Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Language Split Personalities?

Dear Korean,

Recently I've been speaking more and more Korean. I'm not to a point in fluency yet where I'm at all automatic -- when I speak or listen to or read Korean, there is still a very large disconnect, emotionally. But it has started to dawn on me how different I seem to others in Korean. Obviously, that difference is stark to those around me who don't speak any English. I go from being mute and completely indiscernible to someone with thoughts. But the difference is also legitimate to people who know me well in English. And I'm starting to be able to feel how different the people I know in English are in Korean as well. I'm starting to genuinely understand what it means when a Korean coworker or friend will occasionally sigh and say, "I wish you could know me in Korean." 

Part of that obviously is an issue of fluency, but I feel like part of it is also an issue of "personality" through language. I'm only just beginning to understand these things. But, as someone who is fluent in both languages and who also had to adjust to an entirely different culture, I'm wondering how The Korean felt his identity change not through culture, but through language. Obviously, the culture of the two languages themselves is inherently different. But, I can't help but feel like you must have people in your life who know you equally well in both languages -- do they know two different TKs, or, once you reached a certain level of fluency, did the language identities meld?

Sincerely curious,
I'm no Picasso

Dear INP,

Indeed you came to the right place. Becoming a bilingual is an interesting experience, and even more so if the cultures embedded in the two languages are very different -- really, there is nothing quite like it. The Korean can only speak out of his own experience, but he suspects that his experience is not uncommon. Switching languages is not like switching from a black pen to a blue pen. By switching languages, one drags with oneself many things that depend on the language, like manners, customs and appropriate level of politeness. This "language baggage" presumably will be much greater if one is learning a new language while being surrounded by the language-users, as did the Korean or INP.

As frequent readers of this blog would know, the Korean learned English rather late in the game, after he moved to the U.S. For the first few months of learning English, the Korean mostly focused on going from Korean to English. That is, the Korean's initial language learning was to learn English words, punch them into Korean expressions, hoping to get himself understood. But once language learning began gaining steam and the Korean's knowledge of English went past the critical mass, English learning got on its own track. Instead of attempting to learn more English by referring back to Korean, the Korean began taking in more English through English.

In my estimation, this was the crucial moment where I could feel a sense of divergence in my personality as I switched languages. After all, by learning English, I was trying to do a lot more than getting myself understood. I was trying to be an American in all relevant aspects. I wanted to blend in, as if I had been always here. Once I began accumulating more English with English, I essentially acquired the lens through which I could see the American mindset, by which my further English learning was guided.

Although I have consistently emphasized rote memorization in language learning and railed against the wishful "learning by immersion," I will say this about immersion:  immersion is necessary if you want to take your language ability from "fluent" to "native-like". This is because the wall separating "fluent" and "native-like" actually has little to do with language. Instead, it has everything to do with the particular manner in which the language is used, either deliberately or subconsciously chosen among many valid alternatives. "Splendid!" means approximately the same as "Cool!" But only one of the two phrases, spoken by a typical American high school student, sounds natural.

(More after the jump)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Once you start going down this path of not simply being concerned about conveying meaning, but being concerned about conveying meaning like the way a native speaker would, some degree of split personality is perhaps inevitable. A part of it is about the new culture's expectation upon you as a functioning member of that culture. An easy example may be the honorific system in Korean. Speaking with an honorific before an elder does not only remind one of the particular grammatical rule; it reminds one of a particular mindset one must have, to be polite, tactful and deferential. By using Korean honorifics, a non-Korean may guide her personality toward a more deferential posture than it otherwise would be.

But, in fact, this example is too easy, because I know that using honorific does not necessarily lead me to have a particular mindset. I have plenty of friends in Korea who are older than I, some significantly so. When I speak Korean, I may be polite, tactful and deferential with an older person that I just met. But with my friends, regardless of the age, I am quite myself -- irreverent, direct and opinionated. I still use the honorifics, but the "-yo"s at the end of my sentences are hanging on for dear life. Using honorifics might remind me that I should be more deferential, but more often than not I ignore the reminder.

This is why I think there is an overlooked reason why bilingualism leads to a split personality. It may be true that the new culture, which is imbued in the new language, sets you toward the course of forming a new type of personality. But to an equal or a greater degree, language learners may set themselves toward that course by following their own vision of what the new culture is supposed to be. It may well be the case that a Korean language learner develops a more deferential personality because Korean language induces a certain type of mindset. But it may also be the case that the language learner over-thinks the deferential posture, and guide her personality to the level of deference that is not quite necessary, even in Korean culture. In some ways, this result is only natural -- when we learn something new, we often focus on the difference and neglect the similarities. It would make sense that in the process of trying to fit ourselves into a different mold, sometimes we overshoot the mark.

