I Have Multiple Personalities (Confessions of a Linguist)

Many stone faces representing the many personalities of a linguist
The many personalities of a linguist.

Experienced linguists knew exactly what I meant when they read the title. The biggest goal of beginner and intermediate language students is to become fluent. The benefits of fluency are myriad–complete conversations, more professional opportunities, and less dictionary action. However, challenges don’t suddenly disappear when you attain fluency. Your older challenges merely get swapped out for newer, better ones. I don’t always coin terms, but today I’m going to make an exception–linguistic personality disorder (LPD).

LPD is the phenomenon whereby a student of a foreign language(s) has a different, typically inferior, personality when operating in a non-native language. Symptoms include frustration, bewilderment, and a burning desire to make further improvement.

Healthy people who speak only one language have only one personality. People know what they’re getting when they have a conversation with that individual. They can express themselves effortlessly in any context. They are themselves all of the time. If studying a foreign language is war, then not studying a foreign language is peacetime.

Linguists have many personalities corresponding with how many languages they speak. Almost all of those personalities are inferior to their native-language personality. That’s because people always have the greatest command of their native language, unless they lived abroad for an extended period of time. And personality is a function of communication more than any other single factor.

Personality is a function of communication more than any other single factor.

All students of a foreign language have LPD. It’s simply a disorder that people consent to when they take up language study. Symptoms of LPD are obviously worse in beginner and intermediate students, but they also affect advanced speakers. When a student is beginner- or intermediate-level, social expectations for that individual are low. They’re expected to make mistakes and regularly switch back to their first language, and native speakers go out of their way to facilitate conversation. Non-advanced students experience a big drop-off in personality when they speak the foreign language, but they are rarely capable of having a complete conversation.

Advanced speakers, on the other hand, are expected to understand everything, handle every situation effectively, and operate exclusively in the foreign language. Native speakers often communicate with advanced speakers like any other native speaker. And so wherever there is a gap in knowledge, that gap necessarily affects their personality because they have no recourse in their first language.

Let me give you a concrete example. A few years ago, I participated on a summer program in Arabic at the beginning of which all participants had to sign a language pledge–no communication except in Arabic for two whole months. Arabic ability varied greatly and students were divided into a number of groups. In the beginner and intermediate groups, I saw people, some of whom had advanced degrees, find it difficult to express themselves and were a shell of their usual selves for the duration of the program. Some of the native speakers who participated on the program had no idea these individuals were advanced professionals. They were acquainted only with their Arabic-language personality and formed their perceptions accordingly.

In the beginner and intermediate groups, I saw people, some of whom had advanced degrees, find it difficult to express themselves and were a shell of their usual selves for the duration of the program.

LPD is partially why I decided to stop studying Japanese. I had been studying Arabic and Spanish for several years, and I felt that with the addition of Japanese I was spreading myself thin. I completed two years of coursework and spent a summer abroad in Tokyo, and I have absolutely no regrets. But I discovered that I value depth more than breadth, and I didn’t want to become a social child again like I had been every time I spoke Japanese. I opted instead to invest more time and energy in Arabic and Spanish, two languages I am passionate about that have broader application.

I have a Chinese friend, on the other hand, who embraces LPD. She studies Arabic and French and is constantly picking up new languages, even if it means spreading herself thin. This system works perfectly for her because no two people are alike.

There’s another dimension of LPD that I haven’t yet elaborated on, and it involves the new personality traits people sometimes adopt when they learn a foreign language. For example, I’ve seen people express themselves more freely and openly in Spanish, and I’ve seen others become total clowns in Arabic. Studying a foreign language is an opportunity for self-redefinition. This happens when the people that know us best and think they have us figured out don’t speak the foreign language and can’t limit us by how they expect us to act.

Many people find this facet of foreign language study liberating. The anonymity can also have a therapeutic effect. I remember times in college when turning on the radio in Spanish or Arabic gave me a much-needed emotional break from the English-speaking world.

My purpose with this post is to shine a light on LPD. Let me know in the comments if/ how LPD has affected your life.

#LPDProblems #LPD


Leave a Reply