Monday, August 6, 2012

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: Changing Personality in a Second Language

The other day, a Turkish friend of mine told me how he felt his personality changed when he spoke English. He said he became a much finer, more organized, elegant 'Mr. Know-it-all' (there is another word for that, one that fits better, but I shouldn't use it! ) I definitely know what he means. I have observed him arguing in English many many times and it really feels like there is another person, an English person speaking. It's not only his accent, it's also how his posture changes, the way he uses his hands and even moves his eyes. 
Another Turkish friend of mine directly switches to English whenever she is in an extremely emotional state. She uses short, striking sentences to make her point. She looks like she wants to avoid the emotional pressure of her native personality by switching into another "language's identity". Even when she texts, she  uses English to make her point and even if you answer her in Turkish, she won't give up unless her emotional state is stable again (let's hope she won't mind me using the word "stable"!).
I can easily say that the same 'switch' applies to me. As a native speaker of Turkish, I can easily say that I, too, switch to English whenever I am under stress or in a tense situation. I have no idea why I do this, but, I can feel the urge to change into another person. It makes whatever I have to say easier to say probably because it seems to lift a barrier that might exist in my native language.
This phenomenon might especially be true for taboo and swear words. I know for a fact that many of my Turkish friends swear more 'comfortably' in English. Studies have shown that the emotional impact of a swear word in a second language is less than it is in the native language (studies here, here, and here). 

In a study called "Blistering barnacles! What language do multilinguals swear in?!", Jean-Marce Dewaele (2004) mentions the Anglo-Candian born Nancy Huston explaining this phenomenon:
"Every false bilingual must have a specific map of lexical asymmetry, in my case it is in French that I feel at ease in an intellectual conversation, in an interview, in a colloquium, in any linguistic situation that draws on concepts and categories learned in adulthood. On the other hand, if I want to be mad, let myself go, swear, sing, yell, be moved by the pure pleasure of speech, it is in English that I do it" (Huston, 1999: 61)
After giving this example, Dewaele offers some insight into this situation:
"Huston’s testimony is backed up by psycholinguistic explorations and psychoanalytic case studies confirming that when a second language (L2) is learned post-puberty the two languages may indeed differ, with the first being the language of personal involvement and the second the language of distance and detachment, or at least the language of lesser emotional hold on the individual (Amati-Mehler, Argentieri & Canestri, 1993; Bond & Lai, 1986; Gonzalez-Reigosa, 1976; Javier, 1989; Pavlenko, 2002b). Altarriba argues that words that label emotion are represented at a deeper level of conceptual understanding in a native or dominant language as compared to a second language (Altarriba, 2000, 2003; Santiago-Rivera & Altarriba, 2002). Bond & Lai (1986) and Javier & Marcos (1989) show that codeswitching and the use of the second language may act as a distancing function, permitting L2 users to avoid anxiety-provoking materials and to express ideas in their L2 that would be too upsetting in their L1" 
 As can be seen, all these seem to be explaining why we like to switch into a second language and in a way change our personality to distance ourselves from the emotions it would cause in our L1. Now, how does this apply to language learning and teaching? Before I mention the connection, I want to give another example related to language learning and personality. 

I have a Canadian friend who has been living in Turkey for at least 15 years. He has a Turkish wife and  a 10 year old daughter. His knowledge of the Turkish language can be best described as execrable (thanks to Gavin Dudeney for the word). He has always been an amazement to us. Whenever we witness his attempts to speak and understand the language, we try to understand how this is possible after so many years. When we asked him how he explained this "phenomenon", he used to shrug. I asked him again recently before I was doing research for this post. He agreed with my "switching personality" theory and said that he was just too stubborn to switch into this "Turkish" personality. He also describes himself as a reserved person who doesn't like to socialize too much. 
At the other extreme end is another Canadian friend who has been living in Turkey for about 10 years and is also married to a Turkish woman. I met him 7 years ago. His Turkish, even back then, was flawless. Both his pronunciation and knowledge of grammar fascinated me and I wondered how this could have been possible only in 3 years. He said that he just learned it. What kind of a person do you think he is? He is very outgoing, has traveled to nearly every corner of the country on his own, has been invited into homes by Turkish families and sort of slipped into a  Turkish personality.  

