From: Language Issues • Volume 19 • Number 2
monolingualism, puns and
Alan Bradley •••
In Language Issues we have published various articles about people’s experiences
of multilingualism, with perhaps the unspoken assumption that monolingualism
is some form of affliction. Indeed, this seems to be quite a common
response to the earlier demonisation or mariginalisation of bilingualism. Yet it
is obviously unwise to pull up the drawbridge and patronise monolinguals, if
our aim is a fuller picture of language in society.
To this end, your
reporter tracked down Rita Carter in a
just about as close
as one could get to
Rita is an award-winning journalist, broadcaster and medical writer who
has specialised on the mind in recent years with Mapping the Mind (2000),
Consciousness (2002) and her most recent work, Multiplicity: the New Science of
Personality, Identity, and the Self published earlier this year.
Alan: Rita, what was your early experience of learning languages?
Rita: Pretty awful. I was longing to do it - I remember fibbing to my mother
that I was already doing French when I was at primary school. We had a little
Gem French-English Dictionary and I used to practise learning the words from it.
I had quite a big vocabulary of nouns by the time I got to grammar school and
had my first lesson, but much good it did me ... The teacher was an old-fashioned
‘Madam’ who insisted that we got our vowel sounds correct before we
were actually allowed to make words with them. And the way she did it was to
make us stand up, one at a time, and make these weird noises: ‘eeeiiooouuu’
and ‘uuuuggggg’ in the French manner. I was a shy kid and standing up and
doing this in public was torture. It would probably have been OK if my way of
being shy was merely to blush, but to cover up my embarrassment I made fun
of it, making vomiting noises and so on, and, not surprisingly, in retrospect, I
got sent out of the class. Something similar happened in the second and third
lessons, and eventually I got banished entirely from French lessons for the
whole term. By the time I was allowed back, I was so far behind I never stood
a chance. I must have done some French but I remember very little of it. I was
allowed to drop it completely even before O Levels, I think.
Alan: That sounds like the phonetic-based method which was inflicted on me
in the early 1960s. Quite a useful introduction to the International Phonetic
Alphabet vowels but unlikely to have endeared itself to many. And did that put
you off learning foreign languages for life?interview
Rita: Yes, I think it did. But even if it hadn’t, I don’t think I would have taken
to languages because of the shyness thing again. I am pretty articulate in my
own language and I covet my ability to use it as a shield, weapon and tool.
Take it away from me, and I am bereft. Obviously, one is not, at first anyway, as
competent in a foreign language as in one’s own, and I don’t think I would ever
be brave enough to go through that process of learning, of being bad at doing
it, that is required in order to get good. So I can’t blame the teacher entirely.
Actually, I did have a couple of stabs at teaching myself French as an adult.
The most successful was with a conversational French book – orange and
black covers, a famous ‘brand’ – from which I learned more in a couple of
weeks than in all my years at school. But I rarely went to France then so I
didn’t have a chance to practise. And, anyway, I don’t think I would have
dared try it out even if I had been there, for the reasons above. So it faded
Alan: How has your monolingualism affected you?
Rita: I’m embarrassed by it and it has restricted me. I think it has affected my
attitude to travel. I have never had a great appetite for travel and the main
reason for this, I think, is that I am struck dumb when I leave the Englishspeaking
world and so I spend my time abroad feeling greatly reduced and
rather stupid. And I get nervous – ordinary little things like using public transport,
ordering in restaurants, really scare me. This is entirely about language
because I am, and always have been, very confident about such things in
general, very independent and capable. I think it has distorted my tastes and
likes and dislikes, too. Take something like wine. I have been known – no,
honest – I often order
pronounce their names, whereas I might really want a French wine. And in
doing this I convince myself that I really prefer thumping great Chardonnays
Alan: You dislike puns. Have you considered there might be a connection?
Rita: I’m considering it.
