Do linguists display split personalities?

For all those linguists out there, do you sometimes feel like a different person when switching languages?

Are you a witty comedian in English, but when you switch to Mandarin you become a zen introvert that only speaks up when necessary?

This topic has become an unofficial phenomenon, with many people declaring it to be true.

At Two By Two, we are big on Mandarin, and our students are encouraged to learn Mandarin through interactive, hands-on activities. Every now and then we ask the children simple questions on a variety of topics. We record these questions and answers, and some time later we throw the same questions at the same students, but this time in English. There are times where we see repeat answers, but more frequently we see an uncanny change in each answer or the way the question is answered.

Of course these findings are not conclusive, that linguists have a split personality, but it certainly is some food for thought.


Integration of culture

On a more serious note, let us delve deeper into the topic.

Being able to think reflexively in your second language is a characteristic of an advanced learner. This is important, as thinking in your stronger language and then translating it back to your second language is inefficient and displays a lack of mastery. The subtle nuances of the language are lost and the essence of the topic at hand becomes unclear.

For one, you can forget about cracking jokes. After the 3-5 second delay as you frantically try to translate the joke in your head, it automatically does not seem funny any longer!

To achieve this reflexive thinking in one’s second language, we must place emphasis on studying the inherent culture of the second language. It would take years of learning the language and the culture in an immersive environment before you will be able to communicate effectively to people from that culture group.

Our strong Mandarin culture at Two By Two helps students who are non native speakers of the language pick up the language quickly and naturally. We teach mandarin in an environment that is immersive and hence we are able to successfully integrate the culture into the psyche of the students, vastly improving their mastery and confidence in using the language.


18GRAY-articleLarge-v2There are a couple of steps to take in order to fully integrate into a particular culture.

First, thoroughly learn the language. Be totally immersed in an environment that lives and breathes the language. Even when you struggle with speaking or reading, use it often. Surround yourself with people who are more proficient than you are in the language. Listen to songs, watch movies, get your hands on everything and anything associated with the language.

Second, thoroughly study and be involved in the culture. It is evident that each culture has its own unique characteristics. If not, there would not exist the so called culture shock and there would not be any semblance of any inter-racial divide, and in this case no theory of a split-personality phenomenon among linguists.


Learning Mandarin in today’s landscape

Increasingly, the younger generation have become unable to effectively communicate and fully understand people who solely speak Mandarin. These include the hawkers in the food centre, the table cleaners, retail staff and even their own grandparents or the older generation. The only form of connection comes through protocol, kindness and sometimes frantic gesticulating, peppered with fragments of the language.

I have had my struggles learning Mandarin. I grew up in an English speaking family and I fought an uphill battle with the language. My entire family, including my grandparents, spoke fluent English and zero Mandarin. Our family environment was such that our days were filled with witty anecdotes told in the Queen’s English and movies and songs from the West. My uncles and cousins were radio and TV personalities hosting English programs and many a family gathering was spent watching, listening and critiquing their work.

But spending my formative secondary school years in a Chinese school cemented my belief that being bilingual really does give us a cultural identity and that quiet confidence about ourselves and our place in the world.

Our nation’s founding father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was truly a visionary. He saw strength before we even had it – language. He united us with English and enforced the mandate that all students had to learn a second language associated with their ethnicity.

His emphasis on language has brought us to the place we are today. He united our country by giving us the gift of communication – not only with one another, but with the rest of the world. I would like to believe that I am effectively bilingual, thanks to him, and I would like to honor this legacy of his by perpetuating his passion and dedication towards nurturing the younger generation. Singapore has become predominantly English speaking and many families today have sorely neglected their mother tongue. I would like to change the mindset that Mandarin is difficult to master and help give children this skill of communication in Mandarin .


Linguists and the split personality phenomenon

In view of this, perhaps we can conclude that only advanced speakers of that certain language would possibly display this split-personality phenomenon. That does not disregard the fact that as human beings, we have a great propensity towards using our imagination and harnessing our creativity. All we need are a few simple facts and some background information about a certain culture and we are able to envision and bring to life an entire eco-system around these facts.

There is almost an intentional, instantaneous switch to adapt to what one perceives of a particular culture. Of course, these findings of split-personality are more frequent only in the students who delve deeper in their understanding of the language’s inherent culture. The difference is obvious and as an educator, I am able to observe this phenomenon as these bilingual students display it reflexively like second nature.

I do not regard this as negative behaviour, rather I believe that we are capable of progressing much further.

To put it succinctly in an analogy; It is just like an actor who steps into character, if he can fully walk in the shoes of his stage character, then he would definitely put up a performance worthy of an Oscar.

Hence we should inspire children to work towards seamlessly reconciling two or even more cultures; to work, play and communicate with such diversity would be a fulfilling achievement.