Language Split Personalities?

Dear Korean,

Recently I've been speaking more and more Korean. I'm not to a point in fluency yet where I'm at all automatic -- when I speak or listen to or read Korean, there is still a very large disconnect, emotionally. But it has started to dawn on me how different I seem to others in Korean. Obviously, that difference is stark to those around me who don't speak any English. I go from being mute and completely indiscernible to someone with thoughts. But the difference is also legitimate to people who know me well in English. And I'm starting to be able to feel how different the people I know in English are in Korean as well. I'm starting to genuinely understand what it means when a Korean coworker or friend will occasionally sigh and say, "I wish you could know me in Korean." 

Part of that obviously is an issue of fluency, but I feel like part of it is also an issue of "personality" through language. I'm only just beginning to understand these things. But, as someone who is fluent in both languages and who also had to adjust to an entirely different culture, I'm wondering how The Korean felt his identity change not through culture, but through language. Obviously, the culture of the two languages themselves is inherently different. But, I can't help but feel like you must have people in your life who know you equally well in both languages -- do they know two different TKs, or, once you reached a certain level of fluency, did the language identities meld?

Sincerely curious,
I'm no Picasso

Dear INP,

Indeed you came to the right place. Becoming a bilingual is an interesting experience, and even more so if the cultures embedded in the two languages are very different -- really, there is nothing quite like it. The Korean can only speak out of his own experience, but he suspects that his experience is not uncommon. Switching languages is not like switching from a black pen to a blue pen. By switching languages, one drags with oneself many things that depend on the language, like manners, customs and appropriate level of politeness. This "language baggage" presumably will be much greater if one is learning a new language while being surrounded by the language-users, as did the Korean or INP.

As frequent readers of this blog would know, the Korean learned English rather late in the game, after he moved to the U.S. For the first few months of learning English, the Korean mostly focused on going from Korean to English. That is, the Korean's initial language learning was to learn English words, punch them into Korean expressions, hoping to get himself understood. But once language learning began gaining steam and the Korean's knowledge of English went past the critical mass, English learning got on its own track. Instead of attempting to learn more English by referring back to Korean, the Korean began taking in more English through English.

In my estimation, this was the crucial moment where I could feel a sense of divergence in my personality as I switched languages. After all, by learning English, I was trying to do a lot more than getting myself understood. I was trying to be an American in all relevant aspects. I wanted to blend in, as if I had been always here. Once I began accumulating more English with English, I essentially acquired the lens through which I could see the American mindset, by which my further English learning was guided.

Although I have consistently emphasized rote memorization in language learning and railed against the wishful "learning by immersion," I will say this about immersion:  immersion is necessary if you want to take your language ability from "fluent" to "native-like". This is because the wall separating "fluent" and "native-like" actually has little to do with language. Instead, it has everything to do with the particular manner in which the language is used, either deliberately or subconsciously chosen among many valid alternatives. "Splendid!" means approximately the same as "Cool!" But only one of the two phrases, spoken by a typical American high school student, sounds natural.

(More after the jump)

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Once you start going down this path of not simply being concerned about conveying meaning, but being concerned about conveying meaning like the way a native speaker would, some degree of split personality is perhaps inevitable. A part of it is about the new culture's expectation upon you as a functioning member of that culture. An easy example may be the honorific system in Korean. Speaking with an honorific before an elder does not only remind one of the particular grammatical rule; it reminds one of a particular mindset one must have, to be polite, tactful and deferential. By using Korean honorifics, a non-Korean may guide her personality toward a more deferential posture than it otherwise would be.

But, in fact, this example is too easy, because I know that using honorific does not necessarily lead me to have a particular mindset. I have plenty of friends in Korea who are older than I, some significantly so. When I speak Korean, I may be polite, tactful and deferential with an older person that I just met. But with my friends, regardless of the age, I am quite myself -- irreverent, direct and opinionated. I still use the honorifics, but the "-yo"s at the end of my sentences are hanging on for dear life. Using honorifics might remind me that I should be more deferential, but more often than not I ignore the reminder.

