Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Does Being Socially Awkward Make You a Better Linguist?

Passing the time browsing the net as the shortest day of the year drew to a close and the rain poured down outside the window on the muddy fields of rural Brittany, I came across this article on the BBC website:

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150528-how-to-learn-30-languages

It doesn't really tell you how to learn 30 languages, which I was a bit disappointed by, but, as well as being pleased to learn that years of language geeking may have gained me an additional 9 years without dementia, I was also intrigued by the idea that the secret to successful language learning may lie in "the depths of our personality" and our ability to be "cultural chameleons".

I've taken part in plenty of discussions and read many articles about whether your personality and behaviour can change when you speak a second language, but it had never occurred to me before that the ability to do this might be a key part of acquiring multilingualism, that being able to speak a foreign tongue like a native actually depends on pretending to be a native speaker of that foreign tongue.

Perhaps this also explains why the people who are good at learning languages (or at least the people who choose to make themselves good at it) are not necessarily the greatest extroverts in the world. When I think of the people I've met studying languages and living abroad, many of us are not the most socially at ease in our native languages, but we tend to enjoy not just constructing long, grammatically complex sentences using sophisticated vocabulary, but also imitating the gestures, linguistic tics and colloquialisms of the new culture (eh ben, oui!). Maybe this is because, feeling less socially secure in our own culture, or being less dependent on feeling socially secure in order to be happy with ourselves, we more easily throw off our habits and adopt others.

And the best bit, at least in my personal experience, is that not only do we get to explore new personalities with each new country or language, knowing that we are able to do this is a massive confidence booster at home as well.

What do you think? Do your experiences match the theory?

12 comments:

  1. Interesting theory! I don't know though, I wish I was more like the people I know who chat away fluently with terrible grammar and/or accent, versus me (ideally) saying nothing unless I'm absolutely sure I'm saying it right.

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    1. Yes, but hopefully people like us manage to be fluent and also right eventually! I'm not good at the accent part though - I can't mimic accents in English, and while I think my French accent is OK, it's definitely a weak point compared to vocabulary and grammar.

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    2. I've been told I sound foreign but not English-speaking. I suppose I'll take it!

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    3. I get that too. I guess it's a step in the right direction!

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  2. Great theory! I never have any clue if I am an extrovert or an introvert but I love languages a lot.

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  3. Like Holly, I can't figure out whether I'm an extrovert or an introvert. I like being alone and I tend to favour social activities in very small groups (like one or two people), I don't like big parties or large gathering. But I also like to chat with everyone and I'm not shy.

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    1. I'm the same, but if I had to pick one I would definitely say introvert because I need to recharge from social situations with alone time. I think this fits the theory, though - it's easier to adapt socially to a small group of people, whereas at a big party, people with strong personalities tend to be the life and soul.

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  4. Very interesting theory! I'm an introvert, so my experience living in Italy totally matches it. As you mention, I enjoy not only studying the language itself, (and comparing the different languages I dabble in), but also how native speakers behave when speaking the language, such as gestures.

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    1. One of the things I love about being in Italy is that, because Italian culture is so extrovert (by British standards, I can act in a way that feels extrovert to me without actually drawing lots of attention to myself. It's perfect!

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  5. A friend and I were just discussing some of these ideas last night. She asked me if my personality changes when speaking English vs. French. On one hand I'd be less likely to tell a long story in French than in English (thereby not telling the story at all), which would make me seem less open in French. On the other hand, some of my most intimate conversations have been in French, which makes me wonder ift it is easier to communicate certain things in one's non-native language.

    This also makes me think of a French friend who doesn't speak English that well but whose personality comes through the same in both languages. I think I would describe him as an extrovert.

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    1. I think I find it easier to say uncomfortable things in French than in English. I wonder if it's because it's easier to hide my unease behind being less familiar with the language, or if it's just that there's less of an emotional connection. I find it easier to say gros mots too, maybe because they're less connected with parental repercussions in my mind!

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  6. Totally agree with your idea of adopting other cultures as a result of being less socially secure in original culture. Speaking French is one part of adopting a new identity.

    Which brings me to a book review I read a long time ago for Francesca Marciano's "The other language" in which this line was quoted "She didn't know what she was getting away from, but the other language was the boat she fled on."

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