Everyone knows the massive benefits bilingualism has on brain function, making it easier to learn a third language and even staving off dementia. But what about a second language’s effect on personality? More and more studies are showing that second languages can affect a person’s perception, resulting in changed actions and personality than when speaking in their mother tongue.
This can be based on a person’s subjective experience surrounding a certain language—speaking a second language that you’re less confident with can certainly lead to you being more polite and less forthcoming, especially if you’re speaking with native speakers. In other cases, a second language can trigger memories and emotions from a certain time of your life, effectively turning you into that person again when you speak it.
Triggering Emotions & Stimulating Memories
For example, a friend of mine learned Irish in a classroom setting with a very strict teacher. The teacher constantly impressed on the class how speaking English was giving in to the colonizers, so my friend now becomes shy and guilt-ridden whenever he speaks Irish. My friend from Romania moved to the United States when she was a young girl and started speaking primarily in English. Because of this, she automatically reverts to a youthful mindset when she speaks Romanian. On the other hand, as I learned Spanish mostly through backpacking in Latin America and conversing with people at hostels and beach parties, I find I become more extraverted and energetic when I speak in Spanish than in English.
Playing the Part of Your Language
Constructs and shortcomings of a certain language can mold your thinking differently as well. Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges once lamented the limited vocabulary of the Spanish language as not being large enough to express his ideas in the way he wanted.* Many speakers of multiple languages agree that while English is a very useful language, and in many cases quite playful with many opportunities for puns and constructing new words, it lacks emotional depth.* Native speakers of Greek often admit they tend to talk loudly and over other people, interrupting others in conversations before they’ve even finished sentences.* One possible explanation for this is that Greek is a highly inflected language where sentences begin with the verb, allowing someone to get most of their thoughts out in only a few words. Whereas interrupting someone speaking in a language with S-V-O construction is generally considered rude, if you interrupt someone speaking Greek, you’re saving them from excess verbiage.
*Editor’s note: I don’t necessarily agree with the characterizations of Spanish, English, and Greek, and I’m concerned about the risk of stereotyping here. But I value the author’s opinion and welcome a different point of view in my guest posts. –Ron
Changing Your Moral High Ground
What language you’re interacting in can even affect your ethical code. Studies have shown that people presented with moral problems in a second language, such as the classic “push a man in front of a train to save five people farther down the track” philosophical dilemma, tend to have an emotional distance from it and thus generally choose the more logical option of killing one person to save five. While studies are showing new information on the effects of bilingualism all the time, the opportunity to explore unknown facets of yourself makes for yet another enticing reason to learn a second language.
And the best part of it is that it’s never too late to learn. Even if your brain doesn’t soak up languages like a newborn’s does, studies have shown that even at the age of 60 years and older, the mental benefits of learning a new language kick in immediately. So what are you waiting for? Pick a language and get cracking!