On being attractive – and dumbing down the blond(e)

This post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

Briden-Starr Aspinell (8053352575)A congress of blonds/blondes[1] is holding a maths quiz on stage, in order to show the world that blonds/es are not as dumb as they are made out to be. The first contestant has great hair but is really struggling with the question put to her: “What is 3+2?” Eventually she screws up her courage and ventures: “6?”

The audience – made up of blonds/es – starts clapping but the compere interrupts: “I’m sorry, that is not correct”. The crowd roars: “Give her another chance! Give her another chance!” But when asked the sum of 4+1, the contestant stumbles again.

“Give her another chance! Give her another chance!”, the blonds/es chant once again. Finally she cries out “I’ve got it! It’s 5!” As one, the crowd roars out, “Give her another chance! Give her another chance!”

The audience at this contest might not be the ideal candidates for a university degree, but in the struggle to sign up students in difficult economic times, universities need to make themselves as attractive as possible to all potential applicants. Many of them are of course affected by which course has the lowest fees, the best location, the most famous professors. But how can we present the actual courses as attractively as possible?

Is ‘Linguistics’ too difficult?

Free College Pathology Student Sleeping Creative Commons (6961676525)In Linguistics as in other subjects, this means keeping up with current issues and interests; for example, our department would ideally like to introduce an option on CMC[2] – not just out of a desire to be trendy, but because this is a serious issue affecting not only how we communicate but also language itself (see for example the recent Routledge Handbook of Language and Digital Communication, eds. Georgakopoulou and Spilioti).

Another aspect of being attractive is to do with what courses, and even departments, are called. Two of my earlier blogs are relevant here: one about the – almost magical – power of names, and another about how Linguistics is among the least well understood of academic disciplines. In the second one, I was thinking of the public in general rather than potential students. The latter, one would hope, might at least have looked the word up on Wikipedia. However some colleagues seem to be taking the need to be attractive to heart…perhaps too much? It has been suggested that the term ‘Linguistics’ is too difficult, too intellectual, too off-putting. We should call our department and our courses by some other name. We have already become a Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication, but that was not in order to be more attractive; it is because we are now teaching a completely different subject alongside linguistics.

The study of Communication does not require burning the midnight oil over phonetics, phonology, syntax, morphology, language change, sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, bilingualism, semantics, pragmatics – to mention but a few of the sub-categories within linguistics – and has indeed proved a crowd-puller. But does that mean we should get rid of “Linguistics”??? And that because potential students applying for postgraduate courses can’t understand what it means ?!?? Surely even in these straightened times, there are some students we actually do not want.

‘Stuff about language’

It does make you think though. How much better the History Department’s recruitment would be if it was renamed the Department of Things that Happened in the Past (or, as they define it in the History Boys, One Bloody Thing after the Other). Physics could be renamed How Objects Behave.

Why talk of Geography when you could make millions in fees by calling it Where People and Mountains Are? Economics could be How to Spend It (or Not) – though the Financial Times supplement got there first; Law could be Rules you Had Better Obey; Philosophy could be Thinking it Through, and even Media Studies could surely be made (even) more attractive by being renamed Watching the Box. Exciting possibilities.

But Linguistics? What else could we call it, with all those tiresome sub-disciplines? Stuff about Language? Suggestions from readers would be welcome – and if all else fails, I guess we could always ask a blond(e).

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[1] Linguistic fact of the day: did you know this was the only English adjective to be marked for gender?

[2] Computer-mediated communication

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Tripadvisor for Linguists

This post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

I recently returned from a trip to Southern Italy. Apart from enjoying the delights of Neapolitan pizza (3 stars), the Bay of Naples (4 stars) and Pompeii (5 stars), I also went right down to the heel of Italy on a linguistic fact-finding mission, starting in the lovely Baroque town of Lecce.

SoletoGrecia Salentina – like the smaller area of Bovesia down in the toe – comprises nine villages where, intriguingly, it has been claimed that a form of Greek (written in the Roman alphabet) may have been spoken since the 8th century BC. Others say that the Greek spoken there was brought over by refugee settlers in Byzantine times; yet others claim that at least in its current form, it has more recent origins, dating to the 19th century.