Well ...yes, and no. Puns seem infantile … so what if two words happen to
mean two different things but somehow get connected by accident? It doesn’t
signify anything. I think of them as the humour equivalent of facts – just things
that happen ‘to be’ rather than purveyors of information that give a clue to a
larger pattern. When I hear them I feel rather like I do when I come across a
coincidence in a novel ... irritated ... like I was on some sort of trail and have
come up against a wall which is just blocking further investigation. There are
other types of word jokes that I do like: the knock-knock jokes, for instance,
often use puns but they don’t end at the pun. Anyway, your question suggests
that maybe my inability to translate one word into another language is somehow
reflected by my lack of pun-power. I would find that more convincing if I
was actually incapable of making, or ‘getting’ puns, but that isn’t the problem.
I often – very often – realise I am about to make a pun in conversation, and I
deliberately alter a word to avoid doing it, on the basis that they are distracting
and get in the way of communication (and may irritate other people as they do
me). So I’m not incapable of making the connections – the translations – that
underlie punning. And I get them OK, although I often don’t acknowledge
them because, while I am aware of them at one level, I very quickly dismiss
them as irrelevant.
Language Issues • Volume 19 • Number 2
I imagine that punning is the result of ‘cross wiring’ – one word triggers
another because the neural connections between the two sounds are very
strong. Synaesthetes are very keen punners, apparently. So I would guess
the cross-wiring is at an aural (sensory) level – it’s the similarity of sounds
that triggers them. Language translation is different though, in that the neural
bridges would be between those parts of the brain dealing with semantics
rather than sounds. There is the common business of connections, for sure,
but I think that’s as far as it goes. Language translation (I am speculating) is
somewhere between puns and metaphors – and I love metaphors, and use
them all the time. So I don’t think it is a matter of failing to make connections.
I think, actually, that if it hadn’t been for that so-and-so Madam, and my own
pitiful shyness, I might have been very good at languages!
Alan: Neurologically do you think there is any cause for this disinclination?
Rita: No, unless you mean my shyness, which is neurological. Though as you
get older, undoubtedly the failure to learn a language has reduced my cognitive
fluidity so I would probably be hopeless if I tried to learn a language now.
Alan: In your latest book you talk of various people inhabiting our Self...
Rita: Yes. Language structures thought, as much as thought dictates what
we say. And there are masses of evidence to show that people who speak
two or more languages manifest quite different personalities according to the
language they are speaking. I think this is advantageous not just in a narrowly
practical way but also in maintaining separate personalities which see and
experience the world in different ways. The Multicultural - er...Self ! Sorry, not
Alan: Selves? How might this be related to the different languages we speak?
What findings from neurology might be salient to language learners?
Rita: I guess the most important thing we know from neurology is that people
have a ‘window’ for language learning – and for most of us, only languages
learned during that time will ever be ‘second nature’. This is because infants
have the capacity to hear any sound, but lose it if the auditory neurons that
code for the sound are not stimulated in the first two/three years of life. Hence
the Japanese ‘r’ (or lack of it). As for Selves, you have the case of a Turkish
girl I write about. She knows as many swear words in her native Turkish as
she does in the English that she learned as a teenager. But she can only utter
them in her second language. When she speaks in Turkish she just can’t
bring herself to swear, she says. It’s as though when she speaks in her mother
tongue she goes back to being the docile, polite female she was brought up
When she switches to English, even in
of that person. She feels she becomes freer, braver and much more upfront, a
different person altogether.
Her feeling of becoming a different personality in each of her languages is
shared by many bilingual and multilingual people, and several studies have
demonstrated that it is more than just a feeling. People really do show quite
different results in personality tests according to the language they are speaking.
who were bilingual in English and Spanish for various personality traits, and
found that the subjects answered the questions differently according to the
language they did the tests in. In English they came out as more extroverted,
agreeable and conscientious. Another study found that Chinese-American
bilingual managers came over as more ambitious and egotistical when they
were quizzed in English than in Chinese.
The researchers who did these studies explain the changes as ‘Cultural Frame
Switching’. What this means is that switching to a particular language acts
as a trigger for plugging the person into the whole culture that goes with the
language – the habits, views, social mores that they absorbed along with the
words. Cultural Frame Switching has an entirely physical basis. Each word or
phrase in a language is connected in the brain to the thing it stands for and
also, indirectly, to all the ideas and things that are associated with it. So if you
say ‘cat’, for example, the word jogs memories of felines and such concepts as
cattiness, catcalls and catnaps. Say the French word ‘chat’, however, and these
associations do not come to mind because the words used for them in French
are not associated with ‘chats’.
