For the records: No language, no society: The role of languages in shaping personalities

A presentation by Olufunke Fadugba, Chairman Editorial Board of Penpushing Media at the Annual Departmental Seminar of the Languages and Literary Studies, Babcock University, Ilishan, Ogun State on March 13,2024

Let me first appreciate the  Languages and Literary Studies Association of Babcock University, the departmental  leadership and the institution for extending this invitation to me. The title of this paper is an issue which is dear to my heart. I am a product of this university and

I am at home having obtained my first and second degrees from this institution. I found my time in Babcock as enriching, fulfilling, rewarding and highly impactful. Let me thank all the lecturers through whom I passed during my study in the institution.

From the topic, I can identify quickly three key words. They are Language, Society and Personalities. They form the fulcrum of the issues in this paper.  I shall try to look at their definitions, their general applications and attempt formulate the nexus as they are capable of shaping the personality.

Language: Language according to Aristotle is a speech sound produced by human beings to express their ideas, emotions, thoughts, desires and feelings.

Chomsky sees language as an innate faculty implying that humans are born with set of rules relating to language in our minds known as “Universal Grammar” upon which all languages are built.

Edward Sapir says language is a purely human and non-instinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions and desires by means of a system of voluntarily produced symbols.

Going by Oxford English dictionary, Language is a system of spoken or written communication used by a particular group of people, community or country.

From the point of view of linguists, language is a form of communication comprising phonetics, that is- speech sound, the phonology- mental organization of sounds, the morphology – formation of words to have meaning, syntax – word combination to get phrases and sentences , the semantics – how words and sentences are structured to have meaning.

Going with Wikipedia, Language is the primary means by which humans convey meanings, both in spoken and written forms, and may also be conveyed through sign languages.

From these broad definitions which are by no means not limited, we can make a deduction that language is a system. It is a tool of communication. It is a tool of identification. It embodies the emotions, ideas, the characters, desires and thoughts of a people.

Language is an embodiment of a people’s value system.  It is a vehicle for transmission of our norms, beliefs and institutions.  With language families, groups and institutions like Babcock transfers their set of dos and donts. It unites people and creates special bonds among them.

Society: The origin of the term society dates back to 1513 and it is derived from the 12th Century French societe. It is from the Latin word “Socius’ which means ‘association, companionship, togetherness.’

The Oxford dictionary says society is the aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community.

It is an amalgam of people living together albeit from different backgrounds with shared cultures and who have social interactions.

Components of Society: When we talk of society, it comprises of people with shared values, beliefs and cultures.

Emile Durkheim’s perspective on society is that it is a living organism, in which each organ plays a necessary role in keeping the individual being alive. This is looking at the functionality of the society.

According to Adam J.H, 1982; is impossible to have a society without language or have language without a society. It implied therefore that language and society are complementary as they support one another.

In essence, there cannot be a society without language and by extension, culture. This is because the ethos of a society is understood through its culture and language.  Therefore, all human cultures, meaning that societies have languages and as the society progresses or changes so also is language which reflects characteristically the improvement in society.

Relationship between language and society: it must be stated that Language does not only reflects and expresses attitudes and behaviours, Language interfaces with various aspects of human life in society be it at home, in school, at work or within our social groupings.

There are verbal and nonverbal or body language as a means of communication. Besides the verbal, we have facial expressions, eyes contact, touching, tone of voice as well as dress culture and spartial distance between two or more people.

Note that even when we talk about language, silence in the face of critical discussion does speak about one’s personality. In essence, our body language if not well nurtured and managed can affect personality. For instance, the cloth Nigerian government officials, or politicians wear to disaster scene, tough look and demeanor say a lot   all the time.  Our choice of language while interacting with others in society is a reflection of who we are.

What is personality?

Personality is a combination of behaviour or qualities that reflects a person’s distinctive character. Personality is unique and peculiar to individuals. It is enduring and an embodiment of a personage and It shows “one’s major traits, interest, drives, values, self-concept, abilities and emotional patterns”.

Personality is the psychological characteristics of a person. There are five major personality traits and they are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. In applying this, conscientiousness is about efficiency and organization even in speaking language.  Extraversion is how outgoing and sociable one is as a personality while agreeableness indicates how friendly and polite an individual could be. Neuroticism trait is such that those with lower neuroticism are less emotional or reactive and the personality has greater self- confidence.

Role of languages in shaping personalities:

From our discussions, it is clear that language does shape personality genetically that is by nature in terms of one’s mother tongue, (the biological parents’ language).

Language nurtures personality especially in the case of the environment and social setting one finds himself.

As students in an educational society such as Babcock, our personalities should be influenced, I mean shaped, by nature-genetically and nurtured by the academic environment and community.

Research has shown that people’s personalities change as a result of the language they speak. Several studies have shown that one’s personality is likely to be altered depending on the language spoken.

  1. One will be confident and loud when expressing views in one’s mother tongue and could be afraid to express same views when using a language in which one is not sure of.
  2. Perception: The individual’s perception of a particular language can affect his or her behavior when using it. If a user perceives a language as being associated with elegance, there is every likelihood for the personality to feel elegant while using it.
  3. Experiences: In the course of acquiring a second language, it is presented in a formal form, the user will also be formal in its usage irrespective of when it is being spoken. In another instance, if the language is acquired through friends, one will see it as a casual language while if the source of acquisition of the language is uninspiring one may see it as ‘boring, difficult or repulsive.’
  4. Self-perception: This factor has to do with individual usage. In a situation where one is using a language to express views in the midst of people at his or her level, one will be at ease and confident in doing so. But when one is using the language among those with superior knowledge of it being their mother tongue, there is the tendency that the language user will be uncomfortable and one’s personal composure will be altered.
  5. Adapting to native speakers’ perception: in attempting to translate one’s mother tongue into another language to communicate could lead to misunderstanding of perception of one’s personality as a result of communication gap.

Conclusion: It is established that language is a cultural component of a people which is used to express ideas, emotions, feelings drives and interest. It is also established that there can be no society without language and that the two are complementary.

Language can shape personality through nature. In essence, people can have different personalities while using different languages. That is bilingual and bi-cultural people can have their personalities greatly influenced by how they perceive a language and not just in the usage.

Gabriel Okara, in his poem , ‘Once upon a Time’ says ‘So I have learned many things, son. I have learned to wear many faces like dresses, – homeface, officeface, streetface, hostface, cocktailface, with all conforming smiles like a fixed portrait smile.’

This can also apply to our subject matter. We should nurture ourselves to the extent that we will develop a dynamic personality who can easily adapt and transit functionally to having academic language, I mean scholarship in use of words, office language exhibiting decorum, home language manifesting socio-cultural values, (and) friendship language with mutual respect.  We should unlearn such languages associated with street urchins, drug abusers and morally bankrupt ones that could demean our personalities.

Let me conclude by saying that the language we adopt at any point in time is essential because as language changes, it shapes our cultural views thought, process and behavioural pattern. On the long run, it will lead to a change in personality.

Let me note that our phone is a disruptive tool to language.  It can greatly compromise our personality by impeding the effective usage of language as a transmission of values or as a tool of bonding.

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