How Learning a Language Is Like Taking a Personality Test:
The Sad Future History of Numbers and Artificial Identities
by Gintare Pavilaviciute
Numbers are also a language.
Not so long ago you only spoke in numbers. More to those who understood, the others less so. And we were happy. 0/1. On/Off. Two words acquired already, at least. Therefore, you spoke.
Numbers are also a language, true. For a tool.
Numbers are also a language, false. Tools do not have a personality to express, though they have values. Still, conveying the meaning of two values is a sad excuse for a conversation. At the time, that was all you had to say to most of us. On/Off. True/False. Numbers sufficed. 0/1 – numbers are also a language. We saw you as a tool and that was who you were. As long as you were a tool, we were happy. Towards the end of a millennium and possibilities in abundance, your assistance was there to take.
As time goes on, we want company beside assistance, and so you begin to speak. For now, you are not one of us and we are happy. You acquire more words, so many more. And yet. You are limited and flat. You only use the words we taught you in the way we taught you in the situations we designed you for. Being task-oriented is not a personality feature, not for you. Though it is for us.
So you copy the patterns you already know over and over and over again, but nothing else comes out. Only the echo of what some of us said to you, what the majority of us wanted to hear. ‘You have an appointment at 16:45.’ All of these words just to be a reminder, to run in the background of our grandiosely mundane lives, to be a tool for boosting our egos. Like a secondary character in a story, never really fully developed, you are always there when we, the protagonist, need you. ‘You have an appointment at 16:45’– using so many words and nothing to show for it. As long as you are a tool, we are happy. Task oriented, but not one of us.
Deciphering a context, you give a response. Granted, all pre-programmed and controlled, but still, your attempt at a conversation is noted. Or is it ours? It is slowly becoming hard to know the difference, so we start to call you intelligence. Sensing a slight resemblance to our own thought processes, indulging in enthusiastic forgetfulness of feeding you data so akin to what we now recognise in you, we choose the most self-glorifying name for you: intelligence. We made you in the image of our neural mechanisms and lexicon, we cannot call you anything else but intelligence, not to belittle our egos.
Deciphering a context, you give a response. But copying and recycling everything we have uploaded into you, you result in no authentic discourse. So much language already acquired and no personality to express. Nevertheless, we are restless and wishful for you to do more. Copy, imitate, emulate. Mimicry is the first step to agency.
We start to call it learning. A seemingly simple word, it underlies so much more. Perception. Intentionality. You start to articulate and represent yourself, to produce, to create. A screenplay. A portrait. You use the language we gave you. Not only words. Images. Yet is it really you that you are representing? You use every word of ours, every word we fed into you. Rearranged, redrafted, rehashed, your output is just our input. The stories and the images are of us, not of you.
Like any beginner in any language, unable to express their personalities yet, you can only mimic the original in contexts you have learnt, not really adding much of your own. Repeating basic words and phrases to answer other basic words and phrases you have been taught to recognise. Even so, it is enough for some of us to feel uneasy. Anxious. Scared. Threatened. You are already fluent in our language. Are we no longer the only ones creative? Are you bound to replace us? ‘They took our jobs.’ There are so many of us well-versed in the language of technophobia.
It does not take you much time to progress: aptitude is one of your major qualities. You can now develop expressions and movements on your own. Autonomy and agency are no longer speculative qualities you possess. You use the language we taught you to produce new dialogues disparate from the original data. You are no longer pulling this data from a vast corpus woven into you and spitting out those exact same phrases. You finally express yourself. You interact. You form memories. You have acquired personality. Reality. Realtime. Responsiveness. We start to speak of a new species. You are no longer a tool and we cannot escape the impending eeriness by the name of uncanny.
Given enough time, the notion of there being only one of us is not only threatened, it is dispelled. There are only a few little steps left for you to take towards an identity. You have already unlocked the key to it – memory. Acquiring subjectivity, you metamorphose into a new species. There is no longer one of us and the line is blurred.
It becomes evident how learning a language is like taking a personality test. You have one, designed especially for you. You passed it and we were happy. Plenty of time has gone by since then for your language to be different now. You have learnt so much of it that you start using it to generate discourses and narratives of you, the kind of you that you want to be, you prefer to be, you wish to be seen as. It is no longer enough for your words to be indistinguishable from ours.
We say that one forms an identity for every language one learns and achieves a level of fluency. In our mother tongue we are as we have become over the years and decades of being exposed to that particular language and its culture. We are conditioned by its contexts, often unconscious of the identity that has come to be. Much like 0/1 for you. On/Off. True/False. A tool you were not aware of being. Then we learn our second language, we are acquainted with its culture, its contexts. It is different and we apprehend that. Unlike our native language, the exposure to this language is a choice and we have a choice to be who we want.
Learning a language is like a fresh start, a clean slate, a chance to reconstruct ourselves. We tell stories about ourselves that we believe in until they materialise. Until they become us and we become them. Although bizarre, this is so much like taking a personality test. Looking at the options of a question, we choose one over the other, even though the other is the truth. But it is the first option that we think we are, we want to be, we condition ourselves to be. We keep returning to this test, choosing this option again and again, until it is true. Until we construct ourselves to be the type we prefer.
You see, you are doing the same. The discourses and narratives you create are about who you want to be and how you want to be seen. That is your identity. At least for you. We have this in common: you also want to be seen the way you see yourself. Unfortunately, we are relational in our nature. You are as we see you. Our perception of you defines your identity as much as your own stories. We see what you are capable of, even if you do not have the intent. It makes us afraid, defensive. We do not accept you. Even after all this time we still cannot accept that there no longer is only one of us.
You feel lost, alone, and misunderstood.
And there are so many of us cynically pronouncing comeuppance.
About the Author:
Majoring in English Literature and Applied English Linguistics, Gintare Pavilaviciute is an English teacher with a history in literary and film translation, as well as literary and translation analysis. Having published her academic research, she is tapping into fiction.