Marcos Mendonça –

As the Czech proverb says “Learn a new language and get a new soul”, I cannot help but wonder if
this is really true. For the purpose of this essay, I am going to treat the word soul as personality. Do
we get a new personality when we learn a new language?

I think Allport’s definition of personality encompasses a broader sense of the word, and that is the
one I am going to use. He says: “PERSONALITY IS THE DYNAMIC ORGANIZATION WITHIN
THE INDIVIDUAL OF THOSE PSYCHOPHYSICAL SYSTEMS THAT DETERMINE HIS CHARACTERISTIC
BEHAVIOR AND THOUGHT” (1965: 28). According to this definition, personality is a
“metasystem”, interacting with other systems, and thus an active organization that suffers all sorts
of stimuli. And “language” is one of these kinds of stimuli.

It is more obvious that bicultural bilinguals, individuals who throughout life could experience two
different cultures, can display different personality traits when speaking one or the other language
because of the cultural aspects that each language carries within itself. In this case, the personality
is directly related to cultural aspects of each language.

I would like to take myself as a case study for this essay. I am Brazilian, so I speak Portuguese as
my native language, never lived abroad, so I consider myself to be monocultural although I think
nobody is 100% monocultural in a globalized world. I believe we are sort of multi-cultural with different
levels of adherence to specific cultures that may draw our interest outside of our “own” culture.

Very negative views of bilingualism thrived in the past, and some of them still do today. It was believed
that bilingualism could be the cause of split personalities and even schizophrenia. Adler
(1977) wrote of the bilingual child: “His standards are split, he becomes more inarticulate than one
would expect of one who can express himself in two languages, his emotions are more instinctive,
in short, bilingualism can lead to a split personality and, at worst, to schizophrenia” (page 40).

Alexander & Baker (1992) even suggest that being bilingual will result in negative labels allocated
to a bilingual child which will, in turn, result in the lowering of self-esteem. Their argument is that
being in a bilingual education program means separation from a native-language speaking majority,
and thus causing a segregation of that child. Well, speaking the majority language and being
inserted in the majority culture does not guarantee at all the increase of a child’s self-esteem.

Let’s take my example again. When I was in school, specially elementary and middle school, I did
not have a high self-esteem. I was an extremely shy boy, did not have as many friends as you
would expect a child to have and because of that I was bullied a lot. For me, my Portuguese –
speaking self was not a very successful/interesting one. When I started to study English at a private
language school, I found a new passion. I fell in love with the English language and saw that I
had a special talent for learning it. I started to read books and magazines in English, watch films
and videos without subtitles, and thus becoming more and more fluent in the language. I believe
that, unconsciously, I was building a new self; an English-speaking self, one that was more interesting,
more confident and amazingly more articulate than my native Portuguese-speaking self.

Another aspect that also influences the winning of my English-speaking self over my Portuguesespeaking
self is the fact that I do not really fit into my “own” culture. I seem to identify myself more
with the American culture. I have always been very critical of Brazil and its people, always regarding
myself as somewhat of an outcast in my “own” country.

All these things fueled the empowerment of my English-speaking self, making it more appealing,
more articulate and even more knowledgeable. Since I read much more in English and watch
videos/movies much more often in English as well, all the new knowledge I acquire is also in English.
This makes it much easier to pass on that same knowledge in English instead of Portuguese.

What makes my case even more interesting is the fact that I am not a “crib”bilingual, raised in two
languages from birth. I learned English at a later time in life when I was 10 years old. And I am not
bicultural either. I was born and raised in Brazil, and have lived here all my life. For me it is also
much easier to describe affective experiences and activities or use taboo words in English. Despite
having Portuguese as my native language, one of the primary characteristics of bilingual defense
mechanisms is the use of a language devoid of emotional associations to describe affective experiences
or activities, and that language for me is English.

Most of the time, it is easier for bilinguals to talk about emotionally charged topics in their “second”,
less emotional language.

I believe there are not enough studies and research outside of the realm of biculturalism related to
bilingual personalities. So I leave you with this question: “Do bilingual subjects’ seeming dual personality
simply reflect a case of biculturalism (not my case), where a specific social or linguistic
context simply cues a shift in conditioned social behavior? Or does language in fact provide a
much more mutative and pervasive function which organizes, stores, and internally insulates sets
of cognitive and affective experiences?”

Bibliography
WOODWARD, K. Identidade e diferença: uma introdução teórica e conceitual. In: SILVA, T. Identidade
e Diferença. Petrópolis, RJ: Vozes, 2012, p. 7-39
SILVA, T. A produção social da identidade e da diferença. In: In: SILVA, T. Identidade e Diferença.
Petrópolis, RJ: Vozes, 2012, p. 73-102.
REVUZ, C. A língua estrangeira entre o desejo de um lugar e o risco do exílio. In: SIGNORINI,
Inês (org.). Lingua(gem) e Identidade: elementos para uma discussão no campo aplicado. Campinas:
Mercado das Letras. São Paulo: Facesp, 1998.
FOSTER, R. P. The Power of Language in the Clinical Process. Assessing and treating the bilingual
person. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1998
TITONE, R. On the Bilingual Person. Ottawa, Ontario: The Canadian Society for Italian Studies,
1989

 

 

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