Undoubtedly, the precise interaction between the culture that exists positively and the culture that exists in the minds of an aspiring bilingual will be highly individualized -- there is no telling which factor will have a greater influence for each given individual. But combined, the factors both push the language learner toward developing a strain of personality that may be different from the original one.

In my case, it was the latter factor that had a greater influence. I had always been a bit of an odd duck in Korea, in that I had to purposefully acquire a lot of social habits that appeared to come naturally to most Koreans. One such habit was constantly being on high alert about another person's reactions and emotions. This is not to say that I was socially tone-deaf in Korea. But, particularly as a rebellious teenager, I saw my Korean social skills to be cumbersome and unnecessary.

Then I came to America -- "the land of the free!" I thought. "The place where everyone can speak his mind freely, yet accepted for who they are!" This image was my own vision of what American culture was supposed to be -- which means that I, in turn, guided my own behavior accordingly in my attempt to become an American. So as I learned English, my speech in English was -- to put it mildly -- unencumbered. Speaking Korean, I did not swear very much. Speaking English, I cursed up a storm. Speaking in Korean, my eyes were constantly tracking the listener's face, trying to gauge the reaction on what I was saying. Speaking in English, I would say what came to my mind, and walk away without bothering to listen to what other people thought. My dictions were abrasive, cutting and over-the-top, intended for maximum shock value and self-gratification for "saying what everyone thinks but dares not say."

I thought I was developing an independent-minded American persona. In truth, there was really nothing "American" about my newly acquired, English-speaking persona -- I was just becoming an obnoxious, immature dipshit who obtained the excuse to lose the backstop that was holding me back from degenerating into that dipshit. It took around 6-7 years after I came to America (about 4-5 years after I became fluent in English) that I realized that I was not a pleasant person to be around, and decided to do something about it.

At this point in my life, I would say I am more or less back to my "Korean" personality. (Although, to be fair, I am certain that my friends back in Korea could easily identify "American" aspects of my personality of which I am not even aware.) I am again generally choosy with my words and swear only to make a point. I read people's faces and gauge reactions, although it still does not come naturally to me. I don't feel that I have a personality split by languages -- my demeanors are more or less the same in any language in which one may find the Korean.

I don't know exactly what caused this change. It could be the maturity that came with aging. It could be that I have lived in America long enough to finally figure out that American culture is not a license to be an asshole. It could be that I got over the silly idea that my Korean identity was a stigma to be overcome if I wanted to be a true American. But I do recall one specific moment when I realized that I had significantly less friends in the U.S. than in Korea up to that point, then thought -- "I should just do what people do in Korea." Because truly, regardless of the culture, the best way to make friends is to do as Koreans do and constantly look out for other people. As much as American culture emphasizes individualism and independent thinking, making friends in America involves the same process as making friends in Korea.

(This was also about the same time when the Korean came to realize one of his most important life lessons, which may well be the official motto of the blog -- that is, regardless of culture, people are the same.)

So, going back to INP's original question -- yes, the Korean indeed had a split personality as he acquired English language. Around five years after becoming fluent, however, his personality reached an equilibrium.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.


  1. I'm a second-generation Korean American who doesn't really speak much Korean outside of my home. When I DO speak Korean (i.e. with the supermarker ajummas), I kind of get a "familial" feeling that I never feel with strangers when I speak my native English. Is that because I encounter Koreans with much less-frequency? Or is it something that's innate in the language and culture?

  2. Isn't 'conveying meaning' really on some level the same thing as 'conveying meaning the way a native speaker would'? What I mean is it's in the nature of different languages that things/meanings are expressed differently. Both words and structures that appear equivalent between two languages are called upon in different ways, the more so the more distant the two languages are.

    To take an example, if you want your companion to slow down in English you say 'Wait for me!' whereas in Korean you say '같이 가!' which literally translates to 'Let's go together!'. And this isn't about a difference in culture, with English focusing on the individual ('me') and Korean on the collective ('together'). It's that 'Let's go together' *doesn't mean* the same as 'Wait for me'; it's a phrase that just isn't applicable in that situation. 'Let's go together' would be used when planning a trip, for example.

    So, yes, we need to learn structure and vocabulary simply in order to produce recognizable speech; but learning meaning is something quite separate.

    The Korean is right, of course, that people pass a watershed at the point where they cease to rely on their first language to interpret their second. For a long time there is no alternative but to peg the new language you are learning to the one you know. But perhaps the concept of what a new language is, of what meaning is, could be clear from the start?

