple of bottles of Chianti), the poetry citations shifted to English and the poet drunk Charles Bukowski and his poem “Japanese Wife,” which is a far cry from The Tale of Genji, and in fact involves a certain Japanese wife keeping Charles under the bed at knife point for two days running, which I could only interpret as a warning. So between English and Japanese personalities, the same but different, although only her EKG technician knows for sure.

There are obvious cultural differences in effect and cognition between East and West, where OCD meets ADD. With all the different gestures and behaviors between those languages, differences in effect will be obvious. Looking for some good stories from readers, particularly between languages where behaviors aren’t as different as between Japanese and English.

Yoroshiku – Translation Guy

33 Comments

  1. Did a study really need to be done to see this? Personality is conveyed even through accents in the SAME LANGUAGE. Just look at the British vs. American English. For that matter, even within the States, you see it in the Southern vs. NY accent and so on.

  2. Julie Hwang says:

    interesting article, but one scary looking poet.

  3. Kim Ades says:

    thank-you for introducing Charles Bukowski to many who had surely not know him before. A great poet and The Japanese Wife is one of my favorites.

  4. looking for a good story? Go to any country in Asia and you will certainly find yourself in a situation where language and cutural barriers will leave you with some good memories! China is particularly difficult because it has a tonal language. I found out the hard way as I mistakenly called the mother of a colleauge a horse. (MA, depending on the tone can be either mother or horse!)

  5. Muncie says:

    we should all just speak english!

  6. yup, my husband always tells me I am ‘different’ when I am around my Slovak family. Thanks for putting it into perspective. I am sure after many years he will be happy to hear that he is officially right! :)

    • Ken says:

      Katie, if he’s not reading this blog, then your secret is safe with me.

  7. Jud says:

    As a business traveler I have experienced this many times over and that’s why I always have a local translator to translate not only the words but also the context, the culture, the personalities of the people.

  8. Hilda Gibson says:

    the intersection of language and personality is always fascinating. Thanks for posting.

  9. after a year of living in Germany friends who visited commented how much more direct and even aggressive I had become when talking to people. At the store, in a restaurant… the mannerisms of the culture came through language and influenced my personality.

  10. Joe Kickass says:

    I am fluent in 3 languages and your article is right on the mark. However, the social/cultural context should be accounted for as well, notjust the language itself. I do feel like a “different person” when speaking the different languages, but only when emersed in a larger group with others of the same language and culture.

  11. Shelley Duke says:

    here’s a good example: in France, Italy, Spain, Slavic countries… you would very likely break into a song over dinner. In England, not so much.

  12. Denise Case says:

    I’m not sure any of this really matters. You relate to the person as they are, whatever the language that they are speaking.

    • Ken says:

      But do you relate differently depending on the lanuage your speaking?

  13. Nathan Daly says:

    great post! Now I know why my father-in-law’s jokes are never as funny as he believes them to be… something more than words is lost in translation!

    • Ken says:

      Hmmm. I have the same problem. Not with my father-in-law, but with my jokes.

  14. Ricky Branch says:

    this just goes to show that personality (identity) is not stable but fluid, changing with the context.

  15. As a business traveler I have experienced this many times over and that’s why I always have a local translator to translate not only the words but also the context, the culture, the personalities of the people.

  16. Louis says:

    after a year of living in Germany friends who visited commented how much more direct and even aggressive I had become when talking to people. At the store, in a restaurant… the mannerisms of the culture came through language and influenced my personality.

    • Ken says:

      You would fit right in here in NYC, Louis. I just hope you’re not a Mets fan, however…

  17. Billie says:

    I’m not sure any of this really matters. You relate to the person as they are, whatever the language that they are speaking.

    • Ken says:

      It was a big revelation for me when I got good enough at Japanese to realize when people were being assholes. Virtue is a universal value

  18. great post! Now I know why my father-in-law’s jokes are never as funny as he believes them to be… something more than words is lost in translation!

  19. I am fluent in 3 languages and your article is right on the mark. However, the social/cultural context should be accounted for as well, notjust the language itself. I do feel like a “different person” when speaking the different languages, but only when emersed in a larger group with others of the same language and culture.

  20. Did a study really need to be done to see this? Personality is conveyed even through accents in the SAME LANGUAGE. Just look at the British vs. American English. For that matter, even within the States, you see it in the Southern vs. NY accent and so on.

  21. Doris Thomas says:

    looking for a good story? Go to any country in Asia and you will certainly find yourself in a situation where language and cutural barriers will leave you with some good memories! China is particularly difficult because it has a tonal language. I found out the hard way as I mistakenly called the mother of a colleauge a horse. (MA, depending on the tone can be either mother or horse!)

  22. Edna Hardy says:

    we should all just speak english!

    • Ken says:

      That would be bad for business, Edna.

  23. The Witch says:

    yup, my husband always tells me I am ‘different’ when I am around my Slovak family. Thanks for putting it into perspective. I am sure after many years he will be happy to hear that he is officially right! :)

  24. Sophia says:

    thank-you for introducing Charles Bukowski to many who had surely not know him before. A great poet and The Japanese Wife is one of my favorites.

  25. Cindy Hughes says:

    the intersection of language and personality is always fascinating. Thanks for posting.

  26. Regina Ayers says:

    this just goes to show that personality (identity) is not stable but fluid, changing with the context.

  27. Troy Sawyer says:

    interesting article, but one scary looking poet.

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