During the first run of my Coursera course on the bilingual brain, a student asked whether changing languages leads to people changing personalities. Considerable discussion ensued about this on the forums. My initial answer was that language was a marker of a set of circumstances and as such was likely to be accompanied by a shift in context. This change in personality could also be observed in people who are in different personal situations. You might think of the shy person who becomes much more extroverted when talking to family or close friends. Alternatively, we could think about someone who acts in one manner with his co-workers but acts very differently when having a drink with former college dormmates. Another student then asked whether culture might play a role.
That is, language per se does not change someone but rather, a person may adopt the particular aspects of a culture. Culture can play a very large role in people’s behavior. Visits to Northern parts of Germany stood in stark contrast to the boisterous moods I saw on Wednesday afternoon in Bavaria during the summer. I was similarly struck by how withdrawn and serious people seemed in Lisbon. I had always equated Portuguese with the openness of the Brazilian people that made me wonder if culture could eliminate introversion all together. Puzzled by the idea that someone would want to be alone all the time, a Brazilian told me that in his country an introvert would most likely hang out at a party and speak to a few people in the corner while the extrovert would be drawing attention to himself or herself in the middle of the room. Lisbon seemed serious and sedate compared to Brazil. Even the accent was less melodic. But the language was for the most part the same.
As I thought about it more, I realized that language might serve as a form of context that triggers certain memories. One interesting analogy comes from work with deep-sea divers. Divers often seem to forget what happened to them underwater. Follow up work on this observation has found that when divers are taught a list of words underwater they are better at recalling more of those words later underwater than they are outside water. The opposite was also true. They exhibited better memory for words learned above water when they were asked to remember outside of water. Hence, a particular context serves to elicit memories relevant to that context. In this view, memory is driven by a set of cues that elicit certain responses from us.
Memory might also serve to cue different memories in a slightly different way. In a classic study, memory was enhanced by the particular context that is used during learning. For example, if participants pay attention to the case of a word (upper or lower) or meaning of a word while learning they could more easily process a list of words that matched the context of learning after a delay. Once again the format of learning cues was the preferred format for remembering.
From a memory point of view, language and/or culture can be thought of as a set of cues that elicit certain types of memories. It is entirely plausible that when exposed to these different cues people may actually shift what they remember. But the effect of change is not specific to bilingualism. It just happens that culture and/or language is a very explicit marker of this change. So maybe everyone changes depending on the context they are experiencing at the present moment. Bilinguals, engaged by context dependent memories, might just notice it more.
Featured image credit: Baixa in Lisbon, Portugal. CC0 via Pixabay.