  3. I really liked this post. Talked about it with my wife.

  4. Nice post. I typically speak, act in a different way in Japanese than in English, but then I usually use Japanese to speak with Japanese people, which brings with it the attendant differences in culture, etc. In order to become fluent in Japanese I had to take on a Japanese identity to some point (although I agree with you about the extent to which the foreign language learner can overcompensate).

  5. "(...) the best way to make friends is to do Koreans"

    Is the constant flood of "How get I date with a Korean guy?" questions finally making an impact? ;)

  6. Wow...excellent post. I've been wondering about exactly this. I'm learning Korean as a third language and I'm already quite aware that I sound completely different in my first two...I don't know enough Korean yet to sound like anything but a cavewoman, but as I learn more of the language I wonder what I will sound like as I sort myself out. I think you hit the nail on the head when explaining how this works.

  7. For the most part, as I get better and better at Korean I've noticed that aspects of my "English personality" are carrying over. I'm starting to be able to use my sense humor to make people laugh. Pretty soon I'll start getting complaints about how stubborn, loud, and direct I am!

  8. I've been toying around with this idea and I was excited to see it materialized in this post. I'm one of the less frequent cases of being Korean-American and still retaining a near-native level of Korean that most of my other second gen. friends seem to lose a couple years into school at the earliest. I've had so many people, especially adults (probably because the deference level is that much more pronounced), be shocked after I switch languages on them after having gotten to know me in one language. The bigger shock seems to be when I go from Korean to English. Many have commented that I sound much more assertive in English- some even saying it's like talking to a completely different person.

    Great post! Please keep them coming!

  9. Your entry reminded me of two Japanese language professors back at my undergrad. One was born and raised in Japan, coming to the United States for his PhD program. The other was a Caucasian gentleman who worked and lived in Japan for many years. The two were friends, but the ethnic Japanese professor told us half jokingly how whenever the Caucasian professor would ask a favor, he would always ask in Japanese because it was much harder to say "No" in that language. The Caucasian professor could simply bulldozer through the normal subtle cultural cues that would convey the sentiment.

  10. This is so funny!
    I find that I typically am very similar in personality, but I find that my behavior changes around Koreans. I am more polite, for sure!

    I also often, when I am speaking English, want to use Korean words that convey a clearer message in Korea, but is like, untranslatable to English without sounding awkward. It sucks! :)

  11. When I was studying linguistics, we went through the various teachings that came through with regards to language.

    One of those was "Does language influence culture or does culture influence language?". I always found that to be an interesting question. But it's a question we probably can't answer, just like how we can't answer whether the chicken or the egg came first.

    When speaking of "split personalities" I'm reminded of a study about accents in second-language learners; some people had a strong determination to lose their accents to become "real" Americans, others saw their accent as connecting to the core of who they were.

    After hearing those opinions, I made the decision to stay as true to myself as possible in Japanese. Interestingly enough, there are many parts of my personality that fit in easily with Japanese culture.

    Unfortunately, my style of humor wasn't one of them. hehe

  12. I think in my case it's a bit exaggerated, because the shyness that comes along with speaking a foreign language plays in nicely with being deferential. Which all just works out lovely in the work setting. Speaking 반말 is completely different, though, as I've picked most of that up from teachers to the students, and from students to other students. As a result, I'm a little rougher than I ought to be sometimes when speaking to my boyfriend, who is technically older. But it synches well with how we interact in English. Took me a while to get there, though.

    Thanks a lot for your thoughtful thoughts, TK.

  13. Great post! I often feel very different when speaking Korean than English and to know that other people share this similar experience is comforting!

  14. Yes! This is so true. I speak several languages and feel as if I become something of a different person in each one. One is forced to think differently and behave differently by the language itself.

    I read an interview with a woman who was excellent at learning new languages. She said that the first thing she would do to begin a new one and start watching TV in that language nonstop. Then, she said, she would pick a person on a show that was female and about her age and social status, and imitate her language, gestures, and mannerisms exclusively. In this way, she said, she could understand as much about to whom to be deferential, to whom to be casual and friendly, etc.

    Similarly, I have found that learning other languages and experience in different cultures makes one much more aware of one's role in any given situation, and the need to "perform" in that role (teacher, friend, student, business client) becomes almost as important as speaking the language itself if one wants to communicate. You can't speak sexy slang at a business meeting or be formal with a close friend.

