Why do we feel different when switching languages?

This post was contributed by Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

Jean-Marc Dewaele

Jean-Marc Dewaele

Few topics elicit as many passionate discussions among multilinguals as the question whether a switch of language includes a switch in personality. Some, like Ilan Stavans, the Mexican-American author of Jewish origin, feel that every language they speak allow them to be a different person and are proud of their hybrid multilingual self:

Changing languages is like imposing another role on oneself, like being someone else temporarily. My English-language persona is the one that superimposes itself on all previous others. In it are the seeds of Yiddish and Hebrew, but mostly Spanish…But is the person really the same?…You know, sometimes I have the feeling I’m not one but two, three, four people. Is there an original person? An essence? I’m not altogether sure, for without language I am nobody. (Stavans, 2001: 251).

Is this feeling of difference when switching from one language to another just a myth? What proportion of multilinguals experience this difference? Is this linked to anything particular in the person’s background?

John McWhorter, a great American applied linguist, made a relatively off-the-cuff comment towards the end of his 2014 book The language hoax, attributing the fact that many multilinguals feel different in their different languages to the fact that they started learning the foreign language (LX) later in life and that a lack of proficiency in the LX limits their ability to express their full emotional and pragmatic range. While this explanation sounds perfectly plausible, McWhorter provides no evidence, nor any references to back it up.

Reading McWhorter’s assertions, I wondered whether he was right. Do multilinguals really feel different when switching to a language acquired later in life? Is it because they may still retain a foreign accent, or not be as fluent as the native speakers? I did not like the attribution of difference to a sense of deficit. François Grosjean and Vivian Cook have argued convincingly that it is wrong to see a multilingual functioning in an LX as a failed native speaker of that language. LX users (myself included in English) are legitimate users of the language.

A couple of years ago, I collected a large database on communicating emotions from multilinguals around the world with my friend Professor Aneta Pavlenko. It included an open question: ‘Do you feel like a different person sometimes when you use your different languages?’ which was coded according to the degree of agreement with the question.

A total of 1005 bi- and multilinguals provided feedback. This seemed like a perfect database, and opportunity, to test McWhorter’s hypothesis. An analysis of the distribution of the answers showed that close to half of the participants had answered with an unqualified “yes!” to the question, over a quarter had said “no!”, with the remaining participants having a more nuanced answer.

It turned out that feelings of difference were unrelated to age of onset of acquisition and levels of oral proficiency. In other words, participants who had started learning the LX later, and were not highly proficient in it, did not feel more or less different than those who had started earlier and felt more proficient.

A comparison of those who started learning the LX early (between birth and age 2) and late (after age 2) showed no difference in feelings of difference. Context of acquisition of the LX, the degree of multilingualism and gender were also unrelated to feelings of difference.

However, more highly educated, and older participants reported higher levels of feelings of difference. Foreign language anxiety was also positively linked with feelings of difference: those who felt more anxious in their L2 and L3 were more likely to feel different when switching to these languages. Feelings of difference seem directly or indirectly linked to personality traits (Ożańska-Ponikwia, 2013; Wilson, 2013).

Participants’ reported that their own self-perceptions did not necessarily match those of people around them. Perceptions were often presented as being dynamic, varying over time and differing between switches to specific languages.

Participants mentioned variation in both verbal and non-verbal behaviour: feeling less funny in the LX because of lack of vocabulary, being more taciturn in one language, raising voice pitch, covering the mouth, avoiding looking interlocutors in the eye, adopting a different body language, sticking to linguistic or cultural norms of the L1 to stand out in the L2 or vice versa. Some participants reported possessing different persona in their different languages.

The debate on the causes of these intriguing differences is likely to continue forever.

Find out more


Dewaele, J.-M. 2015. Why do so many bi- and multilinguals feel different when switching languages? International Journal of Multilingualism,http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14790718.2015.1040406

McWhorter, J. H. 2014. The Language Hoax. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ożańska-Ponikwia, K. 2013. Emotions from a Bilingual Point of View: Personality and Emotional Intelligence in Relation to Perception and Expression of Emotions in the L1 and L2. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Stavans, I. 2001. On Borrowed Words. A Memoir of Language. New York: Penguin. Wilson, R. J. 2013. Another language is another soul. Language and Intercultural Communication, DOI: 10.1080/14708477.2013.804534

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Who can control the post-superpower capitalist world order?

This post was written by Slavoj Žižek, Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. It was originally published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site.

