Between India and Scotland: translating personality from a language to another

The correlation between multilingualism and certain personality traits has long been debated amongst linguists, psychologists, and anthropologists. It is a fact that languages and linguistic groups evolve differently to suit the societies they stem from: historically, this led them to develop specific features which find explanation in their cultural origins. A notable example is constituted by the articulated honorific system in the East, which finds no exact equivalent in the West. Recent studies show that behavioural differences seem to originate from a person’s own experiences with languages and the way they relate to specific contexts and cultures, rather than formal features of languages themselves. 

Being a Hindi and English speaker myself, I think the crux of the matter lies somewhere in between the two stances. Eastern and Western philosophies represent a dichotomy that finds clear representation in the languages within their sphere. As a consequence, I do experience a slight shift in my perspective when switching from a system to another.  In India, the emphasis on familiar ties is much more rigid, and people tend to live in large families. Therefore, Hindi presents a demarcation between different types of uncles and aunts, with different words for each relation. Hierarchical grammar is another major difference that had an influence on my outlook:  growing up, having to address my teachers using honorifics always made them seem like a higher entity, someone who commands more respect than the general populace and my fellow students; when I came to the UK, on the other hand, the informal style of talking to lecturers by just using their names made them seem much more human and approachable.

However, it is also true that the circumstances in which I learned Hindi and English have more direct bearing upon my personality than any grammatical or philosophical consideration. Indian culture is radically different compared to that I’ve encountered here: whenever I switch to Hindi, I feel like it is that cultural shift which brings about a slight change in my persona. Even today, English is considered a language of the upper-class in India, and speaking it fluently is still considered a sign of affluence and modernity. Therefore, me and tons of other upper-middle class children were taught English right up to the final year of schooling, while Hindi was abandoned after merely five years, since no multinational is going to hire you based on your knowledge of it (this created a whole generation being unaware of their own culture, and a feeling of alienation and emptiness, but that’s a discussion for another day). Despite this, Hindi always remained my mother tongue, and the language that I learned as much from neighbourhood kids as I did from the books. The school insisted for us to speak English, but everyone reverted to Hindi when the teachers left. So, whenever I switch to Hindi to this day, I suddenly feel much more informal and relaxed compared to when I speak English, which feels more foreign on my tongue. 

A Spanish friend of mine once told me that he fell in love with a new person in Spain each month, but that he just doesn’t connect to people the same way here. On a similar note, I have found that I am much more reserved about my feelings in English because I have scarcely ever used the language to address closely personal matters before. These pieces of anecdotal evidence show that interacting with people in a language you are not used to raises your guards and can make you feel uncomfortable. Dr Francois Grosjean, a reputed psychologist, notes that it is mostly bicultural bilinguals which seem to be  affected by personality changes in empirical studies, while also holding that such change is a product of differing situations or contexts, and not the language.3 Basically, bicultural bilingual people tend to act bi-culturally, as a result of their two cultures intermingling in their heads. Coming from Spain or India, the culture here feels somewhat alien, and adapting to its workings entails sacrificing aspects of one’s original outlook while gaining new insights in the process. People change due to exposure to different surroundings, not because of a switch in their tongues. True, different grammar requires different mindsets, but when I talk to my mother, I still feel sixteen, no matter what language I use.  

[Gautam Gupta – he/him – @9gcity]

[Image: fickr/Quinn Dombrowski]

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