Bilingualism, the Personality Shape-Shifter

By Ambardar, Rekha | The World and I, October 2009 | Go to article overview

Bilingualism, the Personality Shape-Shifter


Ambardar, Rekha, The World and I


Does being bilingual consciously change personality when switching languages? Researchers who conducted a study on this subject tell me this does happen.

Researchers David Lewis from Baruch College, and Torsten Ringberg and Laura A. Perracchio from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, studied groups of Hispanic women, all of whom were bilingual, but with varying degrees of cultural identification. (1).

Although the study was conducted on female respondents, the researchers asserted that there was no reason that men also would not experience a similar "frame-switching," that is, switching from reactions congruent to one culture to reactions congruent to another culture.

They found changes in self-perception or "frame-shifting" in the bicultural participants--women who took part in both Latino and Anglo cultures. The researchers study showed that the women classified themselves as "more assertive' when speaking in Spanish than when they spoke English. In the Spanish language session, the female subjects were noted as being more self-sufficient and extroverted. (2)

Researchers Luna, Ringberg, and Peraccio had the respondents describe their thoughts and feelings about ads shown in both the English language and Spanish language sessions. In the Spanish language sessions the females in the ads were perceived as self-sufficient and extroverted. This frame did not emerge as often in the English language sessions. (3)

The respondents maintained the culture-specific mental frames across ads within each language sessions. Female models were perceived as self-sufficient, strong, industrious, intelligent, and ambitious in the Spanish language session, but the view of the women in the ads was not as strong in the English language sessions. Instead the women in these ads were seen as "other dependent" and "lonely." (4)

The study is certainly interesting and it begs the question as to whether this tendency can be noted among women hailing from China, Japan, India, Korea, and the Middle Eastern countries.

If this study were conducted with a group of Indian women, the opposite would be true for the most part. Most Indian nationals (we can include both men and women in this group), who come to the U.S. are from the upper classes, highly educated, with English as the medium of instruction from kindergarten through college. Even though their mother tongue is not English, it does not make the slightest difference in their personality orientation when speaking in English or in a vernacular language. In many cases, they are more comfortable speaking in English rather than the vernacular.

Language, the driving force

Jessianne Ramirez, library director at a Midwestern college, mildly challenged the premise posed by the researchers, affirming that she was comfortable while using English.

A native of Puerto Rico, while she is confident about speaking in English because it is taught in kindergarten, she admitted that there were no opportunities to advance the fluency of the language beyond high school. Even though Puerto Rico is an U.S. territory, its official language is Spanish, unlike in India, where the official language is English, with the vernacular in use side by side. (5)

To this writer, Ramirez appears both smart and at ease while speaking in English and gives no indication that English is not continued as the medium of instruction in college.

Contrast this what Dr. Latha Poonamallee, a professor of management at the School of Business and Engineering, Michigan Tech, had to say during my interview with her.

Dr. Poonamallee, whose mother tongue is Tamil, a South Indian language evolved from the ancient Sanskrit, says that she is equally comfortable in both languages, and doesn't attribute any personality shift when using either language. In some cases, even, her articulation of complex ideas is more powerful in English than in Tamil, although she speaks, reads, and writes Tamil fluently. …

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