Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
Does Splitting Languages Split Your Personality?
May 19, 2010 - By: - In: Language - 21 comments

I know a lot of readers of this blog are bilingual switch hitters, speaking two languages, sometimes more, sometimes even multiple languages at the same time. Comes in handy, especially when you are doing multiple language puns, which are an even lower form of humor than monoglot puns. More seriously, are you the same person in one language as you are in another? Do bilinguals have split personalities? If so, which one of you is reading this?!!

A few years back, researchers at the University of Texas asked bilingual Mexican-Americans “a set of questions designed to assess personality, such as ‘Are you talkative?’ and ‘Do you tend to be disorganized?’ Many participants changed their answers when questioners switched from Spanish to English or vice versa.”

“When participants spoke in English, their responses emphasized assertiveness and achievement. These traits fit with the individualist ideals of the United States, as opposed to the group-oriented culture of Mexico, explained lead researcher Nairan Ramirez-Esparza.”

I’ve seen it in my daughter when she switches back and forth from Japanese to English, but maybe it’s just the way she acts when she talks to me. My wife always said she liked me better in English than in Japanese, which I guess is part of the reason we live in NYC instead of ToKiO, I suppose. I’ll bet bilingual readers have had similar experiences. I’ve seen people really turn it up so that the transformation was uncanny. Chris Field, a genial and easy-going guy who is also one of our ace Japanese interpreters and TV talents, has a Japanese persona that is absolutely killer―really the evil Japanese twin that can send a shiver down your spine when he is cranking it up. When he turns it down, that same persona is super-effective in making professional Japan-US encounters productive and efficient, as his split personality bridges the cultural gap that can muck things up in trans-Pacific encounters.

As a language professional, Chris can turn it up or down consciously, but the language effect appears to have a big impact sub-consciously, too.

You don’t need to be a psychologist to know that people can switch between different ways of interpreting events and feelings in even one language, but this kind of “frame shifting” seems to be easier for bilingual people who are active in two different cultures, and language is the trigger.

Researchers David Luna from Baruch College, New York, and Torsten Ringberg and Laura Peracchio from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, found that women classified themselves and others as more assertive when they spoke Spanish than when they spoke English. One part of the study got the volunteers to watch TV advertisements showing women in different scenarios. The participants initially saw the ads in one language―English or Spanish―and then six months later in the other.”

“‘In the Spanish-language sessions, informants perceived females as more self-sufficient and extroverted,’ they say. For example, one person saw the main character in the Spanish version of a commercial as a risk-taking, independent woman, but as hopeless, lonely, and confused in the English version.”

So this has a lot of implications for bilingual communication, both in our personal lives and in the profession of translation. If you are working on helping a client understand a message through back translation or balancing a test instrument, these split linguistic personality-types can make or break a translation or adaptation. Ever seen this phenomenon in action, professionally or personally?

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