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You Are What You Speak

You Are What You Speak

Could speaking a different language make us a completely different person?

Understanding the Turkish saying: “One language, one man; two languages, two men”, or the Czech proverb: “Learn a new language and get a new soul.”; while languages help us socialize and convey our thoughts and needs to those around us, research has shown that languages go on even further to shape our personality as well, based on which of them we choose to speak.

Early in her career, Berkeley Emeritus Professor Susan Ervin-Tripp conducted a study in which she asked Japanese-American women to complete sentences she gave them in both Japanese and English. She found that they proposed very different endings depending on the language used. Thus, for the sentence beginning, “When my wishes conflict with my family . . .” one participant’s Japanese ending was, “. . . it is a time of great unhappiness,” whereas the English ending was, “. . . I do what I want.”

The experiment shows how people’s thinking can be affected by the language they use. This is because when a person learns a language, they also impart from the cultural values, history, and traditions associated with that language; and based on the environment and circumstances in which the language is learnt, that person develops a certain personality associated with it.

What is interesting to note is that the learner’s personality is further shaped by the content gained in each language – be it in the form of books, movies, lectures, videos, or conversations; the learner may be able to voice their opinions on a topic in one language, but may not have similar information while trying to discuss it in another.

Another aspect is that having mastery in one language can result in a very confident speaker, but when switching to another language in which the same level of fluency does not exist, the same speaker can instantly become shyer and more apologetic.

Looking at how the history and fluency of a language shapes one’s personality, we can take English in the subcontinent as an example: when the British ruled India and established themselves as superiors for almost a century, they left a lasting impression of English being a dominant language; which is why, even today, many people in Pakistan prefer to speak English in business meetings or high-end gatherings, because it gives a sense of being educated, dominant, and superior.

As for Urdu, since it is the national language, it gives a sense of warmth to its speakers in contrast to English; and when we come to the regional languages, they have a more intimate and humble impact, which is why locals prefer to speak in their regional languages whenever they get the chance, because it helps them establish a more friendly tone in the conversation, which cannot be established to the same extent by English, or even Urdu, for that matter.

The goal we should continuously aim for is  to improve our skills in all languages we learn, so that our personality is refined no matter what language we use, because “the more we know, the more we grow”.

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