Even discounting the more ancient origins which are claimed, it is intriguing that a linguistic minority should have survived so long in this context. Having failed to find any easily accessible and up-to-date sociolinguistic studies, I wanted to carry out a quick recce, and if possible hear this dialect for myself. I therefore went round all nine villages (one of them incidentally called Calimera, or ‘good day’ in Greek), looking for evidence of Greek both in the visual (‘linguistic landscape’) sense and for potential speakers.

Seeking Greek

There was plenty of evidence in the visual sphere: street signs, shop names (some even in the Greek alphabet), explanations on various monuments – even a fully fledged parish magazine trilingual in Modern Greek, Italian and Griko. There were also some clear culinary connections, probably dating back centuries: ‘chorta’ or wild greens, boiled and served as a salad in Greece, were also on the menu here, as was twice-baked bread as found in every Greek bakery.

But what of the active linguistic scene? Italian was standardised late in the 19th century and regional dialects are still widely spoken. As in Naples, in this area many locals do not speak standard Italian among themselves.

Like other Italian dialects, Neapolitan and Salentino varieties are being eaten away by the spread of the standard variety but they are still noticeably active in the local population. Our taxi driver in Naples, assailed from all sides by motorbike riders cutting in on him – a local pastime – opened his window and screamed with ferocious irony at one of them: ‘Ha raggiu! Ha raggiu!’ (‘You are right! You are right!’).

The Italian form: ‘Ha raggione’ simply would not have carried the same impact, savour or street cred. So like many other linguistic situations, the Southern Italian one is as multilayered as the local lasagne. If Greek was there to be found, it would be vying not only with Italian but on a range of local dialects. Indeed this may have contributed to its decline, since an alternative ‘in-group’ variety, closer to the standard, was also available.

‘Relic’ languages and NORMS

Greek-italian flag combinationBut what was the evidence of the ‘Griko’ dialect actually being spoken? As all sociolinguists will know, the best hope of finding speakers of ‘relic’ languages is by interviewing ‘NORMS’ – non-mobile, older rural males. Fortunately for me, one of the principal pastimes of the ‘norms’ in Mediterranean countries is hanging out in the cafe with their friends, sipping a coffee or an alcoholic beverage, flicking their worry beads round (in Greece), and toothlessly commenting on the world going by. I therefore approached and spoke to a number of elderly gentlemen in their seventies or eighties in these villages.

I told them I was carrying out a linguistic study and was interested in whether any of them spoke Griko. All were friendly and interested, but none (save one) offered to produce any words of Griko. Their near-universal opinion, whichever village you were in, was that far more people spoke it in the next door village than in their own. In fact, on reflection, they thought it was indeed still widely spoken – only definitely somewhere else.

They also universally claimed it had been the normal means of communication between their parents, but that the latter had not passed it on to them. Finally, I was given the details of someone who definitely spoke it in Castignano dei Greci, and an appointment was made for me to meet him. I also spoke to a young family who said that certain schools taught Griko since the Italian government had declared it to be a regional language of Italy, but only as an extra-curricular ‘add-on’ on a par with folk dancing, and mainly through songs. There has therefore been a revival of sorts through this policy, and perhaps a positive change in attitudes, as Manuela Pellegrino’s doctorate at UCL recently showed, but there is Vesuvius to climb before this translates into active usage.

Sadness and elation

Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros

Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros

When I arrived in Castrignano, my 94-year-old host and his wife could not have been more charming. He had written poetry extensively in Griko and had won prizes for it in the 1970s and 1990s. He proudly allowed himself to be recorded reading it out, occasionally checking my understanding as a Modern Greek speaker.

In spontaneous speech he did not appear to be really fluent any more – his wife was not a speaker, and at 94, there was no-one else much left to speak to. Even a mother-tongue atrophies through long disuse. But he could respond appropriately to my questions as to what his mother would have said in Griko in various circumstances, the dialect being close enough to Modern Greek, despite many borrowings and much general influence from various types of Italian, for all this to be understandable to me.