  15. "But it may also be the case that the language learner over-thinks the deferential posture, and guide her personality to the level of deference that is not quite necessary, even in Korean culture"

    As a K-American who grew up without much personal interaction with the Korean community, I found this particularly interesting.

    I visited S. Korea a couple of years ago for the first time after leaving it as a child decades ago. When I met my uncle I bowed deep and greeted him in a respectful manner without even thinking about it. It just seemed the thing to do. I was therefore surprised when later my aunt told me that not only was the formality not necessary, but that by being overly polite I risked making people uncomfortable. It didn't take me long to realize why I acted the way I did: I was imitating the characters I had seen on Korean TV!

    My uncle is a history professor, and in my mind his lofty standing demanded an extra layer of deference, even from family; and if you've seen Korean TV - especially the dramedies that include professional and upper-class characters - you know people are always bowing respectfully, using formal speech, standing at attention, etc. Apparently I had internalized those mannerisms since I began following the K-wave phenomenon in recent years!

  16. What TK said at the end about reaching the equilibrium, was what I could relate to the most.

    I believe that ultimately when you become fluent in a particular foreign language, you'll reach the balance of becoming one person again. But until that point, having split personalities is inevitable.

    I was 14 and spoke very little English when I moved to the States -- those of us who had to take middle-school level of English classes in Korea will know the exact level of English skills I would have possessed. -- Naturally, I was a very quiet, shy person, not being able to speak out my mind. This, of course, largely is affected by your original personality. I've seen plenty of brave souls who are very forthcoming in speaking other languages when they don't even make any sense, but these are usually the sort of people who advance much faster than the shy, passive ones.

    But I wasn't one of them. I remember being very passive for at least a couple of years before being able to speak my mind. A close friend of mine from my early days can testify to this. In fact, he was the one who years ago told me that I used to be a very sweet shy boy, and was very surprised to find out how much of a talker I was in later years.

    I jokingly tell people that you know you're okay in that language (yes, it's a very relative phrase) once you start to dream in that language.

    It took years of watching 'General Hospital,' 'Looney Tunes" and 'Price Is Right.' But once I've reached a point of equilibrium, I was back to my own self.

    Now if I can just overcome the inter-State cultural differences between California-grown-Korean wife and mid-western-brewed-Korean myself...

  17. This comment has been removed by the author.

  18. I love your metaphor of black pen and blue pen!

    I am a bilingual living in California (8 years and counting), and my English and Korean get roughly equal amount of air time per week, and I have to say, I definitely feel the "language split personality" and others have commented on it, though in general the split is extremely subtle. For example, my voice and mannerism are slightly more feminine in Korean whereas when I speak English, I speak with a lower tone and more sarcastic and direct attitude. Also, my vocabulary and diction is slightly different in each language. And perhaps most significantly, the way I express my personal emotions and thoughts vary most between the two languages.

    I guess in a way I am, unbeknownst to me, conforming my personality to (what I perceive to be) the norm of a typical girl in mid-20s in each respective culture. It's an unconscious, subtle process but nonetheless existent.

    Recently a Korean celebrity who has worked as a TV actress in Japan for almost 10 years mentioned that her voice acquires a pitch three levels higher when she speaks Japanese, and that her reactions are often exaggerated in Japanese than when she speaks Korean. Interesting to see how language affects one's personalities.

  19. Comment received over email from Gustavo F.:

    Coming to Korea was such an amazing experience to me in a way I didn't know it would be. I hadn't heard of Korea before getting the scholarship. I am half Asian (as a typical brazilian, mixed hehe) and half European, and could finally connect to my Asian side here ^^. Some very Asian/Korean "instincts" were always natural to me, such as 눈치 and taking care of others; I also love the freedom that I have with my friends here (friends in the 친구 sense, same age and gender) - coming from a Latin country, any kind of physical contact or sentimental-ish conversation is seen immediately as "gay".

    Just the way I faced the racial and cultural mix, I'm in the middle of this confusion regarding the languages. I am a native Portuguese speaker who studied English for almost 10 years, in the Brazilian equivalent to 학원. I also have a good grasp of Spanish and French (enough to communicate), but both seemed to connect somehow with the feelings and all background I always carried with me (Latin roots, after all...). But with Korean language it is a whole different story. Even though I have been living here for 2 years, my fluency allows me to have limited conversation capabilities but enough to communicate most of my thoughts out of the workplace. But due to the limited English from my co-workers most of the time I feel isolated (Korean spoken in the office is a whole different chapter in the big "Korean Language Book", and I guess that's even worse in a traditional chaebol).

