Do bilinguals really have two souls?

Media image for “the dual identity” of bilinguals (Source: Luxemburger Wort)

We keep reading media reports of studies which conclude that people who speak more than one language are capable of perceiving some aspects of the world differently and may even develop another personality as a result of being bilingual. This assumption goes back as far as the Middle Ages when Charlemagne supposedly said: ‘To have another language is to possess a second soul’.

Much later, this assumption came to comprise the gist of the idea of ‘linguistic relativity’ aka Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, a theory which claims that language and its grammatical structure shapes and constructs our thoughts and the mental frame in which we view the world around us. Consequently, people who speak more than one language are likely to experience reality differently, depending on the language they are speaking. Since then, a large number of studies have been attempting to prove this, and more or less informed debate of the matter is, unsurprisingly, all over the Internet.

Even so, the statement that bilinguals have more than one soul is not as simple as we are made to believe it is. As a linguist and an active bilingual, I neither think that bilinguals – even the most bicultural of us (those who have immersed themselves, to a great extent, in more than one culture) – have more than one soul nor do I believe that the number of languages a person speaks multiplies their souls (or personalities).

Studies that make such claims not only portray bilinguals as exotic individuals who are categorically different from monolinguals, but phrases such as ‘having a second soul’ or a ‘different personality’ also suggest that bilinguals may be confused individuals with a split personality: bilingualism comes to be represented as akin to a personality disorder in such reports.

I think the problem with the idea that bilinguals have ‘two souls’ and the messages they send is two-fold. The first one is that they do not really do justice to the complexity of being a bilingual; instead, they reduce bilinguals to individuals who have a dual identity, a misconception that linguists such as Aneta Pavlenko have consistently challenged. For instance, a difference in the linguistic terms used for time units in different languages might make bilinguals experience time slightly differently, but that does not mean that such a change in perception can be generalised and be used as evidence that bilinguals experience reality differently, depending on the language they speak.

Furthermore, reports about bilinguals’ perception often entail some element of exaggeration. To focus on the ‘perks’ of being a bilingual and encourage second language learning, they make it sound as if an automatic outcome was guaranteed: All you have to do is learn a second language and you will perceive time differently’.

A change in language as a change of worldview?

The second problem with this assumption is its neglect of the crucial role of culture and the extent of immersion a language learner needs to have to reach a certain level of bilingualism and thus, if at all, have another ‘view’ on life. Without considering the role of culture and socialisation of learners into a new culture an important pre-requisite of accessing and adopting a certain worldview is ignored.

Linguist John McWhorter (2014: xiv; 6-8) contends that what these studies do is mainly pointing out the ‘subtle and, overall, minor’ cognitive differences between speakers of different languages; differences that do not suffice to be considered a ‘worldview’. Instead, he argues that this so-called change of perspective is a result of ‘get[ting] yourself into a culture […] learn[ing] a different way of looking at life, not from the way the grammar works’. Many recent studies (e.g., Pavlenko, 2008) indeed show that learners’ immersion into a new culture can help them acquire certain cultural aspects and modes of expressions (e.g. perceiving and expressing emotions).

What is it then? A worldview or a change in stance?

Taking the role of culture and socialisation into account, I argue that what seems to be a change in the worldview can be explained as a change in bilingual speakers’ stances or attitudes when switching to the other language. ‘Having a second soul’ might be really about identity performance and having multi-faceted identities that tend to be activated and highlighted through switching between languages. My PhD project shows that the temporary aspects of bilingual speakers’ identities that are projected and performed through switching between languages can be attributed to a change in the stances they take up. These stances are found to be related to the different functions for which bilinguals use each language, such as expressing different emotions and making attitudinal shifts when switching between languages. These shifts can also be linked to the values or social and cultural meanings they associate with each language or language group, often an inevitable result of prolonged contact with that group.

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Related content References

McWhorter, John A. 2014.  The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pavlenko, A. (2008). Emotion and emotion-laden words in the bilingual lexicon Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 11 (02) DOI: 10.1017/S1366728908003283

Author Hanan Ben Nafa

Hanan Ben Nafa is a PhD student in Sociolinguistics at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). Hanan has been in the UK since 2009, when she moved there to pursue her studies. She is currently working in the areas of Bilingualism, Applied Linguistics and Language Variation & Identity. The title of her PhD project is: ‘Code-Switching & social identity construction among Arabic-English bilinguals’. Alongside academia, Hanan is starting a part-time career in translation and interpreting. Find her on Twitter @HananBenNafa

More posts by Hanan Ben Nafa

    Interesting snapshot into your work, Hanan! I recall a disturbing extension of the 2 souls misconception, a very senior academic who told me he believed no one could truly be bilingual because no one could even fully develop a second soul (although he didn’t use the word soul).

    If we confound soul and stance – which you point out should not be confounded – I would certainly have 1 ‘soul’ as a PhD student and another ‘soul’ (or another couple) when I walk from my student desk to the classroom and start teaching! When I speak my second language, French, it’s a bit rusty: do I have 1 1/2 souls, ”une âme et demi’ 😉 ? When we think critically, as you do, Charlemagne appears to have been not much of a linguist!

