October 16, 2006

Language Log changes personality

There have been rumblings. It has been hinted by some out there in cyberspace that all we do on LL is call bullshit. Journalist/politician/academic says X about language, LL says it's BS. Enough of your complaining about our complaining - we will complain no more. From now on, it's all good.

Now, let's see, what did this morning's mailbag bring in? Why, Eric Bakovic spotted a wonderful article about language in the UK's Daily Telegraph, a broadsheet which, with a sensuously right winged tinge to its reporting, embodies all that is good in the British press. On the basis of a study of bilinguals speaking in different language, it turns out that "English-speaking Americans are typically more conscientious, agreeable and outgoing than native Mexicans, but also less neurotic.'' Well, who'd have thought?

Here's the masterpiece in full:

A second language 'changes personality'

By Robert Matthews
(Filed: 03/07/2005)

If only Basil Fawlty had learnt a little Spanish.

Psychologists have discovered that people take on the characteristics of foreign nationals when they switch into their language - and such a change in the embittered hotel owner could well have improved life for the hapless Manuel.

The personality changes, however, run deeper than a desire to gesticulate wildly when talking in Italian or to plunge into gloom when speaking Russian. According to research, using different languages alters basic characteristics traits such as extroversion and neuroticism.

Researchers at the University of Texas made the discovery while studying the personality traits of bilingual English and Spanish speakers in the United States and Mexico. They began by establishing the attributes of native speakers, using the results of personality tests on almost 170,000 people.

The results showed that English-speaking Americans are typically more conscientious, agreeable and outgoing than native Mexicans, but also less neurotic.

By the most minor of oversights, the article's explicit citation to the original study was accidentally cut off by the typesetters. Not that we mind. Why confuse the reader with details like who wrote the thing, when "Researchers at the University of Texas" tells us all we need. But you know how we are at Language Log - bunch of geeks. Details, details, details. We can't help ourselves. So we couldn't help asking some of our friends to track down the original study. And they did. It's Do bilinguals have two personalities? A special case of cultural frame switching, by Ramirez-Esparza, Gosling, Benet-Martinez, Potter, & Pennebaker, Journal of Research in Personality, 2006. Three of the five authors are indeed colleagues of mine at UT Austin (I have a split academic personality, but expect to be cured soon), and so I emailed a couple of them. The first author, Nairan Ramirez-Esparza asked me to post this link to an article which says what they did in their own words. And these words are just the slightest little bit different from those in the Telegraph. They don't conclude that English-speaking Americans differ from Mexicans, but rather that along various dimensions bilinguals speaking English score differently on various personality scales than when they are speaking Spanish. It's a careful piece of work, and a cute result.

But there *are* some results mentioned in the original paper that more closely resemble what is concluded in the last sentence of the Daily Telegraph article, and these are based on results of studies using internet questionnaires (discussed in Should we trust Web-based studies? A comparative analysis of six preconceptions about Internet questionnaires, Gosling, S. D., Vazire, S., Srivastava, S., & John, O. P. (2004),  American Psychologist, 59.) It is the case that when Mexicans  fill out these online studies, they end up as a group with slightly different mean scores than Americans, and the differences are statistically significant. Another cute result. And it means the Telegraph article really isn't that far off base, though the wording is perhaps a tad careless.

Now if I was a cynic, I might wonder. What I might wonder is: is it reasonable to use the fact that the same person scores differently on the test in different languages to reveal differences in people's behavior when they speak different languages? Or should we use the same results to normalize the tests across the two different languages? This could be used to counteract any biases potentially introduced into the language of the personality tests when the experimenters designed the bilingual materials? But I'm not a cynic, so I shouldn't wonder. At Language Log, everything smells of roses, right?

Well, OK, maybe I'm a little bit of a cynic. And I must make clear that the researchers were fully aware of the possibility that  translating questions in the materials would itself introduce bias. They used a sophisticated statistical comparison to control for such biases in individual questions. And they did, in fact, determine that in one case, the translation of a question might not be faithful to the original, while for the remainder of the 40 questions there was no evidence of such bias. Still, I think it's fair to say (and this echoes the closing discussion of the Ramirez-Esparza et al paper) that the results obtained on differences between speakers using different languages, while striking, are hard to interpret.

[Acknowledgments: Eric Bakovic spotted the Telegraph article via http://digg.com/general_sciences/A_second_language_changes_personality, itself by way of http://lingnews.net/story/152/. Qing Zhang and Nikki Seifert identified the relevant study. And thanks to Nairan Ramirez-Esparza, who was very quick to reply to my email asking for information.]

Posted by David Beaver at October 16, 2006 05:08 PM