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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

 
Pragmatics Cause Split Personalities!
For no particular reason the other day, I found myself mulling over the effects of pragmatics on speech in multiple languages, or rather, its effects on the speaker. Then David Beaver at Langauge Log posted about a study on the apparent change in personality that happens when bilingual speakers answer a questionnaire in one language and then the other.

As Beaver points out, the Daily Telegraph doesn't really get it right when it reports that, "The results showed that English-speaking Americans are typically more conscientious, agreeable and outgoing than native Mexicans, but also less neurotic." I actually think he was kind in saying that he can find some results in the study that are close to what the Telegraph interpreted the overall results to be, but then, he was trying to be nice on purpose.

The attitude that started me thinking about the whole thing, and which the Telegraph seems to be operating under, is the persistent Sapir-Whorfian idea that languages can change our personalities and the very way we think. Many people have been convinced that such power exists in the words, the vocabulary of the languages, such as in Samuel Delany's Babel-17 and the trusty example of George Orwell's Newspeak. It's an attractive theory, and I can see why. People often act differently when they speak different languages. What are languages made up of? Words. Why would we act differently when speaking different words? Because they form our thoughts! They influence our thinking! Insidious, sneaky words.

However, I was pleased to see that the researchers themselves put it more reasonably:
...However, many bilinguals report a slightly different experience, suggesting that their personalities actually changes as they switch languages.

We recently attempted to examine this question (Ramirez-Esparza, Gosling, Benet-Martinez, Potter, & Pennebaker, 2006). In particular, we hypothesized that since language can trigger thoughts and feelings associated with a particular culture, then the personality shift should be in accordance with the values and attitudes associated with that culture.
To me, though, what they are not really addressing is that all that contextual stuff "associated with a particular culture" is already a part of linguistics, namely, pragmatics. A huge part of communication, as opposed to just speech, is all the stuff that happens to the side, or just under the surface. Communicatively competent people change the way they try to communicate with different people with whom they have different shared contexts. My IT-ish friends, for example, have to talk to me much differently than they talk to each other, because I do not share much of the same background when it comes to technological subjects. I, of course, have to adjust my explanations of linguistics for them as well. Does this mean I'm splitting my personality? That I'm changing the way I interact in accordance with the vocabulary I'm using? Not really.

In foreign/second language teaching, every teacher quickly discovers that a lot of what they have to figure out how to teach is pragmatics, or "politeness." Yes, we can teach our students vocabulary and let them wander off to another country translating everything directly from their native language to their second language. But if we do, we know they'll be treated like aliens, idiots, and most likely considered rather rude. They have to learn to conform to the communicative norms of the society they will be entering with their new language, or they will not actually be communicating what they wish to.

I've had arguments with Mark about this, mostly over how when he was in Japan, he refused to refer to McDonald's as "Makudonarudo," because he was pronouncing it right, dang it. But he wasn't conforming to the pragmatic communicative norms of Japanese, and thus, native speakers could not communicate smoothly with him.

This of course extends beyond phonology to body language, speech patterns, social positioning, and on and on. Some countries' communicative contexts differ more widely from our own, and are therefore more jarring. The fact that the sounds and vocabulary of the language is different draws more attention to the fact that the difference is one between two groups, leading people to blame the language. But it's the social communicative context that demands a shift in communicative strategies. The words aren't affecting the speakers' minds, except as a further cue that they have to use a different set of rules. In the end, this usually results in using a different approach to the world as a whole, but I don't see this as a creation of dual personalities so much as a broadening of one's horizons.

Comments:
For the record, I never argued that language pragmatics were not useful, or that I refused to have anything to do with Japanese communicative norms. What I *said* was that a Japanese person would be insulted if I attempted to pronounce their name any way I felt like, or called one of their places or institutions by a gruesomely "Americanized" name.

Each person, and by extension, each organization or company, has the right to choose how they would like to be known. The McDonald's corporation has selected a name for themselves. I choose to call that organization by that name, because *it's their name*. I do not make this insistence for things other than for proper nouns, but I think it fair that Japanese people expect me to call them by their name, and that I expect the same from them in return, and I see no reason that the McDonald's corporation shouldn't be afforded the same consideration.

If the Japanese branch of the corporation wants to select a different name for themselves, that's their right, but they haven't. It says, right on the side of the building M-C-D-O-N-A-L-D-'-S, and that is a name for which there is a very specific pronunciation. I do them the common courtesy of speaking their name the way they intended. Can you imagine how you'd feel if you were in a conversation in which one of your companions learned that one of the others was Japanese, and burst out with "Wow, that's great! I love Jay-pay-in!" You'd be embarrassed.

As well you should be.
 
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