According to research, bilingual individuals are seen to have a higher level of cognitive flexibility, demonstrating that they are more creative and adaptable in their thinking. They also demonstrate a higher sense of metalinguistic awareness and are able to grasp a better understanding of the components of language, which allows them to detect hidden patterns and figures more efficiently than monolingual individuals .
One of the most important studies in the field that highlights the distinct advantages of bilingualism is that of Peel and Lambert’s (1962) research study on French-Canadian children in Canada. They found that the French-English speaking children consistently outperformed the monolingual children in a range of varied cognitive tasks. Thus, as a result, they suggested that bilingual students had a ‘more diversified intelligence…a mental flexibility, a superiority in concept formation, and a more diversified set of mental abilities’ .
However, one crucial component that has not been widely studied is the notion that bicultural bilinguals regularly report to possess distinctive ‘personalities’ or personality traits in their varied languages. Benjamin Lee Whorf, an American linguist, studied the links between personality and language during the late 1920s. He concluded that each language possesses a particular world view, and this in turn heavily affects its speakers . ‘Whorfianism’, as it is now referred to, argues that language not only shapes one’s thoughts but also one’s concept of the physical world.
One cannot deny that being exposed to a different culture allows for interaction in separate social circles, literature, music etc., which all add to broadening oneself and, in effect, add dimensions to one’s character. Yet that is not the debate in hand; many bilingual bicultural people report to feel an entirely different character when conversing in their different languages. So could one argue that the components of a said language alter one’s personality?
As a bilingual bicultural Afghan, I feel distinctly more assertive when speaking Dari. I do feel like my personality and mannerisms differ in English and Dari, yet does that mean that I possess a dual personality? In order to delve deeper into the question of personality, it is imperative to offer a brief definition of the term. Personality is made up of particular distinguishing patterns of thought, behaviours and feelings which make a person unique, and it would be safe to say, regarding the norm, that most people remain fairly consistent in their personality throughout their lives.
It is important to note that when discussing this notion I am referring specifically to bilingual individuals who are symmetrically strong in both of their languages. Such individuals would be referred to as ‘crib’ bilinguals who were raised in both languages effectively and are comfortable conversing in either language . Yet still many recent researchers argue that such individuals, though they have a great ability in both languages, are not commonly exposed to the culture of either language and so do not learn how to converse in the language as it should be.
Dari is a deeply emotive language, as seen through its primordial vocabulary, grammar and sentence structure. However, if one is unable to detect the ways in which traditional Dari speakers use these language tools to create profound imagery through the use of proverbs and metaphors, they will not be able to experience the variety and essence of the language. It is essential to appreciate that language and culture are quintessentially connected.
Thus, another key factor when determining the impact of language on personality is ‘biculturalism’ . Bilinguals who possess an equal ability in both languages may not report to feel any difference in character due to the absence of the culture that each language originates from. Therefore when detecting personality alterations in individuals it is crucial to discern that they are both bicultural and bilingual.
To gain a better understanding of these terms let us observe two examples of individuals from either background; A bilingual individual, who has been taught to speak Dari and English simultaneously in England, with the absence of an Afghan community of Dari speaking individuals, will be unable to manipulate the components of the language of Dari copiously. They will not be able to effectively evoke imagery through the words and will find it difficult to understand or use the proverbs which are so heavily relied upon in Dari. The absence of the culture means that they will not be able to change their outlook when communicating in Dari as they do not place particular significance regarding context and history, when telling a story, for example about Afghanistan. Therefore, their personality is based heavily on the culture with which they are brought up .
However, another child who was perhaps born in Afghanistan and moved to England at an early age, with two Afghan Dari speaking parents and a wide community of Afghans around them, will speak Dari in a different way. They will not only be exposed to the grammar and vocabulary, but also the various ways in which to manipulate the language in accordance with the culture. The culture will impact their stories and outlook in their descriptions of people and places.
Thus, when it comes to bilingual bicultural individuals it is no surprise that they experience different outlooks and characteristics when speaking in different languages. Many psychological experiments on such individuals highlight that when primed they will alter between the two languages with their emotions . For example, to ask a young Afghan man living in London to tell a happy story may put him in a better mood and thus speaking in Dari will conjure up feelings of family and home, whereas speaking in English may conjure up feelings relating to work and education.
One cannot deny that culture and language play a part in the development of one’s personality, yet the syntax, grammar and sentence structure of a language can also have a significant impact on one’s personality .
Having visited Kabul recently, I recognized the blunt and somewhat assertive nature of many of the locals. I found it to be even more intriguing when leaving Kabul as this personality trait was prevalent in other Dari speakers from different provinces; which is interesting, as the location of the community was not the reason for these particular characteristics. This made me take a closer look into the actual configuration of the linguistic components of Dari and whether this impacted the personalities of the people. For example, in Dari if one is to ask to close the door, ‘darwozara qoim ko’, it translates as ‘door, close it’. The subject is placed before the verb, which makes the statement assertive . If we were to translate this statement into English, it would be ‘close the door’. This slight difference in sentence structure makes this utterance seem less commanding than the Dari equivalent. Even though both statements are in fact commands, the English statement can be perceived to be less definite in that the statement allows room for variation in tone of voice and attitude.
Dari is more direct when regarding actions; it does not fuss with many auxiliary verbs, as but one example, which for the English tongue makes it sound more abrupt.
It is interesting to note, as many Afghan British friends and relatives have remarked, that when re-entering Afghanistan they found it a pleasant surprise that the people were more direct and open in their thoughts and language, which by this example we can see to be a benefit of the language traits.
It is a difficult task to assess the effect of language on personality. Personality is a broad term, which is influenced by several components – it is constantly changing whilst remaining consistent. However, I strongly believe that language is such a huge part of one’s personality, both in its linguistic make-up as well as its cultural heritage. So in some way or another language affects everyone’s character. The question remains, to which degree does language impact different individuals?
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