Now, how is this relevant to our English classes? It's this question that I ask myself after looking at these thoughts and examples that I have mentioned above: Is it possible that students who resist switching into another personality, a foreign personality one might say, have more difficulty in learning English than the ones who are more open to acquiring foreign thought patterns and personalities? I also want to ask if this might be relevant to students who are more conservative and distant to other cultures (especially Western cultures if English is going to be our example)? In my personal experience, I can easily say that this is true with the students that I have taught and observed. 

How about your students? Are there students in your class who have negative attitudes towards anything Western and therefore reject a "personality" change and consequently end up having trouble learning English?
How about yourself? Do you become Mr. Hyde when you speak English?

Altarriba, J. (2000). “Language processing and memory retrieval in Spanish-English bilinguals”. Spanish 
      Applied Linguistics 4, 215-45.
Altarriba, J. (2003). “Does cariño equal ‘liking’? A theoretical approach to conceptual nonequivalence 
      between languages”. In A. Pavlenko, R. Schrauf & J.-M. Dewaele (eds.), New directions in the study of 
      bilingual memory [= International Journal of Bilingualism 7(3)], 305-22.
Amati-Mehler J., S. Argentieri & J. Canestri (1993). The Babel of the unconscious: Mother tongue and 
      foreign languages in the psychoanalytic dimension. Madison, CT: International Universities Press.
Bond, M. & T.-M. Lai (1986). “Embarrassment and code-switching into a second language”. The Journal of 
      Social Psychology 126, 179-86.
Dewaele, Jean-Marc (2004) Blistering barnacles! What language do multilinguals swear in?! Estudios de 
      Sociolinguistica 5 (1), pp. 83-105. ISSN 1576-7418. Gonzalez-Reigosa, F. (1976). “The anxiety 
      arousing effect of taboo words in bilinguals”. In C.D. Spielberger & R. Diaz-Guerrero (eds.), Cross-
      cultural anxiety. Washington, D.C.: Hemisphere, 89-105.
Huston, N. (1999). Nord perdu. Arles: Actes Sud.
Javier, R. & L. Marcos (1989). “The role of stress on the language-independence and code-switching 
      phenomena”. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 18, 449-72.
Javier, R. (1989). “Linguistic considerations in the treatment of bilinguals”. Journal of Psychoanalytic
      Psychology 6, 87-96.
Pavlenko, A. (2002). “Bilingualism and emotions”. Multilingua 21, 45-78.
Santiago-Rivera, A.L. & J. Altarriba (2002). “The role of language in therapy with the Spanish English 
      bilingual client”. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 33, 30-38.


  1. I do Hakan dear! I shift to L2 when I need to HIDE.

    1. Hi Hande, thanks for your comment. Can you give examples of such situations (if they are not too personal of course)?

  2. Well, not exactly Mr. Hyde perhaps-because you have to have some Mr.Hyde in you somewhere to become one in any language or setting- but I must admit I also experience a kind of transformation. This is natural I believe; we may even be using different parts of our brains when talking in different languages. A friend of yours appearing more confident when talking in English? Again something that would be expected. We feel confident and at ease when we converse in English because it has been a part of our jobs and lives for so many years. We are very much used to discussing things in English, we spend 8-9 hours a day reading, writing and talking in English only to go home and watch a TV series in English, read an article or a book in English. With that much exposure? Come on! Of course he feels more confident.
    Swearing? I totally agree with you. Me swearig in Turkish? No way!! In English, I can utter a word or two-occasionally, of course.

