Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Chronicles of Ehav Ever: Linguistics

In the past, my family was multilingual. I was told that during my great-grandfather's time most of our family and people in their community spoke about 3 or more languages. When I was a child I learned English and French. When I was 6 I stopped using my French all together. When I was 10 my family went to visit Okinawa, Japan and I learned a bit of Japanese, that I still remember to this day. When I got older I started learning Hebrew, both ancient and modern. When I lived in California, I also made it a point to learn how to say hello, thank you, yes, no, and goodbye in about 4 different languages. Before I traveled to Ethiopia in 2001 I learned how to start and end a conversation. When I get a little older I want to learn Arabic and relearn French. These are the stories of what happens in life when you speak more than one language.........these are the Chronicles of Ehav Ever.

Language and Personality

So a few months ago I saw the following article on Yahoo and it had me thinking.

Switching languages can also switch personality: study
NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - People who are bi-cultural and speak two languages may unconsciously change their personality when they switch languages, according to a U.S. study.

Researchers David Luna from Baruch College and Torsten Ringberg and Laura A. Peracchio from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee studied groups of Hispanic women, all of whom were bilingual, but with varying degrees of cultural identification. They found significant changes in self perception or "frame-shifting" in bi-cultural participants -- women who participate in both Latino and Anglo culture.

"Language can be a cue that activates different culture-specific frames," the researchers said in a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

While frame-shifting has been studied before, they said this research found that people who are bicultural switched frames more quickly and easily than people who are bilingual but living in one culture. The researchers said the women classified themselves as more assertive when they spoke Spanish than when they spoke English.

"In the Spanish-language sessions, informants perceived females as more self-sufficient and extroverted," they said.

In one of the studies, a group of bilingual U.S. Hispanic women viewed advertisements that featured women in different scenarios. The participants saw the ads in one language - English or Spanish - and then, six months later, they viewed the same ads in the other language. Their perceptions of themselves and of the women in the ads shifted depending on the language.

"One respondent, for example, saw an ad's main character as a risk-taking, independent woman in the Spanish version of the ad, but as a hopeless, lonely, confused woman in the English version," said the researchers.

My Thoughts

As someone who is bi-cultural and speaks two languages, I wonder if this is true for me also. I like to think that I am the same person when I speak in Hebrew as compared to English, but then again maybe I am not. I would like to think that my personality changes simply based on my location, the people I am around, and my mood but maybe I also change when I switch between Hebrew and English. I will admit that certain elements of my personality are amplified when I speak Hebrew because the conversations I normally have in Hebrew always seem more dramatic than the ones I have in English.

It has always been funny to me how animated we Israelis get when we speak in Hebrew. To me the jokes seem funnier, the arguments more passionate, and life just more interesting when I interact with people in Hebrew. That is why it is so funny that I meet so many Israelis who when they find out that I speak English they want to speak English with me so they can improve their English. Yet, I want to speak Hebrew with them so I can improve my Hebrew. Thus a tug of war takes place where we end up doing half and half.

There are also some people that I have not yet been able to understand completely when they speak Hebrew. Some of it could be that I am used to certain tones of voices in Hebrew, since when I lived in America I only spoke Hebrew at night and on the weekends. When I worked in the US there weren't that many Hebrew speakers at my job, so there was really no use for it at work. I tried to keep myself current by studying during my lunch break, but one hour is never enough.

So I just knew I had to move to Israel so I could spend most of my time speaking Hebrew. This is the only place where Hebrew could be my first language in about 90% of my encounters. So, as I have mentioned in other posts, I pretty much packed my bags and moved here to Israel. I will have to be honest, speaking Hebrew was a major reason I moved here. All that for a language you say? Hey, don't knock it until you have tried it. It is like a Rabbi I know once wrote, "There is nothing like the feeling of being in Israel, learning in Hebrew, speaking in Hebrew, and living in Hebrew." That Rabbi definitely gets a soul-clap for that because he was 100% right.