I left with a signed and dedicated copy of his Griko poetry anthology, and a feeling of sadness mixed with elation: elation to have spoken to one of the last native speakers of a language, and recorded a small piece of European history; and sadness that if I go there again, there may be no-one left to record…not even if I go to the next-door village.

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Naming the unspeakable: ‘So-called’ Isis and Harry Potter syndrome

This post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

No Name Road (2988366432)It seems that we now have a terrible enemy who cannot be named – or rather whose naming causes a major headache. For many months now, on hearing the term ‘Isis’ we have not thought about a certain Egyptian goddess, or about the river that flows through Oxford. The name is now indelibly associated with one of the most evil organisations of modern times, which adopted the acronym of ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’ (or sometimes ‘Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant’, ISIL).

Because of fears that calling the organisation by this name may legitimise it, some politicians and other public figures in the West have been calling it ‘so-called’ Islamic State, using the verbal equivalent of the two-fingered “scare quotes” gesture which has become part of our gestural vocabulary. There is also a move to call it ‘Daesh’ instead, another acronym which the organisation itself is said not to like.

This is how we in the West shake our tiny fists at the evil monster, even though, to paraphrase Shakespeare, a terrorist by any other name would smell as rank. Ah, the power of names! How can a simple label mean so much? And how do names acquire their symbolic power?

The power of names

The power of names is a recurrent theme in religions, myths and fairy tales. For example the issue of how to name God is an important issue in many religions. In Exodus 3:13-15, Moses asks God who he should say has sent him, and God replies ‘I am who I am’. It is as if God himself did not want to share an actual name with humans, because knowing someone’s name gives you a certain power over them.

In the Odyssey, after Odysseus has got the Cyclops drunk, he tells the monster that his name is ‘Nobody’’ When Odysseus later blinds the Cyclops in order to escape his clutches, his fellow Cyclops come to their brother’s rescue, but when they ask who has hurt him, the Cyclops replies ‘Nobody’ and the other Cyclops understandably lose interest and shuffle off.

Names are important also in traditional fairy tales. Those brought up on Grimm’s tales will remember Rumpelstiltskin, the evil dwarf who loses his power to harm people if they guess his name. And then of course there is Harry Potter, and the villain Voldemort who cannot be named for fear of conjuring him up. He is known throughout as ‘he who cannot be named’.

Marking changes in style, identity and allegiance

But back to ‘so-called’ Islamic State. Radicalised European or American Jihadist fighters change their names from their bland-sounding European ones to Arab ones that make them sound like the holy fighters they profess to be, the change of names marking a clear change in identity. If they return and are deradicalised, their names change back too. Many of us with less sinister motives make minor or greater changes to our names to mark changes in style, identity or allegiance.

We encourage or discourage nicknames and abbreviations at different stages in our life, reflecting how we wish to be seen – remember for example when Kate became Catherine? When we marry, we may change – or resolutely not change – our surnames – if of course this is allowed or encouraged in our culture (in some countries, such as Iceland, the issue does not arise and names are not enmeshed in a patriarchal system).

In Britain we might use our second name rather than our first; but this would not work in a country such as Russia where the second name is invariably a patronymic, i.e. your father’s first name, regardless of your gender. You may even be known by different names in different places – such as Jack in town and Ernest in the country.

Magic? Perhaps not. But certainly another facet of the power of words.

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Personal Training for your Brain: Speaking another language

This post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

Bilingualism is one of those funny phenomena where those who experience it cannot understand why it is in any way remarkable, while those who do not find it incomprehensible and amazing. A few decades ago it was thought that being bilingual was a definite mental and educational disadvantage. The pendulum has now swung the other way and many advantages of being bilingual are recognized. These advantages, it seems, go beyond the obvious ones, such as being able to understand and relate to other cultures more easily. For example, there is evidence that bilingual children are more creative in specific tasks than their monolingual peers.

Monolingual vs. bilingual aging brain

An illustration of the monolingual vs. bilingual aging brain.

