A very interesting characteristic of language is how it sounds. You can say something about how a language sounds even if you don’t speak it. Not only this, but you can also tell how this language makes you feel and make assumptions about the person speaking the language. This leads us to question whether the language(s) we speak can affect our personality. We’re taking a look at this topic from a scientific point of view. We’ll also present you with interesting results from our own research. It’s a survey done on our own team (Sam, Luca, Diana, Lize, Cédric, Mara, Maike, Patricia and myself) about the character of languages; we all had to assign characteristics to specific languages.
Do the languages you speak affect your personality?
A friend of mine from Luxembourg, a native speaker of both French and German, once told me that various people had reported him that he’d sound completely different when speaking French than when speaking German: more lively and happier. This is just one example; when observing people speaking different languages, I often notice that the language is not the only thing that changes. Does the language affect the mood or even the character of the speaker? Some go as far as to say that multilingual people have multiple personalities, which might sound quite strange at first. But how the languages you speak affect your character and the way you behave has undoubtedly been an area of scientific research for more than 50 years. In an experiment conducted in 1968, the researcher Susan Ervin-Tripp asked Japanese-American women to complete sentences in both Japanese and English. She found that these women gave different endings to the sentences in two languages. For example:
When my wishes conflict with my family …
- it is a time of great unhappiness. (Japanese)
- I do what I want. (English)
Real friends should …
- help each other. (Japanese)
- be very frank. (English)
This sounds like proof for different behavior in connection to the underlying language. Whether such differences resulted from the different contexts in which they learned the languages (i.e. the mentality of the countries), or whether they result from the inherent difference between the character of languages themselves. This remains an open question for researchers as well. Let’s therefore now move on to our own survey about the character of languages done by the MosaLingua team. I asked my colleagues to state what characteristics they associate the sound of a language with. To anticipate the result in one sentence: you will see that, on the one hand, some associations might result from personal experiences, but, on the other hand, some traits of a certain language seem to be generally perceived similarly.
Our team survey on the character of languages
Every time I learn a language and deal more thoroughly with several aspects of it, I start to assign traits to it, almost as if it had a character.
Let me give you some examples of my personal impressions on the character of languages. I’ll start with English. I see it as the language of storytelling, not only because of its vast vocabulary, but also because of its pleasant and even sound… hence this is THE language to tell or read stories. I had already started to learn French before I began to study English, so this language has a special place in my heart and is the most beautiful one there is. I’d describe French first of all as elegant, maybe also artistic (l’art de vivre of the French is reflected in the language as well). I am particularly fond of all Romance languages. Spanish is the language of passion to me. It may be due to the fact that I learned it listening to quite a few songs, and some of them were ballads with a lot of pasión. Italian, though I don’t speak it, I perceive it as the most romantic language. As to Russian, I associate it with a very melancholic sound. German (my native language), however, does not score very well in this comparison, I’d describe it as structured and magisterial.
As I was interested to know about the associations of other people for certain languages, we conducted a survey within the MosaLingua-team. The results are pretty interesting, and they are graphically presented below. Let me state a few observations from the survey first. It seems to be no surprise that English was chosen as the language used in the business world. Our team finds this language very appropriate to describe it with rather neutral adjectives, such as: “efficient” (Mara), “effective” (Luca), “to-the-point” (Diana), “objective” (Lize) and “diplomatic” (Cédric). I just wonder whether English is seen like this because many of us use it in the business world (or as it is very helpful while traveling), or if the English language really possesses the mentioned attributes which helped it become the international language it is. This results in the well-known chicken and egg discussion: which came first, the chicken or the egg?
It is no surprise that Romance languages, such as Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and French, were given similar traits by the vast majority. They are indeed very musical, as Mara describes her own mother tongue (Italian) and as Lize describes Spanish. And rhythmical – interestingly Mara labels Spanish this way, while Lize gives this attribute to her mother tongue, Portuguese. Further, Lize makes a distinction between Spanish and Portuguese, describing the latter as softer, quoting the famous author Gabriel Garcia Márquez, who once said that “Portuguese is a boneless Spanish!”. Generally, about the Romance languages, you can say that our survey participants associate them with emotions and love and describe them as romantic, passionate and even physical (Italian got this attribute by Lize). These countries are generally popular holiday destinations in Southern Europe, and it so happens that these languages are seen as: smiling (Mara about Portuguese), sunny (Mara about Spanish) and warm (Patricia about her mother tongue, Spanish).
Russian and Japanese
And lastly let’s look at two more exotic languages that popped up in the survey: As for Russian, I find it very striking how differently this language is perceived. Cédric calls it deeply emotional and melancholic, while it was labeled as strong by three of us and even intimidating by Lize. And when I look at the results for Japanese, they clearly reflect my picture of Japanese people in general: neat (Patricia), disciplined (Luca), official (Cédric) and inventive (Maike).
Have a look at the wordclouds (below) in detail. It’s worth it as there are lots of traits to discover. And the graphic results might act as an orientation if you want to decide what language you’d like to learn next:
How would you describe the mentioned languages? Is there such a thing as the character of languages, or do they just seem like is because of our past experience?
Is there any other language you would associate a strong characteristic with?
Have you ever carefully listened to one person speaking two different languages and noticed a difference?
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