“So I’ve gone through your underwear draw…”, I contained my expression as best as I could but I was seriously wondering what was going through her head. I’d let a Swedish acquaintance stay with me for a couple of nights and she had helped herself to my intimates, aptly named because they are INTIMATE.
What was happening inside her head? She was multilingual, spoke reasonably fluent English and Norwegian and as well as Swedish. She spoke English with an American accent and I wondered what language did she think in, count in, dream in and if learning English in America had that influenced her ‘English’ personality.
As someone who is unimpressively unilingual, I was really curious as to how multilingual people manage to express their thoughts. Do they think in their native language then translate? Then what about untranslatable words, if you can’t translate a feeling can someone that doesn’t speak that language properly understand that feeling?
‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’ Ludwig Wittgenstein thought that the limits of your language were the limits of your world. How, if at all, does this affect personality?
I had previously read that bilingual people subconsciously have different personalities for each language. I was initially unsure of how deep this went as we all have ‘separate’ personalities for different situations such as how we communicate to our boss is different from how we talk with our friends.
Research however shows that people are limited by the grammatical constructs of their language. The experimental design tested English and German speakers and how they analysed observed situations. English verbs tend to be ‘on-going’ and thus the response when given in English was of the ongoing event in the observed situation. German language focuses more on the goal of the verb and therefore the responses were about the end goal. For example, if the scene shown was of a man walking towards a door, the English speakers focused more on the action of walking whereas the German speakers focused on the arrival at the door.
Another study asking bilingual Japanese American’s to complete a series of questions in either Japanese or English. The answers varied considerably depending on which language the questions were answered. The incomplete sentence “I will become…” was answered by Japanese speakers as “a housewife” and generally with English speakers with “career”.
In a wider context, how does this affect psychology internationally? How much can psychological theories blend across language borders? Our thoughts are restricted by the grammar of our language and the words we have. Building on this our culture is deeply intertwined with our language that can’t really be separated and should be thought of as a unit which I think is an important social discovery.