    1. Thank you İpek for your valuable comment. I know that my friend is confident when talking in English, but, it is something else that changes. It is the WAY he talks. It is also interesting to witness special instances when we switch to English. I don't know if this can be explained by the amount of exposure to the language but I am sure that it is related.

    2. This explains it well I guess: "She looks like she wants to avoid the emotional pressure of her native personality by switching into another "language's identity". English may be "less personal" for us even if it is a big part of our lives.
      What I meant was-quite unsuccessfully I guess- we have become more used to discussing and arguing in English-hence the confidence.

    3. I totally agree with you there. Thanks for your input.

  3. Amazing.

    I don't think I ever had a moment where I noticed I was slipping into one language or the other, but in some ways, when I was around people I knew, I'd feel more confident speaking in Spanish (when I was in Spain at the time).

    Really interesing post =)

  4. Yes - interesting indeed. I have noticed many times that vocal tone, in particular changes when speaking L2. Korean men, for example, tend to sound much "cuter" with higher tones in English than when, to my surprise, they speak in manly, husky voices in Korean.

    For myself, when I am around Koreans and speaking Korean, the cultural norms of conversation also tend to affect how I speak in Korean (though quite broken). I tend to become more respectful towards older people, like a Korean would. Additionally, there is that shyness that comes out when speaking L2 that isn't there in L1.

    Beyond this, the language itself may also account for an increased ability to express oneself. Several languages (e.g. Korean) tend not to focus on the individual like English does (i.e. note the frequent use of "I think") and can enable non-native speakers to feel more comfortable expressing difference of opinion from their peers in L2.

    1. Thanks Tyson for your comment. Seeing that this is happening in other languages is also interesting since I can only look at it from an English point of view.

  5. Hi Hakan,

    Actually your post made me think a lot. The thing is that when people say that they cannot learn a language, I understand it as "don't want to learn", I am afraid. I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings, but my husband is one of those people who doesn't want to learn a different language, because not knowing/speaking the language of the country where he lives, makes the list of the responsibilities a lot shorter.

    1. Hmmm, yes Anna, that is true for my Canadian friend as well. On the other hand, once he also stated that he is just happy with not understanding what people around him talk about. That might be another factor: the bearable lightness of being oblivious!

  6. Yes, Hakan, you have made a point here. I definitely agree with the personality change issue. I have observed this change many times in myself and in others who learned the language in their adulthood. Like this friend of yours, I feel more refined, more elegant and more polite when I speak English. I use more hand gestures and when I speak Turkish, I sometimes need to switch to English as I can't find the right word or phrase in my language. As for swearing, I almost never swear but when I do, nothing compares to giving someone a Turkish mouthful!

    1. Thank you Haldun for your take on the subject. I agree with the Turkish mouthful, but on the other hand, swearing in English is much more liberating because it doesn't hurt anyone (at least here!!)

  7. A topic I've been thinking about...
    I have a higher pitch and a softer tone of voice when I teach English. When I switch to Turkish, my students find my tone very different. I haven't observed anything like that in my students though.

    1. Thanks Burçin for your comment. It would be interesting to observe whether there is a personality change in the students who are more successful in learning the language.

  8. I know my voice / pitch / way of speaking changes greatly when I speak English, but I think there are technical explanations for that (English and Portuguese have very different phonetics, intonation and rhythm patterns). More importantly, I do see myself slipping into English in some situations (usually ones that have extreme emotions involved - be it stress, tranquility or excitement). However, the one thing you pointed out that I had never thought about was whether the same thing happened to my students. And even more importantly, how THAT may have an effect on their attitude in the classroom and towards language learning in general.

    Very interesting post - and references. Thanks for it, Hakan!

    1. Thank you Cecilia for reading and commenting on the post. I agree that changes in voice/pitch are because of different patterns in different languages. However, what fascinates me is the reasons you slip into English in those emotional situation. Another friend of mine recently told me that she just didn't want to be that person (being in stress) and therefore she switched to English. How about people who don't speak another language? Might this create a difference in dealing with emotions?

