Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Two Languages, Two Minds?

We all have a mother tongue. And we have our native culture, which is often at least partially associated with that language. But what happens when people learn a second language that comes from a different cultural background? Do they learn just the language? Or can't they avoid getting a certain dose of the culture associated with it too?

Studies have discovered that bilingual people tend to partially change their personalities based on which language they're speaking at a given time. Those tested have been Hispanic Americans and they've shown the general pattern of being more assertive and independent while speaking English than when they speak their native Spanish.

This must be due to the more individualistic characteristics inherent in the US culture, which is associated with the English they've learned. It would be interesting to consider how people elsewhere react to the different cultural norms connected with the second languages they're learning. Do Turkish immigrants in Germany also display traits peculiar to the Germans when they make use of the adopted tongue? That may well be possible since effectively learning a new language generally involves studying - and in the process being also influenced by - the culture of its native speakers. Though you may not set out to be subjected to this force as you begin to pick up the language, there's no way a language can be mastered without a deep understanding of the thinking and behavioural patterns of the setting where it is mainly spoken.

The masses learning English in countries where the Anglo-Saxon ways are practically abhorred, like for example the Arab lands, or where Western values are considered decadent, like China (at least until a few years ago), must have a particularly hard job; they too need to learn the by-now international language while at the same time trying to keep its cultural influence at bay. One must wonder whether this is quite possible. After all, there are a lot of positive aspects of the prominent English-speaking milieu that would appeal to an intelligent mind, like punctuality or accountability, despite there also being negative nuances like the rampant materialism.

Then of course we find places like India, where English, though initially introduced by the despised British colonial forces, has meanwhile become as good as a local vernacular. In a land where hundreds of regional dialects and more than twenty official languages are used, English has blended seamlessly into the local setting, leaving behind its foreignness almost entirely. It is in such spots that one would probably expect to find the least that has to do with the mindset of the original speakers. Nevertheless, some vestiges of it can be found with the English speakers there as well, to be seen more distinctly in the urban environment. And today's Indian urbanites are being influenced even more by American culture, which has come to be almost inseparably associated with the English language worldwide in our age.

(Image credit: daveynin

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