To know a society is not only to know its explicit rules. One must also know how to apply them: when to use them, when to violate them, when to turn down a choice that is offered, and when we are effectively obliged to do something but have to pretend we are doing it as a free choice. Consider the paradox, for instance, of offers-meant-to-be-refused. When I am invited to a restaurant by a rich uncle, we both know he will cover the bill, but I nonetheless have to lightly insist we share it – imagine my surprise if my uncle were simply to say: “OK, then, you pay it!”

There was a similar problem during the chaotic post-Soviet years of Yeltsin’s rule in Russia. Although the legal rules were known, and were largely the same as under the Soviet Union, the complex network of implicit, unwritten rules, which sustained the entire social edifice, disintegrated. In the Soviet Union, if you wanted better hospital treatment, say, or a new apartment, if you had a complaint against the authorities, were summoned to court or wanted your child to be accepted at a top school, you knew the implicit rules. You understood whom to address or bribe, and what you could or couldn’t do. After the collapse of Soviet power, one of the most frustrating aspects of daily life for ordinary people was that these unwritten rules became seriously blurred. People simply did not know how to react, how to relate to explicit legal regulations, what could be ignored, and where bribery worked. (One of the functions of organised crime was to provide a kind of ersatz legality. If you owned a small business and a customer owed you money, you turned to your mafia protector, who dealt with the problem, since the state legal system was inefficient.) The stabilisation of society under the Putin reign is largely because of the newly established transparency of these unwritten rules. Now, once again, people mostly understand the complex cobweb of social interactions.

In international politics, we have not yet reached this stage. Back in the 1990s, a silent pact regulated the relationship between the great western powers and Russia. Western states treated Russia as a great power on the condition that Russia didn’t act as one. But what if the person to whom the offer-to-be-rejected is made actually accepts it? What if Russia starts to act as a great power? A situation like this is properly catastrophic, threatening the entire existing fabric of relations – as happened five years ago in Georgia. Tired of only being treated as a superpower, Russia actually acted as one.

How did it come to this? The “American century” is over, and we have entered a period in which multiple centres of global capitalism have been forming. In the US, Europe, China and maybe Latin America, too, capitalist systems have developed with specific twists: the US stands for neoliberal capitalism, Europe for what remains of the welfare state, China for authoritarian capitalism, Latin America for populist capitalism. After the attempt by the US to impose itself as the sole superpower – the universal policeman – failed, there is now the need to establish the rules of interaction between these local centres as regards their conflicting interests.

This is why our times are potentially more dangerous than they may appear. During the cold war, the rules of international behaviour were clear, guaranteed by the Mad-ness – mutually assured destruction – of the superpowers. When the Soviet Union violated these unwritten rules by invading Afghanistan, it paid dearly for this infringement. The war in Afghanistan was the beginning of its end. Today, the old and new superpowers are testing each other, trying to impose their own version of global rules, experimenting with them through proxies – which are, of course, other, small nations and states.

Karl Popper once praised the scientific testing of hypotheses, saying that, in this way, we allow our hypotheses to die instead of us. In today’s testing, small nations get hurt and wounded instead of the big ones – first Georgia, now Ukraine. Although the official arguments are highly moral, revolving around human rights and freedoms, the nature of the game is clear. The events in Ukraine seem something like the crisis in Georgia, part two – the next stage of a geopolitical struggle for control in a nonregulated, multicentred world.

It is definitely time to teach the superpowers, old and new, some manners, but who will do it? Obviously, only a transnational entity can manage it – more than 200 years ago, Immanuel Kant saw the need for a transnational legal order grounded in the rise of the global society. In his project for perpetual peace, he wrote: “Since the narrower or wider community of the peoples of the earth has developed so far that a violation of rights in one place is felt throughout the world, the idea of a law of world citizenship is no high-flown or exaggerated notion.”

This, however, brings us to what is arguably the “principal contradiction” of the new world order (if we may use this old Maoist term): the impossibility of creating a global political order that would correspond to the global capitalist economy.

What if, for structural reasons, and not only due to empirical limitations, there cannot be a worldwide democracy or a representative world government? What if the global market economy cannot be directly organised as a global liberal democracy with worldwide elections?

Today, in our era of globalisation, we are paying the price for this “principal contradiction.” In politics, age-old fixations, and particular, substantial ethnic, religious and cultural identities, have returned with a vengeance. Our predicament today is defined by this tension: the global free circulation of commodities is accompanied by growing separations in the social sphere. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of the global market, new walls have begun emerging everywhere, separating peoples and their cultures. Perhaps the very survival of humanity depends on resolving this tension.

