We respond to others based on our dominant language, but when their dominant language is not congruent with ours, our understanding may not be congruent with what they intend.
Nadine Shaanta Murshid
know some words for war, all of them sharp,
But the sharpest one is jung— beyond English!
— “Beyond English”, Agha Shahid Ali
My husband writes. He writes poetry, sometimes. In English. But, he draws from several lexicons to articulate his thoughts: English, Bengali, Urdu, Hindi. In his first iteration, he uses words that most closely depict his thoughts. But those words are not always in English. For example, waqt. Urdu. And then begins the struggle to find a replacement for that word in English. It may translate into “time” but it's not really time that he means, he means it as that exact solemn moment. In that moment, he has gone from embodying one personality to another.
We are different people in different languages.
This (controversial) Sapir-Whorf idea (that was dismissed after first conceptualised by the duo in the 1930s) is in line with recent research by Osyessman and Lee that has shown that language informs values, self-concept, and cognitive ability. Others, such as Hull (1990, 1996), have found that asking the same question in different languages yield different answers from the same person quite consistently. This indicates that cross-language differences in personality traits are perhaps real.
If that's the case, there are huge implications for peoples' construction of reality.
To make sense of that idea, let's pull back to think about how each language provides different sets of information, even when the topic that is being spoken about is the same. For example, in Bangla when we speak about an uncle you know exactly what type of an uncle we're talking about without having to use additional descriptors. Similarly, when “organising time” we do so based on which language we write in. In English, time will invariably move from left to right, the direction in which we write that language, in Arabic it will be the other way round, indicating that spatial orientation is specific to language.
In a recent talk on campus, my linguist colleague, Eunhun Lee, spoke of the East-West divide in “seeing” things. Apparently, in the East, when looking at a picture of a fish in an aquarium, the first thing that people notice is the environment, and in the West, it is the object: the fish. I'm not a linguist but following the idea that spatial orientation is associated with language, I'm assuming that the structure of the language has something to do with what we see first.
What appears to be in line with Lee's observation is research from Lera Boroditsky, who shows that study participants who spoke English, Japanese, and Finnish were all equally likely to report events from an “agent” or “person” perspective until the event was an accident and the agent wasn't responsible for the act. Respondents who spoke Japanese and Finnish were less likely to identify the agent as an actor in accidents while English speakers were. This doesn't mean English speakers are more likely to have more memory power to recall who the actors are, they just construe events differently, i.e. from the standpoint of the individuals concerned in an event, while the Japanese and Finnish speakers do so based on context.
So what does that mean when we operate in two or more languages?
One answer is that, it would depend on which language we are speaking in.
In terms of “seeing” things, perhaps bilingual speakers of an Eastern and a Western language are more likely to see the object and the environment together.
Or, more likely, it would depend on which culture they're operating in. Hull had shown how individuals conform to cultural norms of the operating language, which then brings about the change in personality when the different languages are spoken. But, I would argue that it's not merely language that changes who we are, it's also the location in which we speak and the people that we are speaking to.
Specifically, because as bilingual persons we not only speak to others in single languages but in mixed-languages (with other bilingual persons), we can make the argument that there is a third personality that we embody, in addition to the two based on the two languages that we operate in.
That raises the question: is that third version of ourselves the most true and authentic? I don't know, but my sense is that in our mixed-up sentences we draw from a larger lexicon, we are able to use the exact word that reflect our thoughts and emotions, and we are able to draw upon a larger body of history with which we can explain more lucidly what we believe in, what we feel.
But it's probably not often that we're being “both” and therefore a “third” version of ourselves.
This is because it is possible that even when mixing up the languages, personality depends on what language we are speaking in, in our heads. For example, sometimes I speak in English but I'm really speaking in Bangla, particularly when speaking to other Bangla speakers who also speak in English, which is indicated through my accent and sporadic use of Bangla words even in a sentence constructed in English. In that case, I would be the version of myself that operates in Bangla, even when using both languages. In other words, that may not necessarily mean that I have a third version of who I am.
But, certainly, our ability and proficiency to operate in a particular language is central to the corresponding personality. If, for example, I am adept at speaking in Bangla more than in English, if I write better in Bangla than I do in English, if I have a wider range in terms of vocabulary in Bangla than in English, then I am more likely to display my Bangla personality more consistently.
What does this mean in real life? 1) Sometimes, these personalities may collide. 2) We respond to others based on our dominant language, but when their dominant language is not congruent with ours, our understanding may not be congruent with what they intend. For example: apologies. When apologised to in Bangla, I am never quite sure whether it is genuine. There's something about “I'm really sorry” that resonates. There is no corresponding apology in Bangla that I can internalise and accept as an apology. 3) Because in the world of bilinguals, how we see the world changes depending on which language we're speaking, so does our implicit bias, research shows, which means, who we like and dislike may depend on which language we're operating in!
And that means: we all need to learn another language, immerse in other cultures, and expand our horizons, so that we can identify our implicit biases as we straddle our different personalities.
Only then can we learn to have empathy for other peoples. Only then will the war on peace come to an end.
The writer is Assistant Professor, School of Social Work, University at Buffalo.