Do you feel – sophisticated, elegant, suave – when you speak French, or perhaps – curious, outgoing, and free – when you speak English? The results of the study published in the Journal of Research in Personality suggest that our perceptions of the culture associated with a given language can impact our behavior.
The mentioned research entailed a personality test. The bilingual Mexican Americans were asked to take a test in both English and Spanish. The test measured the ”Big Five” personality traits: extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism. The study found that subjects scored higher in extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness when they took the English version of the test. The authors speculate that this may reflect the fact that individualistic cultures (like that of the US) place a high premium on assertiveness, achievement and superficial friendliness, whereas it’s less important to sing one’s own praises in collectivistic cultures (like that of Mexico).
The study also found that the context in which you learn a second language is essential to your sense of self in that tongue. In other words, if you’re learning to speak Mandarin while living in China, the firsthand observations you make about the people and culture during that period will be built into your sense of identity as a Mandarin speaker. If you’re learning Mandarin in a classroom in Germany, you’ll likely incorporate your instructor’s beliefs and associations with Chinese culture along with your own – even if those beliefs are based on stereotypes. And if you learn a language without any kind of context, it may not impact your personality much at all.
For those of you learning a language associated with a culture you admire, that’s all the more reason to immerse yourself in it – whether that means taking a trip abroad, watching movies in your chosen tongue, finding a native speaker who can help you learn about their country’s traditions, or all of the above. When you learn a new language, you’re not just memorizing vocabulary and grammar rules – you also have a chance to tap into new parts of your identity.
Do you see yourself through the cultural values of the language you are speaking? How do you feel when speaking different languages?
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