You may also have read an article in the press last week about how people who speak several languages recover better from strokes then monolinguals. A year or so ago, there were other articles saying that bilinguals suffering from Alzheimer’s showed symptoms on average 4 to 5 years later than people who only spoke one language. These hidden brain benefits are a relatively new discovery. So at this early stage, what should we make of this research? Academic research very rarely ‘proves’ things beyond the shadow of a doubt, and this area is no exception. The experimental conditions are notoriously difficult to control: ideally, you would need to find sets of monolinguals and bilinguals who learned or use their languages in different ways, but who later suffer the same brain problems and can therefore be compared.

Research on the effects of bilingualism on the brain is ongoing, and there is no clear agreement yet as to what causes the observed effects. If being bilingual does indeed strengthen certain brain functions, then how bilingual do you have to be to gain these benefits? Do you have to be bilingual from birth? Do you have to live in a bilingual society, or are the effects the same if you learn a second language at school, or as a student? What if, like many people around the world, you spoke another language in your childhood but no longer use it as an adult or in later life? Will the benefits still continue to operate? Perhaps the hardest question of all is: what is it exactly about being bilingual which causes the positive effects which are reported?

Some recent research suggests that it is possibly not the fact of knowing two languages which has these benefits, but rather the fact of switching between the two which amounts to a kind of mental workout. This finding was music to my ears: my own research is about code switching, the practice of alternating between two or more languages which characterises the speech of many – probably most – bilinguals. Code-switching arises because people interact with speakers who use different languages, for example when they are at home and when they are at work. But many bilinguals also switch languages within the same conversations, with the same interlocutors. You might hear a sentence in a bilingual family such as:

‘And there’s an airport in every country y claro, in America no tienen airports to(do) lo(s) states.’
(And there’s an airport in every country and obviously, in America not all the states have airports.)

(Data collected by Daniel Weston in Gibraltar)

In such conversations, speakers are making rapid choices and decisions between the words in the two languages, and it may be this rapid firing up of different pathways in the brain which constitutes the mental workout. So the actual practice of switching may build strategies for coping with strokes and dementia in later life. Others have pointed out that even when using a single language, bilinguals have to make constant choices; brain scans reveal that both languages are active in the brain even when only one is being spoken. Similar benefits have been reported from playing music or chess, doing crossword puzzles or Sudoku; but apart from professional musicians, these activities are unlikely to be practiced as intensively as talking, so bilinguals in general – and especially habitual code-switchers – probably get the most intensive exposure to this mental workout.

So we cannot say for certain yet what it is about being bilingual that builds the mental muscle, but it is fairly clear that there are benefits attached. You can gain these benefits by learning a new language now. As the saying goes, what’s not to like?

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Current Affairs – Calling all Applied Linguists

This post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

Language class (Photo: Jirka-Matousek)

Language class (Photo: Jirka-Matousek)

In a previous blog, I wrote about the determination of the origin of migrants through linguistic analysis. Since then, the refugee influx has become more significant by the day, now reaching major crisis proportions. Unfortunately it is no sort of solution to anything, but a few further reflections on linguistic aspects of this crisis come to mind.

English speakers

First, there has been much misinformation as to why so many migrants who have been camping in Calais wish to enter Britain rather than staying in France. Although the government would have us believe that it is because of our “over-generous” benefits system, in fact it is largely for other reasons, notably the fact that many of them speak English and not French.

Britain has benefited hugely in the past from English being a world language (although this is largely due to the power and influence of the US rather than that of Britain itself). Now, the status and ubiquity of English have, as it were, come back to hit us in the face.

Language lessons

Secondly, you may have read recently that the German government is offering 600 hours of German language lessons to the migrants settling in Germany. Scandinavian governments also have been offering language lessons to newly arrived settlers for many decades. This is a highly effective measure: learning a language is probably the best method for understanding the relevant culture as well as allowing suitable adaptation and integration in the host country. As an added bonus, it provides work for an army of language teachers, a fact which people reading this blog should appreciate.

IELTS exams

A third recent news item also provides food for (linguistic) thought. The Home Secretary Theresa May, desperate to cut down the number of migrants to the UK in order to fulfil election promises, plans to impose a higher IELTS English language requirement on prospective students from non-EU countries than the one demanded at the moment.

