language thoughts

This language column by Colleen Ross muses on how what language we speak may affect our behaviour, rather than the other way around. The author is trilingual, and notices how her behaviour differs when she is speaking English, French or German.

It's an interesting idea - that a culture's norms would be brought along with its language. On the other hand, the writer is reinforcing cultural stereotypes without questioning them. The French enjoy life more, Germans are aggressive and rude. People repeat these stereotypes, often with little or no first-hand experience of the culture itself - or with only the tiniest sample size, and that experience already prejudiced by expectations, based on stereotypes. These people are rude, these are tricky, not be trusted, these are brusque, these are obsequious. Ross seems to accept the cultural stereotypes as fact.
I'm a thoughtful sort of person. I like to mull things over before coming to a conclusion. I don't rant and rave. I'm not belligerent.

But German changed me.

I had been living in Germany for a year and felt comfortable in the language and culture. But that summer, a Canadian friend came to visit and was shocked at how aggressive I had become, speaking brusquely to slow waiters and queue jumpers.

The existence of my aggressive side fully hit me one night in Prague. I was with my sister, returning from a late night at the clubs. When the taxi driver quoted us the fare, I was incredulous: It sounded far too high. From the back seat, I spouted in German (more widely understood than English at the time) that no way were we paying that price. I halved the fare and paid the driver, insisting that was more than enough. My sister later said that I was very loud, very forceful and well, very scary. The next day, I learned the taxi driver had asked us the going rate.

I've always been fascinated by the intersection of language and personality. With the experience of my own split linguistic personalities, I was especially intrigued by a recent study that shows people who live in two cultures may unconsciously change their personality, or identity, when they switch languages.

According to researcher David Luna at Baruch College at the City University of New York, identity has traditionally been thought of as stable, but research in the past decade shows that identity is fluid, changing with the context. People do shift between different interpretations of same events, but the study shows that bicultural people do it more readily. Language, it seems, is the trigger.

This makes sense to me. When I moved to France, I felt like I'd been split into two different people. Two containers, wine bottles if you will, represented my two personas. The bottle for Canadian Colleen was full; wielding words and subjunctive clauses with aplomb, self-expression was my forte. The container for French Colleen, on the other hand, was empty, save the sediment of a mediocre Merlot.

As I gradually gained vocabulary and an ear for la belle langue, the bottle filled up. It was when I got my sense of humour in French that I felt the bottle was finally full. Yes, French Colleen had arrived and she was drunk on the finer things in life. I felt different when I spoke French: more joie de vivre, an ability to savour the daily pleasures of life.

"Language is one of the most powerful cues to activate a culturally specific way of doing things, thereby activating a different identity," says researcher Luna, who is originally from Spain. His study showed Hispanic women interpreted the same advertisement differently, depending on whether it was in Spanish or in English. They viewed the woman in the Spanish ad as more independent and assertive than the same woman in the English ad.

So why do people tap into different identities when they switch language and culture?

Here, English and Spanish are contrasted as if they represent two cultures: English and Spanish. But people speak Spanish in many countries with very different cultures. Similarly, is the English speaker adopting norms from Canada, the US, Britain, Australia, New Zealand...? If they're North American, are they using the cultural norms from Ontario, or Alabama? Maybe this idea of language changing identity is another way to confirm and reinforce cultural stereotypes?

I'm interested in what you have to say, especially the several linguists who read this blog.

In another language-related story, I enjoyed reading this book review of Reading The OED - One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages by Ammon Shea, an account by a man who read the entire Oxford English Dictionary, straight through, in one year.

If you're not familiar with the OED, it's a massive, multi-volumed book that contains a miniature history of every word in the English language. It's so huge that it's usually displayed on its own reading stand, and often with a magnifying glass. I see entries from the OED when I get my weekly Pepys Diary installment (the diary is daily, but I catch up on it weekly). I also bought the OED on CD-ROM for Allan as part of a birthday present. So I have a lot of OED exposure. The idea of reading it straight through makes me feel better about my own obsessive-compulsive tendencies!

The review itself, by the author Nicholson Baker, is very enjoyable.

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