When I first began to use English and Chinese for equal proportions of my everyday speech, I’d constantly have the thought, “oh, I wouldn’t say that when speaking Chinese” — this would normally happen every time I argued with my friend in a class discussion using English. This strange phenomenon was an unexplainable mystery until I began to observe the noticeably different ways that my friend also expressed herself across the two different languages.
In English, she’s the smart, practical debater who speaks with logic flowing-through every word; whereas in Chinese she sounds more relaxed, and at home — an amazing, unique feature. I quickly surmised that speaking different languages between home and school was the reason for this phenomenon we shared.
Discovering this truly intrigued me.
I typed my thoughts out into Google and found an ocean of research, stating how multilinguists often find themselves to be “more smart/shy/polite in one language than in another”, and proving that my friend and I aren’t alone.
A Czech proverb says: “learn a new language and get a new soul”. The essence of this saying is that when people immerse themselves in multiple languages as well as their corresponding cultures, they discover themselves to be almost an entirely different person— a so-called ‘change in personality’.
What is personality? Google says it is “the combination of characteristics or qualities that form an individual’s distinctive character”, in which “characteristics” are like pieces of a puzzle. When someone makes a statement about your personality, they simply summarise the characteristics they see in you. The tricky point is that everyone’s visible characteristics differ all the time, thus we all demonstrate variations in personality more or less.
Let’s admit that you don’t act as if your physics teacher is your best friend. Your brain is quite flexible in the sense that it can adapt to the behaviours suitable for teachers’ eyes; the characteristics that they see in you most likely vary from what your friends see. Everyone sees a slightly different side of you as the brain constantly selects what to say and do before different people.
The reason that we think some multilinguists express multi-personality traits is that their attitude to the very same people seems to differ as a result of a change in language, which is unusual. So the question is raised: what is this radical twist that ‘splits’ the personality of a multilinguist?
Although you wouldn’t magically grow a brain cortex for being multilingual, we know that when you repeatedly do something, your brain builds connections and cultivates it into a habit. The habits regarding language are fairly different between monolinguists and multilinguists.
For a monolinguist, the selection of speaking attitudes is merely linked with the identity of listeners, as they speak in the same language when speaking to different people.
However, if a multilinguist has gotten used to speaking a language only to a particular audience, for instance, to his family only, this brain would start to make a connection between attitudes and languages themselves. As a consequence, the brain would adjust its wiring between different languages and colour them with certain attitudes. This leads to a distinguished style of speech and as a result, people who interact with the speaker reach a different conclusion about their personality.
Shifting between different languages then becomes an act of flipping a switch between mindsets. This is indeed quite a lot to absorb, so I’ll fit the theory into the case of my friend to make more sense out of it.
Suppose that over eight years, my friend is always linking English with school and Chinese with some light-hearted family chat after dinner; her brain would begin whispering “you are now a family member, not a scientist” every time she would speak in Chinese. In the end, she would probably sound sweeter in Chinese than English, regardless of whether her audience was her family or not.
It is a sincerely awesome feat. For a language learner, being able to clearly feel the different parts of your mind interact is a taste of unexpected sweetness out of a slow-rewarded effort, though an invisible one to the majority.
Imagine not merely impressing others with your linguistic intelligence, but secretly surprising yourself every day while switching between languages, being amused by what you are capable of saying. If the capability to speak more than one language is great, having the potential of sensing a different version of yourself sounds just as cool to me.
As we are coming to an end, I hope this brief introduction of another fantastic side of multilingualism will be another reason for you to learn your next language, unlock the hidden personalities of others, and/or a new self which no one ever knew about.
I guarantee that it’ll be really satisfying. After all, one of our deepest desires is to amaze ourselves with the infinite unknown inside the very minds of human beings — how can it not be enjoyment?
Written by Crystal Li. Edited by Annika Lee. Published on 10/06/2019. Header image courtesy Arek Socha