Individual bilingualism



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5. The bilingual person
In this last section we will discuss the attitudes and feelings bilinguals and monolinguals have towards bilingualism, various mental activities in bilinguals, the interaction of language and emotion, and the personality of bilinguals.
5.1. Attitudes and feelings about bilingualism
It would appear from various surveys that have been conducted that either bilinguals have no strong feelings about their bilingualism (it is simply a fact of life!) or that they see more advantages than inconveniences in having to live with two (or more) languages. Most appreciate being able to communicate with people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds, others feel that bilingualism gives them a different perspective on life, that it fosters open-mindedness, allows one to read and often write in a different language, makes learning other languages easier, gives more job opportunities, etc. As for inconveniences, these are less numerous and involve such aspects as mixing languages involuntarily, having to adjust to different cultures, feeling one is losing one of the languages one possesses (usually a minority language) or having to act as a translator on various occasions. It is interesting to compare these reactions to the attitudes and feelings that monolinguals have towards bilingualism. These are extremely varied, ranging from very positive attitudes (such as wonder at the fact that some bilinguals can speak and write two or more languages fluently) to very negative attitudes (such as surprise that many bilinguals do not master their two languages perfectly, that they cannot translate automatically from one language to another, etc.). It should be noted that most of the views that monolinguals have about bilinguals are usually based on socio-economic and cultural considerations rather than on linguistic factors.
5.2 Mental activities, emotion and stress
Little is known about the languages used by bilinguals in their mental activities or how bilinguals react when under stress or in an emotional situation. It does seem to be the case that many mental operations are language specific. Thus, bilinguals usually count and pray in the language in which they learned these behaviors. Thinking or dreaming also seem to be language specific and depend on the person, the situation and the topic involved (see above). When tired, angry or excited, bilinguals will often revert back to their mother tongue or to whatever language they usually express their emotions in. Stress may also cause more interference, problems in finding the appropriate words, and unintentional switching. In addition, it has been reported that bilinguals wish that the monolinguals closest to them (spouse, companion, friends) were also bilingual.
5.3 Personality and bilingualism
Some bilinguals report that when they change language they change attitudes and behaviors. This has been alluded to quite frequently in the literature: some bilinguals seem to hold slightly different views depending on the language they are speaking; some others are more authoritarian in one of their languages; others still are more reserved or gentle, etc. Is it possible to conclude from this that there is some truth to the Czech proverb, "Learn a new language and get a new soul"? Some would answer in the affirmative and go as far as to say that the bilingual has a split personality. In fact, there appears to be no real evidence that bilinguals suffer any more from mental disorders than monolinguals. In fact, what is seen as a change in personality is simply a shift in attitudes and behaviors corresponding to a shift in situation or context, independent of language. As we saw above, bilinguals will choose a language according to the situation, the interlocutor, the topic and the intent of the conversations. These factors trigger different attitudes, impressions and behaviors (just as they do in monolinguals who modify the content and form of their discourse depending on the context), and thus what is seen as a personality change due to language shift may really be a shift in the situation and interlocutor. In a word, it is the environment as a whole that causes the bilingual to change languages, along with attitudes, feelings and behaviors - and not language as such. The main difference between monolinguals and bilinguals in this respect is that bilinguals often shift languages (and hence appear to be different people) whereas monolinguals do not. In addition, bilinguals are often switching from one culture to another in their interactions (many are bicultural) whereas monolinguals usually remain within the same culture.



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