Multilinguals often report feeling different depending on which language they are speaking. Learning to operate in a second or foreign language seems to have the ability to affect the behaviour of the individual, suggesting that learning a new language is not just about learning words and grammar, but also about learning to behave in a completely new way.
Jean-Marc Dewaele and Seiji Nakano were keen to explore this idea. They questioned 106 multilingual students from Birkbeck College in London, who spoke a total of 56 different languages between them. Dewaele and Nakano asked the participants to complete an online questionnaire comprising five questions about each of the different languages that they spoke:
1) How logical do you feel in this language?
2) How serious do you feel in this language/
3) How emotional do you feel in this language?
4) How fake (not yourself) do you feel in this language?
5) How different do you feel in this language?
The participants were asked to respond on a scale of 1 = feel the same, to 5 = feel very different (if answering question number 5 for example). These closed questions were followed up with more open questions building on their responses.
Overall, the participants reported feeling significantly less logical, less emotional and marginally less serious in languages that they had acquired later in life, whilst also feeling significantly more fake and different in these languages. Results for questions 4 and 5 were interesting as they seemed to suggest that participants felt the greatest difference and ‘fakeness’ when moving between their first (L1) and second (L2) languages. Although they felt just as different speaking L3 and L4 as they did speaking L2, the shift in feeling was no greater than moving from L1 to L2. The researchers speculated that this may be due to the fact that L3 and L4 are used more infrequently and are not mastered well enough to experience such a difference when switching to them.
It was interesting to see that most participants reported feeling more authentic, more logical, more emotional and more serious in languages that they had acquired earlier in life compared to those acquired later. It seems that maybe multi-linguals feel more restricted in these later languages. These findings correspond to a well-known phenomenon in acquiring a second language, which suggests that those learning and using a L2 are unable to vary their speech styles between formal and informal as well as they are able to in their L1. In fact, speakers tend to be ‘stuck’ in the middle of the formal-informal continuum in their L2, whilst they can function over its whole range in their L1.
The multilinguals in Dewaele and Nakano’s study also reported feeling more colourful, rich, poetic and emotional if they switched to using a language which they perceived to be more colourful, rich, poetic and emotional. For example, one participant observed:
Speaking in my L1 is like being in my own skin – a completely natural and comfortable feeling. Using my L2 is perhaps like wearing gorgeous clothes and evening make-up – a not completely natural state of affairs but one which allows me to shine and appear ‘beautiful’.
Many of the participants who reported feeling like this tended to also report a change in context when switching languages and it could be this change in context and environment which causes a change in feeling, rather than the actual switch in language itself. In a community of bilinguals who often switch between their two languages these feelings of difference would be minimal as the context remains unchanged.
In fact, this area appears to be very complex and the only things Dewaele and Nakano were able to establish for certain is that multi-linguals often feel different when switching between languages and that how they feel about operating in their different languages does depend on the age that the language was acquired. However, they concluded that a lot of this difference remains unexplained and that this is possibly due to the fact that language is so bound up with various contextual and environmental factors.
Dewaele, Jean-Marc and Nakano, Seiji (2013) Multilinguals’ perceptions of feeling different when switching languages. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 34: 107-120.
This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle