Sunday, October 23, 2011

Bilingual schizophrenia

A classmate presented this article (Aneta Pavlenko (2006). "Bilingual Selves." in Bilingual Minds: Emotional Experience, Expression and Representation), not me, but here are some of the interesting things I gleaned from it.

Basically, this lady Pavlenko did some in-depth research via questionnaires and surveys and found that a lot of bilinguals (anyone who can function appropriately in two languages in different contexts, remember) experience a metaphorical schizophrenia, in that they sometimes feel like a different person when they speak each language. This effect is intensified when bilinguals have learned one language in one context, and then moved on to another, separate context that is removed from the first and then learned another language. (This is as opposed to someone learning two languages but using them both in an ongoing manner in a bilingual society.)

For example, she told of a French/English bilingual author who was writing his memoirs. He put them down in French initially, and then went back and started putting them into English. As he finished some early chapters, he realized that the stories that had emerged in each version were so different that you could have mistaken them as coming from two different authors. For him, language was more than a medium in which to tell his story: it was a lens through which he focused the story.

Other bilinguals spoke of feeling like they were putting on a performance in their second (or third, etc.) language, like they were actors presenting versions of themselves that were not the true one. Similarly, participants self-reported (and psychoanalysts confirmed) being able to feel more emotion in their first language as compared to their second. Childhood stories came alive with detail and even fictional accounts were more vivid in the first language. Seemingly paradoxically, some bilinguals felt that it was easier to speak of taboo topics (or use taboo language) in their second language. Really, though, this confirms the finding of them being able to feel more emotion in their first language: by using a second language, they were distancing themselves emotionally from these awkward topics and inappropriate language. (So maybe that's why the first words some people want to learn in a foreign language are the curse words??)

Finally, the article talks about how the way we feel while speaking a certain language will affect our idea of our "selves" in that language. Remember that most of this holds especially true for those whose first- and second-language experiences are separated by social or cultural divides, but I confess I see this principle at work in myself. When I think of my Japanese self, I feel confident and literate and with-it. My Russian self is very culturally aware and is good at blending in with the crowd (not drawing attention to myself through language). My Arabic self is the one I have the most trouble with. In Arabic, there is no way for me to not be a freak, and it's in a different way than with my Japanese self. In Arabic, I feel anxiety about talking with men. In Arabic, I feel anxiety about only knowing one dialect. In Arabic, I feel anxiety that I basically can't read a newspaper - something I can (or could at one time) do in all of my other languages. In Arabic, I don't feel a strong connection to the literary tradition because there isn't much of a colloquial literary tradition to connect to. In Arabic, there are some sounds that I still. can't. freaking. PRONOUNCE.

So yes, all the intricacies of emotion/skill/proficiency when speaking a language are bound up with how I feel about each of my bilingual selves.

Do you agree with the author's proposed concept of a metaphorical schizophrenia? I'm not sure that's the term I would use, but I definitely see where she's coming from.


Crys said...

So that is really interesting. I'm going to have start questioning my mama (Spanish, English, Italian) and Dr. J (English, Spanish, Arabic). Like I'd be interested to see if they thought it could be the language itself, the mind, the situations in which you use it...hmmm. Personally I think Spanish is much more pleasant language to listen to while Arabic seems a little more harsh and more from the throat....or like with my mom and Spanish she predominantly uses it in her classroom, so I wonder if when she speaks Spanish outside the classroom she finds herself slipping into the teacher voice. Do you know what I'm talking about with the teacher voice? I swear that voice drives me nuts. I used to look at my friend Leslie and say, "I'm not one of your first graders, cut it out!" So on a only very slightly related note (slightly related to language I guess) Dr. J is always cracking me up when he comes home and tells stories about different doctors he works with, and when he is done, I'll say "That doctor is Arab or Indiana right?" And he's like, "Um yeah how could you tell?" And I just laugh because he unknown to himself will actually accent his English to match theirs :)

Katie said...

Having only made it through my third year of high school Spanish and one semester of Spanish at BYU (which doesn't count because it was terrible), I'm not really cool enough to know about this. But it is super interesting. And I think at least a little bit true.

breanne said...

I very much agree with this...but perhaps only to a certain level of fluency? When I am first learning a language, it helps to get in the "mode" of that language, especially since the 3 foreign languages I have learned have been in a different country. In that sense, I try to forget my American, English self and think like an Arabic or Chinese or Hebrew speaker. This helps me learn a language faster, because it allows me to construct sentences like a native (but not that I've perfected the "thinking like a native" thing yet!). When I was in Taiwan, people would often ask me how to say some Chinese phrase in English, and I would say, "We wouldn't say that in English." I have found the same to be true with Arabic and Hebrew--there are things you just can't translate across.

However, I think that when some people get to a certain level of fluency, they can become more comfortable talking about certain subjects in their second language than in their first, or even who prefer their second language to their first (even languages they learned as adults).

Perhaps the "different language personality" comes because different languages have different ways of expressing things--not that we feel any different, but the language we use portrays something different.

I don't know if that made any sense, but it sounds like a fascinating article!

Sarah Familia said...

I can definitely relate to this. In fact, in my Arabic 101 class at college, they had us choose an Arabic name, and even discussed this phenomenon, specifically mentioning that to learn a difficult language like Arabic we were going to need to let go of the more reserved and perfectionist parts of our personalities, and find a new persona in Arabic, or we would never let ourselves practice speaking.

I have a really hard time speaking Arabic now. I realized in Tunisia that it is in large part because my Arabic persona was very outgoing (scandalously so, I'm sure), and I don't feel comfortable expressing that persona in an Arab-world context now that I'm married.

I learned Spanish in the context of my mission, where we weren't allowed to use the informal second person. So to me, the formal form became psychologically equivalent to the English second person (which obviously lacks a formal/informal distinction). When I came home from my mission, and people started speaking to me in the informal, I just couldn't get enough of it. I felt like it was a constant reaffirmation of affection and trust.

The same distinction exists in Italian, and I react to it in the same way. My Italian-speaking self is much more comfortable exaggerating, dotes on children almost to an excess, loves parties and other social engagements, talks to random people in the park all the time, and just basks in the warmth and intimacy of that delightful informal second person verb form.

When I am in the U.S. I don't just miss Italy, I miss myself the way I am in Italy.

Bridget said...

Sarah, you reminded me that in Arabic, God shows up in my speech more than in English. I use God in Arabic in ways that I wouldn't in English because in English, it's irreverent or taking the Lord's name in vain. In Arabic (in my personal opinion), it's not like that at all. So am I more religious in Arabic?? Who knows.

Breanne, that totally makes sense. Gotta love that "we wouldn't say that in English" answer.

Lisa Lou said...

I wonder if a mission language is a little bit like this. Gospel words/thoughts/scriptures make (made) more sense to me in German. My voice lowers and speech patterns change when I speak German. I always thought it was almost fake sounding, fake to me, because this is not how I sound in English! But it kind of makes sense now.

Jennifer said...

So, so interesting to think about!

Susanne said...

Interesting post! I love what you said in your comment about using God's name more in Arabic than English. I remember talking about this one time thinking "why do y'all use God's name in vain so much in Arabic?" because I was always taught we don't say "By God, this or that" the way Arabs seem to do. Maybe that's just my too conservative Baptist upbringing coming out though. I'm trying to shed some of that.

I'm going to have to ask the bilingual folks in my life if they have different personalities depending on what they are speaking! Fun!


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