    When I can use English nowadays I feel quite happy. I almost "abandoned" Portuguese, since there are just a few friends here who can use the same language as me and we don't talk so often ~ I even feel confused using my own language lately, maybe as a result of my efforts to blend into Korean language and life. During Korean classes, for instance, I always think in English, since thinking in Portuguese won't help (my teachers speaks English and Korean after all). A language is as important as it's useful in your current situation, and I have to admit Portuguese is not useful for now. I read news now and then and talk to my family, but it feels like I am in the middle of the "denial" process that you mentioned. At least I have personal traits that Korean people like (I guess), so I can get along with them quite well - to the point I don't feel a stranger, and luckily my appearance helps in this process (I heard so many times I am a "tall Korean" - i am 190cm).

    Wow, now that I read all I wrote it sounds so confusing... but just wanted to share my view about this personality split from the point of view of somebody who faces it "tridimensionally". But this whole story about languages and personality is quite confusing from the scratch I guess. It is the kind of issue that has to be discussed over a couple of beers. Go figure OTL ㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋ

  20. Comment received over email from Marc H.:

    My experience is similar to that of qklilx. I've been speaking a lot more Korean lately and beginning to see progress in the most unexpected situations. (Thankful that all of my study hasn't been in vain. Ha ha.) Being a native English speaker, I find that when I speak in Korean I tend to go into a different mode. So the tone of my voice changes--not just with respect to Korean intonation, but higher-pitched overall. I still have, and probably will always have, a "foreigner" accent, but my pronunciation is pretty good. I imitate Koreans' speech as much as I can. I'm also very conscious of the use of polite and casual forms of speech. In addition to speaking, I've also adopted several Korean mannerisms as I've observed them in other people.

    That said, my personality does carry over. By nature I'm a little bit introverted and, some would say, introspective. When meeting people for the first time, I do try to put on a "bright" face for the sake of first impressions. After introductions are done and we've become relatively comfortable with each other, I slowly revert to my true self. This is especially true with people in my age group (30s) or younger. I've gotten to a point where Koreans make the same observations about my personality that my friends would make back in the U.S. That represents what I like to call a point of transcendence.

    Recently I was cycling at the Han River and I stopped at one of the exercise areas to drink some water and stretch out. An older Korean gentleman approached me to chat and ask where I was from, as often happens. We ended up talking (in Korean) for probably 20 or 30 minutes. Toward the end of our conversation he made an observation along the lines of "You seem like such-and-such a person." I remember that night having several things on my mind and that may have reflected in my expression. But I thought it was interesting that the language barrier didn't affect the expression of my personality.

    I'm not quite fluent in Korean, but definitely conversational--maybe like high intermediate level. I have several friends and colleagues who speak little or no English and so our communication is in Korean. I'm still learning a lot about resolving the personality divide, but it's been an interesting journey.

  21. Hm... This one is very interesting. But hard to make up my mind over this.

    The only language I'm conversational (fluent to a certain point) is English. (My French totally sucks.) But since I'm German and learned that language in school I couldn't feel a carry-over-personality at all. Maybe I was too young to realize when it happened. Maybe the two cultures (German/British) are too close - even though I admit I have never been in Britain. But I'm quite sure there is a bigger gap between German-Korean than German-British. So, no, I didn't feel anything at all.
    I was two weeks in the USA for vacation. Stayed with a host family of my friend. Didn't feel anything either. Maybe the time was too short.

    Third language: Korean. Was in Korea for three month and I'm far from being fluent or "really" conversational! Have to learn more. Anyway: The things I could talk about in Korean were few but when I did I realized for the first time that I'm doing differently then usual. But I think this may be the impact of the culture. Not the language... (No???) Well, my Korean is much too worse that it would make sense to me that my "personality shifted" because of the language. But I'm not sure.
    Interestingly enough: When I talked with my friend (Korean) in Korea - in English - she said to me: You are so like a Korean from your thinking and your behavior. You seem more Korean than me. And I have heard that from more people than just her on various occasions. Don't know if it is that way or where it comes from...

  22. Sorry, have to add some more. I just read the comments and stumbled over that:

    "I jokingly tell people that you know you're okay in that language (yes, it's a very relative phrase) once you start to dream in that language."
    Had to smile because it already happened some times even though I can't talk well yet in Korean.
    Being there in 2010 for three month, I guess my Korean was at it's High Peak.
    I came back 2011 - for 10 days (vacation) - nothing happened.
    And I visited Korea again - again for 10 days only!! - in 2012. Some things in my personal life changed then. THAT was the first time I actually dreamed in Korean, after being back.

    So... I guess the relativity of this sentence is proven. ㅋㅋㅋ


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