As someone who teaches students of many different mother-tongues, I agree that insufficient English language skills can be a problem. But on the whole our international students can express themselves quite adequately in oral discussion.

The problems arise with academic essay-writing, on the basis of which their university performance is graded. The difficulties there are less to do with incorrect English as such, and more to do with understanding what type of discourse is expected in such an essay – a complex linguistic and cultural question, though one which can of course be taught.

The IELTS language exams are not designed to measure these types of academic skills, so the university itself has to try to fill the gap by providing academic English and study skills training. But this is often too little and too late.

In fact, the proposal by Theresa May has nothing to do with academic motives – nobody really even pretends that it does. It is purely a way to legitimate the exclusion of one cohort of migrants and so make the overall immigration figures look better.

Excluding university students is, to put it mildly, a strange choice, since the government has elsewhere explicitly committed itself to accepting skilled, as opposed to unskilled, migrants. In purely financial terms, it means that the UK will benefit less from the overseas students’ fees – never mind the loss of goodwill which will result if we no longer allow overseas students to be educated in the UK.

In each of these news items, the linguistic issues are only part of the picture and political solutions are by far the most pressing. Still, the part played by language in day-to-day problems is evident. Applied Linguistics may not be able to solve the world’s problems, but it is important as the discipline which allows the related linguistic issues to be addressed in a scientific and well-informed manner.

Read the BBC’s recent article on “the battle over the words used to describe migrants”

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Insomnia and Interpreters – Linguistic Aspects of the Greek negotiations

This post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

An interpreter at work during the EU - South Korea free trade agreementLast month, you may remember, while Mr Cameron was giving his views in the news on the crucial matter of fox hunting, Greece was on the brink of financial meltdown.

I was in Greece and with the banks closed and the prospect of worse to come, the sentence I kept hearing from friends and relatives was ‘I can’t sleep’. The local baker, who was lucky enough to be selling his bread to hotels, did not have the liquidity to pay his flour supplier, a small farmer. As a tourist, when you paid your bills with cash, people were abnormally grateful, though much too proud to say why. It seemed that a whole country was holding its breath while a roomful of people in Brussels decided their fate.

Such momentous decisions depend, like so much else in our lives, on language – on a group of people talking, in an airless conference room. How do their minds – and their meanings – meet? Sometimes with difficulty.

You need only read the pronouncements of the – now disgraced – Minister of Finance, Yanis Varoufakis, to realize how culturally inappropriate rhetoric can exacerbate a crisis. It was not so much Greek bravado in his case – though that was present too. His upfront Australian – trained braggadocio went down like the proverbial bag of sick with the Brussels bureaucrats.

He should perhaps have taken lessons in how to imply things without spelling them out in enormous capital letters from Christine Lagarde, who went on record for saying that the negotiations could only get anywhere if there were adults in the room. Hmmmm…

Relay interpreting

Greece-and-Austria-webSpare a thought also for the fact that these meetings would have been conducted with what is known as a ‘full regime’. This means that each country had interpretation from and into their own language – there are 23 languages.

So while some people would have been speaking and listening to, say, English, the majority would have been speaking another language and having their words translated into 22 languages. They would also, of course, have been listening to the words of the main protagonists through interpreters.

Furthermore, when there is no interpreter who is able to translate from Greek directly into, say, Italian, the Italian interpreter listens to, for example, the English interpreter, and then translates the English into Italian. This system is known as ‘relay interpreting’.

Occasionally, double relay has to be used: for example if the Dutch interpreter does not speak French, she or he has to listen to someone in another booth, say German, who is themselves getting the Greek translated by someone in the French booth. It does not take much imagination to appreciate the inevitable loss of accuracy, of nuance, and of metaphorical ‘tone of voice’ – three things which really matter in such delicate negotiations.

Cross-linguistic, cross-cultural talk

Penelope Gardner-ChlorosAs a former interpreter, I wonder how the interpreters coped with the German finance minister Wolfgang Schauble telling the head of the ECB, Mario Draghi, that he was ‘not an idiot’. They would have been caught between the ostensible need to be accurate and the need to avoid being the cause of a diplomatic incident – the latter concern being part of their DNA, if not a specific part of their professional training.