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YouTube justice UK style

This post was contributed by Professor Leslie Moran, of Birkbeck’s School of Law and Barbara Villez, Visiting Fellow at Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, Professor Université Paris 8

The UK Supreme Court has launched a new communications initiative.  As of late January 2013 you can watch, on demand, videos of judges in the highest court in the land delivering summaries of their judgments. Who is the audience for these five minute programmes? Is it the hard pressed smart phone/iPad generation law student, lawyer or legal advisor? No; far from it.  The Court’s press release announcing the launch of the YouTube initiative suggests the target audience is much wider. Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court, is quoted expressing his hope that the videos will broaden the audience for the Court’s work. Are they the next hot internet viral sensation educating the public about the work of the highest court in the land? The short answer is ‘no way’. Are these videos a ‘must watch’ offering valuable insights into the decisions of the court? We have our doubts about that too. But they do make fascinating viewing.

The visual challenge of judicial activity

Judicial activity has been described as ‘visually challenging’. These videos do much to confirm this and do little to meet that challenge. Five minutes watching someone with their head down reading out loud from a set of papers is not great telly by any stretch of the imagination. The way the images are put together adds to this static quality, with each video being made up of two basic types of shot. Throughout, the camera’s presence is unacknowledged by the speaking figure.

There is little in the way of props or costume to attract the eye. Judges in the UK Supreme Court don’t wear special robes in court. These judges look very much like ordinary business men. There is only one female judge, Lady Hale. In contrast to this there is much to distract the ear. The microphones, built into the judicial bench, not only pick up the voice of the judge but also the endless rustle of their papers.  Coughing and other background noises regularly punctuate the proceedings. All tend to obscure the words spoken by the judge.

Adaptation from written texts

What are you going to get out of watching the highest judges in the land reading out loud? The judges, so they tell us in the videos, are ‘giving the judgement of the Court’.  But law students and other diligent viewers beware; ‘giving the judgement of the Court’ is not the actual opinion of the court. What you actually get is an image of a judge delivering a speech adapted from a press summary published on the Court’s website to accompany the judgement itself. Written initially by the judicial assistants, the judges approve these summaries and then adapt them for the ‘live’ presentation in Court. The judgment is a written text. And it is written to be read, not spoken. It is available on the Court’s website, as is the accompanying press summary.

As the videos show, the adaptation of the press summaries into scripts for a courtroom performance is problematic. Despite the rearrangements, these scripts are not easy to speak. Judges stumble over the dense text and struggle to incorporate quotations from the trial judge into oral delivery.

The videos do, however, have much to offer. You not only hear the voice of the judge but also the accent which is a marker of their social class. The folding and refolding hands of a courtroom assistant on screen behind the talking head of the judge add an unexpected physical ‘commentary’.

Television trivia?

But are many of these points indicative of the dangers of putting courts and judges on TV? Are we in danger of getting caught up in what some describe as the trivia of the moving image? Our first response is that image making and image management are central to judicial authority. As the 2008 Judicial Studies Board, Framework of Judicial Abilities and Qualities reiterates time and time again, all the core judicial abilities and skills have to be ‘demonstrated’ and communication is central to this demonstration of authority. The courtroom is one long established context in which these abilities and skills have been performed and communicated. Props, wardrobe, voice and the body all have a role to play in demonstrating and communicating judicial abilities and qualities. Video is a new communication format, context and set of challenges. It has characteristics similar to and different from both face to face courtroom encounters and the more formal and enduring qualities of the text of a written judgment.

The current YouTube videos are a return to primitive television. They are simply the result of the presence of the camera in the court. The camera appears to be no more than a tool that records an event. However as the simple editing shows, the record is subject to a degree of manipulation. The resulting image is not just mediated by the technology but has been subject to judicial control. If essential information about the judgement, the press summary and the full judgement are already available what extra is provided by these judicially approved moving images? It may well be just that there is a camera in court and that camera is a symbol of openness, transparency and a form of accountability.

But is that going to satisfy a public that lives in a culture saturated with sophisticated video imagery.  One problem with them may well be that the public is too sophisticated for primitive television. Viewers have expectations acquired from countless hours of watching complex moving images, generating high levels of visual literacy. The primitive visual aesthetics of the UK Supreme court’s YouTube videos are likely to be a real turn off. If the judges of the UK Supreme Court are going to use video available via the Internet as a means of communicating, then they may have to think harder about the moving image that it is being made and adopt a different approach to the use of the moving image as a means of communication.

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