  9. Hi Hakan,

    I'm so glad you wrote this post!
    This topic was actually going to be my MA dissertation because I too was fascinated by it!
    Unfortunately, I couldn't gather enough literature on the subject and eventually, another research project (politeness in ELF) caught my attention instead.

    In my experience, when I speak Japanese, I too take on a totally different personality.
    My tones are higher and I apparently because more feminine and more subservient, not just in the way I speak but in my body language as well.
    However, when I speak English or Mandarin, I use much lower tones and apparently sound more aggressive and confident...

    When I speak Italian, however, I'm even more expressive than I already am...and um...I swear a lot...

    I do wonder though if this isn't influenced by my perception of the languages that I learnt in addition to my mother tongue.
    Let me explain.

    I perceive Japanese women to be meek and subservient. So when I speak Japanese, I take on the personality I perceive I should be having.
    Yet when I speak Chinese, I have pretty much the same personality as when I speak English.

    This could be because both Chinese and English are my mother tongue and therefore 'contains' my native personality. (Am I admitting here that I'm an aggressive person, naturally? hahaha)

    Japanese and Italian, however, were acquired in my later years of development and I somehow have imposed my perceptions and stereotypes onto the cultures and the languages.

    This leads me to ask the crucial question, 'What stereotypes do our students have about English?' and 'How has Hollywood films and pop culture influenced their perceptions?'

    Does the learning of English through watching 'Friends' mean that students would take on the tones, the body language and even the attitudes of the characters of 'Friends'?

    Well, a student of mine loves rap music and has certainly taken on the behaviour and the 'aura' of a typical rapper when he speaks in English...and there has been some academic literature about the 'rapper identity' in the learning of English.

    But does this only happen with rap music? Could the rest of pop culture influence our identity and the way we express it?

    Then there's taking ELF into consideration and the fact that most people who learn English learn it to speak to other NNSs and not to native speakers. In this case, would they tend to keep their own identity when speaking English, say in business, because the English language is merely a tool that facilitates business communication?

    Most importantly, should we be encouraging students to take on a different identity or personality?

    Lots to think about here...


    1. Thank you Chia for this a comment that actually could become a separate blog post. There are indeed lots to think about. I agree with the "Hollywood" phenomenon and how it shapes and influences the learner. I am sure that all of us (as learners of English) have been affected once from "English speaking celebrities" and maybe have imitated them consciously or not. Even Madonna, as a native speaker, was influenced by her ex-husband Guy Ritchie and started to speak with a British accent. However, are they really changes in personality which are triggered by the use of the language or just imitations to make you look like you are a native speaker of the language. Even if we are imitating a personality, isn't this one way to learn? Is the 'rapper identity' helping or preventing progress in the English learning process?

  10. Self-reconstitution. Christine Revuz, inspired by Lacan's ideas, studied that - the self-reconstitution process people go through when learning a language. So you may have different attitudes and opinions in different languages. And this is also why your Turkish friend directly switches to English whenever she is in an extremely emotional state. If you'd like to read more on that, I really recommend her article called « La langue étrangère : entre le désir d’un ailleurs et le risque de l’exil ».

    1. Hell Toni. I like the term 'self-reconstitution'. I'd really like to read about Revuz, however, my Google search revealed that she only exists in French and unfortunately I cannot switch into French. :)

  11. Hi Hakan and everybody,
    Thanks for sharing your post.
    I had never noticed that my language tone changes when I speak English, especially when I teach, but my students have told me that my voice changes and even my body posture and facial expressions are quite different. I guess I have learnt a lot during the last two years by watching other teachers who have videotaped their classes or by watching video clips in English.
    So, I wonder if the energy I see in the teachers is so contagious that I got the "good virus" inside, and my English has become what I see in videos.
    Reflecting a little deeper into the subject, I feel I consciously try to communicate in a different way even in my L1 after this huge sharing-impact. I tend to pay more attention to my body language, and listening has become more important than rushing to speak out my opinions.
    Sometimes I wonder if it's important to follow the British English or the American English, I mean one or the other. But as a EFL teacher I consider we speak "International English", which might sound a little weird for natives.
    Foreign learners also learn by imitating sounds and personality, yes, why not?