And what of the order by the Head of the European Council, after 14 hours of unsuccessful talking, ‘Sorry, but there is no way you are leaving the room’. How did that come out in Finnish, in Slovakian, in Spanish, in Danish…and in Greek?

The cross-linguistic, cross-cultural talk in that room would truly be worthy of analysis – what a PhD that could make! For the time being though, I am just glad that the messages got across well enough, and tactfully enough, so that my baker can pay for his flour again.

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Read the BBC’s recent round-up of some of the greatest mistranslations throughout history

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Emphasising the Negative

This post was contributed by Dr Malcolm Edwards, of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

Emphasising-the-negative-webOne of the serendipitous joys of studying grammars is the occasional discovery that the seemingly duller bits of language often turn out to reflect underlying processes with wider implications for how grammars and languages work.

Negation doesn’t seem like an auspicious point of departure for a journey into the hidden life of language. It has, seemingly forever, provided an opportunity for those with prescriptivist or fascistic tendencies, combined with a taste for spurious logic, a stick to beat the rest of us with for our ignorant and wanton use of supposedly deviant and/or ungrammatical forms such as ‘I never did it’[=’I did not do it’], or (the Mark of the Beast, this one) the double negative ‘I didn’t do nothing’[=’I didn’t do anything’].

But negation left to itself -as it should be – does have an unsettling tendency to change form, and an equally unsettling tendency to make its point using expressions ranging from the comparatively mild (John Wayne’s ‘the Hell I do!’[roughly = ‘I most decidedly do not’), to the taboo ‘the f*** I will’ [unequivocally = ‘I will not under any circumstances’].

How negative constructions evolve

Nearly 100 years ago, Otto Jespersen proposed the Jespersen Cycle, a model of how negative constructions evolve. Jespersen described how changes in negation arise from a tension between expressive means and expressive needs.

Jespersen puts it like this: ‘the incongruity between the notional importance and the formal insignificance of the negative marker may… cause the speaker to add something to make the sense perfectly clear’ (Jespersen, 2017: 4-5). If we take French as an example, the original marker of negation was ‘non’ (itself originally Latin, and still alive and well as the French for ‘no’). Over time, ‘non’ became ‘ne’ – in Jespersen’s terms, losing formal significance – a little word easily eclipsed by bigger words, but still having a big job to do.

To reinforce ‘ne’, the word ‘pas’ was introduced to the negative construction. ‘Pas’ was (and still is, when it’s not doing a bit of negation on the side) an ordinary noun meaning ‘step’. Over more time, ‘pas’ itself begins to become the negative marker. This would be of limited interest if it only happened in French, but the same process is found in other languages. In Egyptian Arabic, for example, negation is marked by ma… sh. ‘ma’ is the negative marker proper, and ‘sh’ is a vestigial form of the word shey ‘thing’. And in Egyptian, too, there are indications that ‘sh’ is encroaching on ‘ma’s’ territory.


Jespersen did not discuss the role of taboo words in negatives such as ‘He doesn’t know squat/f***/s***[=absolutely nothing at all]’, but he would undoubtedly admit that they are a clear case of the speaker adding something to make the sense clear. Horn (2001) dubs these forms ‘squatitatives’, which start life as minimising negatives, with the taboo element subsequently becoming a negative item in its own right, semantically equivalent to ‘(absolutely)nothing’, as in ‘He knows squat’. Squatitatives are not negative markers as such and we can be reasonably confident that the ruder emphatics will not be taking over responsibility for negation any time soon, but like the reanalysis of French ‘pas’ and Egyptian ‘sh’, they are instances of how words originally selected to perform an emphatic role lose their original meaning and take on a grammatical function.

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Horn, L (2001): Flaubert Triggers, Squatitative Negation and other quirks of grammar. In Hoeksma, J. H. Rullman, V. Sanchez-Valencia and T. van Wouder (2001): Papers on Negatives and Polarity Items. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Jespersen, O (1917): Negation in English and Other Languages. Copenhagen: A.F.Host and Sons.

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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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