This is why I think there is an overlooked reason why bilingualism leads to a split personality. It may be true that the new culture, which is imbued in the new language, sets you toward the course of forming a new type of personality. But to an equal or a greater degree, language learners may set themselves toward that course by following their own vision of what the new culture is supposed to be. It may well be the case that a Korean language learner develops a more deferential personality because Korean language induces a certain type of mindset. But it may also be the case that the language learner over-thinks the deferential posture, and guide her personality to the level of deference that is not quite necessary, even in Korean culture. In some ways, this result is only natural -- when we learn something new, we often focus on the difference and neglect the similarities. It would make sense that in the process of trying to fit ourselves into a different mold, sometimes we overshoot the mark.

Undoubtedly, the precise interaction between the culture that exists positively and the culture that exists in the minds of an aspiring bilingual will be highly individualized -- there is no telling which factor will have a greater influence for each given individual. But combined, the factors both push the language learner toward developing a strain of personality that may be different from the original one.

In my case, it was the latter factor that had a greater influence. I had always been a bit of an odd duck in Korea, in that I had to purposefully acquire a lot of social habits that appeared to come naturally to most Koreans. One such habit was constantly being on high alert about another person's reactions and emotions. This is not to say that I was socially tone-deaf in Korea. But, particularly as a rebellious teenager, I saw my Korean social skills to be cumbersome and unnecessary.

Then I came to America -- "the land of the free!" I thought. "The place where everyone can speak his mind freely, yet accepted for who they are!" This image was my own vision of what American culture was supposed to be -- which means that I, in turn, guided my own behavior accordingly in my attempt to become an American. So as I learned English, my speech in English was -- to put it mildly -- unencumbered. Speaking Korean, I did not swear very much. Speaking English, I cursed up a storm. Speaking in Korean, my eyes were constantly tracking the listener's face, trying to gauge the reaction on what I was saying. Speaking in English, I would say what came to my mind, and walk away without bothering to listen to what other people thought. My dictions were abrasive, cutting and over-the-top, intended for maximum shock value and self-gratification for "saying what everyone thinks but dares not say."

I thought I was developing an independent-minded American persona. In truth, there was really nothing "American" about my newly acquired, English-speaking persona -- I was just becoming an obnoxious, immature dipshit who obtained the excuse to lose the backstop that was holding me back from degenerating into that dipshit. It took around 6-7 years after I came to America (about 4-5 years after I became fluent in English) that I realized that I was not a pleasant person to be around, and decided to do something about it.

At this point in my life, I would say I am more or less back to my "Korean" personality. (Although, to be fair, I am certain that my friends back in Korea could easily identify "American" aspects of my personality of which I am not even aware.) I am again generally choosy with my words and swear only to make a point. I read people's faces and gauge reactions, although it still does not come naturally to me. I don't feel that I have a personality split by languages -- my demeanors are more or less the same in any language in which one may find the Korean.

I don't know exactly what caused this change. It could be the maturity that came with aging. It could be that I have lived in America long enough to finally figure out that American culture is not a license to be an asshole. It could be that I got over the silly idea that my Korean identity was a stigma to be overcome if I wanted to be a true American. But I do recall one specific moment when I realized that I had significantly less friends in the U.S. than in Korea up to that point, then thought -- "I should just do what people do in Korea." Because truly, regardless of the culture, the best way to make friends is to do as Koreans do and constantly look out for other people. As much as American culture emphasizes individualism and independent thinking, making friends in America involves the same process as making friends in Korea.

(This was also about the same time when the Korean came to realize one of his most important life lessons, which may well be the official motto of the blog -- that is, regardless of culture, people are the same.)

So, going back to INP's original question -- yes, the Korean indeed had a split personality as he acquired English language. Around five years after becoming fluent, however, his personality reached an equilibrium.

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