    1. Thank you Debbie for sharing your experience. I guess apart from imitating sounds and structures, imitating a foreign personality is also a part of language learning.

  12. Dear Hakan,what you have mentioned is quite true with me,too.I do not think it is a matter of switching to Mr.Hyde,I guess it is a matter of feeling more confident in L2-English in this case-since most of us have spent more than half of the day trying to express ourselves in English while in class.
    As for me,I have never thought about it deeply,but I guess it is the security of the L2 I have been exposed to all through these 41 years or so.I have read,written,and spoken in English more than I have in my native language,I should say,since I wanted to teach and learn English well.Now it has become an irresistable part of my life,no matter where I am!Sometimes I find myself speaking L2 while addressing my sons!Even when I am in a foreign country where English is barely spoken,I find myself switching to L2.Interesting,eh?
    The comment that more "outgoing" people can switch to L2 or can learn L2 better than shy or less sociable people might be true because I believe it is a matter of interest and willingness.In my classes,I have observed a similar situation and asked my students to try to express themselves in English,I have kind of forced them to use L2.Some insisted on using their mother tongue while some others really tried hard and managed to switch to L2.Once they realize they can convey the message in L2,they feel more confident and keep on trying.

    1. Thank you Gülden for commenting on the matter. The question is whether you speak to your sons because you are too used to speaking English or you want to change your personality at that moment and become someone else?

  13. Many idioms (defined narrowly as phrases whose meaning cannot be determined by analyzing the "words" in them) seem to be foreign phrases transliterated directly into common words of the target language ... or the translation of foreign idioms that had already been transliterated into the same or another foreign source. (Successive translations should not affect the meaning if they were faithful.)

    This is ironic because the ability to properly use such idioms is considered to be an important attribute of a native or near native speaker.

    When I was a kid in Florida, all of my friends knew the meaning of "(escape) by the skin of my teeth" and not a single one of us knew it was the translation of B'3or SHiNai (using 3 for the letter aiyin) in the biblical book of Job 19:20. It means "barely, hardly, with difficulty" because that Hebrew phrase is a transliteration pun on the Hebrew word B'QoSHi at a time when the aiyin had a velar G/K-sound as in 3aZa = Gaza. This is like saying "wreck a nice beach" when you mean "recognize speech".

    In English we say "count sheep!" (to help one go to sleep). This seems to be the translation of the Hebrew phrase S'PoR KeVeS as a transliteration pun on the Latin phrase sopor (as in soporific) quies (as in quiescent or quiet). This idiom has been borrowed back into Israeli Hebrew as LiSPoR K'VaSiM = to count sheep (in the plural).

    He has an "axe to grind" [meaning he as an ulterior motive] seems to be transliterated directly from German acht or achtung = pay attention, be aware, beware + Grund = grounds, basis, reason. Compare German Beweggrund = motive.

    The "bell" in "does that ring a bell?" seems related to German Glock or French cloche as a transliteration of Latin recollect(are) = to remember.

    To see more of these, do a Google search for < idioms Hebrew "izzy cohen" >.

    1. Dear Izzy. I guess you have commented to the wrong blog. I will have to delete this comment. Thanks for your understanding (I don't know if you are real or a machine, so, I am going to give it a chance!)

  14. Context. Be it inter- or intracultural, context defines and dictates our interactions with others. Simply, we assume slightly different personalities in different contexts. We first learn this as we learn to speak in our native languages. This social skill is definitely the most important survival technique one can develop in trying to adapt to different cultural environments. (Did someone say Darwin?) Those who fail to make this chameleonesque shift successfully have trouble in their relationships and their professional lives, gradually destroying their self confidence at every incident of “contextual failure”. Knowing what to say is just a matter of language proficiency. Knowing how and when and to whom you say it is rare commodity that is rightfully coined as sociolinguistic competence.
    My writing is the product of everything I’ve read in English, so far. This very text I am writing is being simultaneously dictated by every teacher that I’ve had, every essay that I’ve read and written. Likewise, my spoken English is deeply rooted in a supra-personal language that I was forced to learn to speak. I call it supra-personal because when I speak in English, I am not just “a” different person; I am not even a “single” person. I am like a patchwork sum of every movie character whose lines I’ve imitated, every lyric that I’ve sung and every native speaker I’ve conversed with. Just like the way I am shaped by my environment in my native language, I am shaped by the native speakers of English with their personal and cultural peculiarities.
    Now, is that “more organized and elegant Mr. Know-it-all” enough for you? :)

  15. Great post and, as you can see by the comments, is a topic which interests very many people. Let me start by saying I couldn't agree more with Emrah Virlan - what a great comment!
    Apart from the "tone" issues which many have already mentioned above, let me give you a personal anecdote of "code-switching". Many years ago I lived in Austria and made a point of finding a gynaecologist who spoke fluent English as, in what we shall call 'stressful' moments (baby on the way!), I realised that I inevitably slipped back into English and didn't want to have the extra 'stress' of 'acting' in my L2 persona, finding the necessary words and preceding them all by "Frau Dokter X" ;-).
    To throw in another idea: as a "false bilingual" (according to Dewaele's article - though Cummins uses other terminology) I have also found that code-switching is often seen as a weakness. Many native Dutch speakers litter their conversations with English or French words (either it's cool or there simply isn't an adequate translation) but if a non-native speaker does the same it is generally assumed this is because you simply lack the necessary vocabulary.

  16. Wow, this post was great! I read it twice and lapped it all up. I'd like to know your thoughts on my situation. When I speak L2 (my L1 is English), I get showered with praise about how naturally I sound and how my choice of vocabulary and slang and colloquial phrases is so appropriate. I love my L2 - and try very hard to sound natural. I learnt it over five years without studying - just listening and imitating. But I've never felt this slip into a different personality :-( - I WANT IT! I've just sat thinking for a while trying to recall some change in traits when I speak the two languages, but the only thing I can relate to is swearing in L2 - I love it - especially spontaneously, like stubbing my toe or when I'm angry. Does this lack of shift to Mr Hyde mean that I could have been a better learner?

  17. Hello Hakan, thank you very much for this post, it made me think a lot. I can speak two foreign languages (English and German) I just love to observe people when they are talking in languages I do not understand one bit and pick up on intonation patterns along with facial expressions, hand gestures and so on... It is amazing to see how many different cultures there exist. Anyway, just wanted to comment that every language is unique and beautiful in its own way and i believe the more non-native speakers imitate the natives, the better and funnier life is! Will follow your blog from now on, so glad I discovered it! Best of luck, regards, Asli

    1. Thank you very much Aslı for your positive comment. I also want to thank you for reminding me that I have a blog and need to continue writing!! My new post will be ready, (hopefully) soon!

  18. A brilliant article indeed!! About Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: changing personality in a second language whatever shared here seems to me quite an educative sharing. I really enjoyed learning the views provided above. Thanks.

  19. This comment has been removed by the author.

  20. Betting in your city - Sporting 100
    Betting 토토 in your kadangpintar city dental implants - 출장마사지 Sporting 100 토토사이트

  21. How to login into the casino in 2021
    Here is 토토사이트 how to do this: Step 1. Go to the website. · Click on the “Login” link on the right-hand side. · Click on the “Login” 출장샵 button 바카라 사이트 to enter a live chat number. · Enter the