Hadag Nahash/Hene Ani Ba (here i come)
-הדג נחש/הנה אני בא

I guess I should also add the fact that I know Yemenite Hebrew. Not in terms of speaking, although I understand it when I hear it and when I read Biblical texts of ancient Hebrew I automatically pronounce everything in Yemenite Hebrew. I can also read Yemenite Judeo-Arabic, which we mainly use when singing the older songs. I am able to read the Torah in Yemenite Hebrew as well, and Yemenite Jews are always surprised at how well I do it. Many of them tell me I am Yemenite, or that someone down the line in my family tree must of been.

Psalm 29 - Yemenite/Adenite Synagogue

Wait, how I can forget to mention that I can read Samaritan Hebrew. The Samaritans are a sect of about 700 Israelis who descend from the ancient Samaritan peoples. Half of their community lives in Holon, Israel, not far from Tel Aviv and the other half live in Nablus/Shechem in the Arab controlled regions. They don't like being Jews, but prefer to be called Shamerim Yisraelim i.e. Samaritan Israelis. Their Hebrew has some similarities to Yemenite Hebrew, and can be considered a dialect of ancient Hebrew. I have both the Samaritan Torah and their prayer book the Daftir as a part of my library.

Samaritan Israeli Priests Singing in Samaritan Hebrew

The really cool thing here in Israel, is that there are a lot of Israelis who speak more than one language. There are a number of Jews who speak Yemenite Arabic, North African Arabic, Farsi, French, Yiddish, Spanish, Amharic/Ethiopian, Russian, etc. Throughout the centuries Jews have spoken the local vernaculars of the locals where their communities lived and mixed those languages with Hebrew and Aramaic. Such examples are Judeo-Arabic, Ladino, and Yiddish.

So back to the personality shifts when speaking different languages. I wish there was some way to gauge my own shifts to see who I become when I switch between the two languages. I do know that in technical conversations in Hebrew I am still lacking so I am a bit shy in that area, but I am beginning to change that. This article also has me thinking how it was for my father and great-grandparents. My father spoke both Spanish and English, and my grandparents spoke about 4 or 5 languages. What were those family dinners like, and how did their personality shifts affect their lives. It is all interesting stuff, seeing as I also want to learn Arabic and relearn French. It all makes me feel like the street signs here in Israel, most of them are in Hebrew, Arabic, and English; just in Hebrew and English, only in Hebrew; or only in Arabic.

The Final Analysis

I love language, and when I was kid I used to have so much fun reading dictionaries. I loved learning new words and expanding my vocabulary base. With two languages (scratch that two languages, several dialects, and cordial terms in 3 languages), the fun continues, and the joy increases. Yet, what will happen when I am able to master three languages. These are the stories of what happens in life when you speak more than one language.........

These are the Chronicles of Ehav Ever
אלה דיברי הימים של אהב עבר


goooooood girl said...

i like......

Ehav Ever said...

Thanks gooooood girl.

rivkayael said...

I think I agree. Here's my analysis:

Chinese: Complain a lot (my working language in the lab, doing actual work).

English: Shy, thoughtful, somewhat intelligent (helps that this is my working language outside the lab--my 'emotional and thinking language' so to speak).

German: brusque and dismissive. Again that may have to do with the fact that I studied academic German and it's just not my schmoozing language.

Hebrew/Hebrish: Somewhat chutzpahdik and rebellious, and very very focused. Someone at shul (who hears me speak mostly in the context teaching Torah) commented "do you ALWAYS fight with rabbis like that"? My havruta said that when I get into Hebrew mode, I tend to read at top speed and zone out everything else. As you know I am not exactly what you call combative. But who knows, that may change when I make aliya, more for survival than anything else :).

Perhaps the context of the learned language is more important than the language itself.

Ehav Ever said...

Hi Rivkayael,

I think you are right that context of learning a language a part of it, but I also think that we as people also bring a certain attitude to it. For example, a lot of American Jews who make Aliya and speak Hebrew often retain certain American elements of how they speak. So it is easy to tell sometimes native Israelis vs. American Olim.

I also think, as you mentioned, that some languages maybe because of culture carry certain elements of how they are spoken.

So it would seem that you have four personalities.