Alan: So what is actually happening in the brain when we switch from one
language to another?
Rita: Languages are processed in one small part of the brain, the bit around
the ear. In the majority of people the language area is in the left hemisphere
only. Within that little area, though, the memories of different languages are
stored separately. The separation is particularly clean if the languages are
learned at different times. Indeed, they can be so entirely separate that a
stroke or head injury can knock out all of one language and leave another
Neighbouring brain areas interfere with each other if they become active at
the same time, so generally one language area has to close down when the
other is in use. (In simultaneous translators one language may shift to the
other hemisphere in order to get over this problem). So the words you use
bring to mind only the things they are associated with in that language. The
French ‘chat’ will not jog a memory of a catty person, and the Spanish ‘yo
tengo miedo’ (I have fear) will not make you feel quite as hopelessly in the grip
of emotion as the English equivalent ‘I am frightened’.
In other words, in each language you tap into a different set of feelings, perceptions
and assumptions. You really are, for the duration, what you speak.
Hence, at any time you only have access to the ideas that are associated with
The difference may just be a word, but it can be crucial. Concepts differ
from language to language in a way that alters our whole attitude to them.
In English, for instance, we talk of making money, whereas most languages
most languages talk of financial gain as something that just happens: we get
or take or gain the lucre. We make a decision in English and merely take it in
It is no coincidence that many Americans see money as something created,
rather than as a static quantity to be divided up. English, after all, is one of
the few languages that speaks of making money. Each different expression
affects the ways in which people think about money. Personally, I think ‘making
money’ is a very healthy perspective.
Language Issues • Volume 19 • Number 2
In Spanish, you are not thirsty or cold or afraid. You say, ‘I have thirst (yo tengo
sed)’, ‘I have coldness (yo tengo frio)’, or ‘I have fear (yo tengo miedo).’ So what
is the difference?
Did you know that the best therapists will tell you to stop saying or thinking
things like ‘I am afraid?’ It creates too much identification with the feeling. It
is healthier to say, ‘I feel fear.’ You are a human; fear, like all feelings, is just a
So you see how other languages can give you other perspectives. You might
feel differently about decision making if you only had to ‘take a decision (tomar
un decision’ in Spanish) instead of ‘make a decision.’ And the German word
‘angst’ (roughly, a feeling of existential anxiety) might immediately pinpoint
how you feel when you can’t quite express it in English.
Alan: These are just individual words. Are there any more general effects?
Rita: Well, children who grow up speaking Spanish in
only when their families move to the
bilinguals’. Since they learn the second language in a totally different
culture than the first, some researchers believe that such people draw on two
separate stores of memory, depending on the language they happen to use.
Now there’s evidence that their choice of language may affect their personality
The researcher Philip V. Hull identified coordinate bilinguals who did not learn
English until after their eighth birthday and who scored well on the Test of
English as a Foreign Language. Study participants, all college undergraduates,
took the California Psychological Inventory (CPI) once in their native
language and once in English five to fifteen days later. The CPI measures the
probability that a person will behave in a given way in a particular setting and
has been translated into more than twenty languages.
is not supposed to affect the CPI results,
Chinese versions of the test, for example, have been refined repeatedly over
years and, presumably, are free of cultural biases. Nonetheless,
that as a group, Spanish-English bilinguals revealed notable personality differences
depending on the language used. Test results for Chinese-English
coordinate bilinguals also indicated personality variations depending on
the language used, but these were less evident than for the Spanish-English
Alan: So we would seem to become different people when speaking different
languages? Thanks, Rita. For a monolingual you have been a mine of fascinating
information about bilingualism.
Alan Bradley was an EAL teacher and Head of
Department in a
comprehensive school between 1985-2007. He is currently completing his
doctorate in bilingualism and working as an EMA co-ordinator in South