  • Lisa Fairbrother

    I couldn’t agree with you more. This issue comes up time and time again with my students in Tokyo, where there seems to be a general belief that bilinguals have a different personality in each language. We always talk about issues of self-presentation and how different communities have different expectations concerning the way that we express oursleves via language.

    P.S. I’m originally from Manchester.

  • Hanan BN حـنان

    Thanks for your lovely comment Lisa 🙂

  • Hanan BN حـنان

    Great to hear from you, Alexandra!

    I know! The idea of having two souls/personalities does sound quite tempting but when you think about it, it is not quite true. I really enjoy listening to McWhorter challenging this misconception again and again in his talks.

    Thanks for your comment and for sharing your experience here 🙂

  • Badryah

    Interesting! I am intrested in CS in general and Arabic – English CS in particular, currently working on my research prposal . I hope that you do not mind referring to your post in my literature review part . Could you please give me the ( year ) of publishing this post? Is it 2017?

    Thank you so much

  • Thank you for your interest! Of course, you can reference the post – as is true of all the resources we provide on Language on the Move. The publication date can be found in the header of a post, right next to the author’s name – June 5, 2017 in this case.
    Good luck with your research proposal and best wishes!

  • Hanan Ben Nafa

    All the best Badryah.

  • GlobalMikeW

    As any parent of a bilingual child will attest, there is no great mystery to communicating in different languages and certainly no evidence of soul shifting in order to accomplish the feat. My own daughter, whose mother is Japanese, moves effortlessly between languages, often mid-sentence and shows no sign of having to access an alternate self to do so. I think we can safely propose that in today’s more globally connected environment, there is very little to Charlemagne’s claim.

    The idea of shaping personality however is quite different, and I would say that becoming proficient in another language certainly adds an extra dimension to how one perceives the world. I agree with the author that immersive cultural elements play a vital role in shaping an individual’s view, and so it makes sense that bilinguals who have been exposed to these cultural beliefs would adopt them into their identity. This however does not always mean that because a bilingual has switched language, they have also shifted their entire perception into the world view of that culture. As mentioned previously, my daughter can effortlessly move between languages whilst discussing one topic and maintain her point of view regardless. That being said, I have also seen her make fundamental shifts into a more Japanese mode in response to other situations, but this was clearly context specific rather than deriving from any internal mode shift.

    It is, as the author acknowledges, a complex area worthy of further exploration.

  • Dhanisa Kamila

    Thank you for writing such an insightful article. I doubt that bilingualism leads to a possession of a second soul. I myself can speak four languages (Bahasa Indonesia, English, Korean, and Javanese (Indonesian local language)) and I don’t really feel that I have more than one soul. What I know is that I have broader way of thinking and I get to act differently when encountered with each culture because I have the knowledge of it that I obtained when learning the language. I fully agree in you quoting Pavlenko (2008) that this change of perspective is actually a result of getting yourself into a culture.

  • S. J. L.

    The article tackles an interesting topic. I agree with the author. A language is not a simple thing rather it consists of various factors. So it is a very extreme idea that a bilingual has two souls or ‘egos’. On top of the writer’s idea, I want to point out that people carefully approach language. Unless we treat it carefully, we are easy to draw a ridiculous conclusion as the author mentioned “bilingualism comes to be represented as akin to a personality disorder in such reports”.

  • Bindu pokhrel

    This article reminds me of a proverb, “Learn a new language and get a new soul” which I saw on the wall of my school. As a child I always wondered if different languages supply you with different souls. I can speak few more other languages apart from my home language but could not feel more souls inside me. My attitude, aptitude and way of thinking remained the same whichever language I spoke. In my opinion speaking more languages does not mean that a person possesses two souls but I strongly believe that they carry a multiple personality. One has to present themselves according to the language they are going to speak. Language is more associated with the culture and way of life too. Multiple languages teach us a varied and wide perspective to see the world.

  • Sara

    Hanan, thank you. It enabled me to understand and contextualise my reality as a bilingual speaker. I do feel my reality changes and more so when l visit my L2 country and become immersed in the culture and how my vocabulary and fluency in that language automatically improves in such a short time. I feel my Australian identity and western view becomes secondary in that context. l am most expressive in my L1 language, English merely due to the fact l have confidence in a vast range of vocabulary usage. Yet at the same time my emotions and expressions too do change significantly.

  • Sara

    I do agree that “bilinguals have two souls” is exaggerated and actually links to the notion that culture and socialisation factors play a dominate factor in viewing our reality. When we speak in a different language the people and its culture also somewhat perceive us in a different light and attitudes towards us changes moulding a different personality we possess (making up our current surroundings). In short, we are very fortunate to be able to view the world in so many angels and carry personalities based on the language we speak. It expands our minds and develops one’s empathy for others in a world so foreign to what we are used to.

  • Meera Panthee

    Being able to communicate and speak more than one language is in fact a privilege for people because it sets off an opportunity to see and view the world differently. Similarly, knowledge of two languages is a plus point for his/her personality but not to the soul. I believe bilinguals have only one soul but different perspective to understand the world.