Do bilinguals switch between personalities when they switch languages?

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When people start learning and using a new language, some of them notice that they come across differently, almost as if they have a different personality. Could this be because they lack finesse in the new language? Or does the language we speak really shape our personality? A person’s personality is usually seen as a set of qualities and behaviors that are stable over time and across different situations. This is why it may be counterintuitive to think that it could change when speaking a different language.

Language is more than just learning new words

Different languages make you focus on different aspects of the world. Learning a different language is not only about learning the words, but also about learning a different way of thinking. This is why there might be a link between language and personality. When two languages are similar to one another the first difference that stands out are the different words or how they are pronounced. However, most languages also differ in how the words are placed together to form phrases and sentences. These differences in grammatical rules are more important to the meaning of the sentence than you may initially think. Different languages in a way force speakers to focus on different aspects of events. Some languages, such as English, allow their speakers to refer to events as ongoing (for example, “The girl is walking.”). This is much more difficult to express in some other languages, such as German and Dutch. Researchers found that compared to English speakers, German speakers focus more on the outcome of events when matching videos with descriptions. Interestingly, English-German bilingual speakers are also more outcome-oriented in German contexts than in English contexts. This is already one example of how speaking a different language can change how you think and express yourself.

This kind of difference between languages may seem subtle, and it is likely that bilingual speakers do not even spot these differences when switching languages. However, consider a language such as Pirahã, spoken by an isolated group of people in Amazonia in Brazil. The Pirahã language does not have words for specific numbers, and only words indicating smaller and larger quantities are known (hói [few, fewer], and hoí [more]). Let’s imagine a fluent English-Pirahã bilingual speaker. Would it be so strange to think that this person’s mathematical skills could be affected by which language they speak at the moment?

If you’re interested in more examples of how different languages can shape the thinking of its speakers, have a look at this video.

The language you speak might be able to change your personality traits

A study in the 1960s conducted with French-English bilinguals was one of the first studies that hinted that language could influence personality. In this study, participants told stories about pictures. Some psychologists think that the way you describe pictures reflects some aspects of your personality. For example, the picture could depict a scientist in a laboratory. In this study, female speakers used themes of achievement less often in French as opposed to in English. For example, in French they might describe the scientist more often as experiencing an emotion (such as tiredness or sadness), while in English they might talk about the scientist’s characteristics (such as their skills or studiousness). This was in line with the current thinking in the period, as social roles were more important in French culture where women focused more on taking care of the family rather than professional achievement. These results seem to support the idea that speaking a different language can highlight different personality traits.

Language might influence a person’s personality because encountering culture-relevant stimuli, such as objects, people, or sounds, could change the attitudes and values of the speaker according to the norms appropriate in that culture. As a result of this reasoning, researchers started wondering whether perhaps language itself can even shift a person’s attitudes and values towards those culturally appropriate norms. To illustrate, one study used a personality questionnaire to investigate whether Spanish-English bilinguals showed different personality traits when they filled out the questionnaire in English or Spanish. They found several reliable personality differences. For example, the bilingual speakers scored higher on the trait of extraversion when speaking English compared to Spanish. Interestingly, monolingual speakers of English also scored higher on the trait of extraversion than monolingual speakers of Spanish. This suggests that, for bilingual speakers, the language they use at the moment can indeed change their personality traits. These changes seem to occur in such a way that the personality traits better match with the cultural norms of the other speakers of the same language. However, such personality effects are quite subtle, and speaking a different language will not change a person from an extreme introvert to an extrovert.

Challenges of the available research tools

Only a few studies have investigated the effects of language on personality directly (such as the study above). This is because the translations of the self-report personality questionnaires that are used in these studies must be very accurate if you want to measure any effects of language on personality. For example, if participants rate a statement such as “I feel little concern for others”, that statement may have a slightly different meaning if it is translated to different languages. Thus, if a bilingual speaker rates such a statement in two languages, it is unclear whether the varying scores reflect differences in personality of the rater, or differences in the meanings of the translated statement.

Researchers can address this limitation by using multiple methods simultaneously. For example, in addition to self-report questionnaires, they could use personality ratings provided by observers. This was done in a study with Chinese-English bilinguals who spoke either Cantonese or English with interviewers of different ethnicities. These bilinguals were perceived as more extraverted, open, and assertive when speaking English, but only when they spoke with Chinese interviewers. When they spoke with Caucasian interviewers they were perceived as extraverted, open, and assertive irrespective of the language they used. This shows that the way language might affect personality also highly depends on the situation or who you are speaking to.

Personality may not be as stable as previously thought

In conclusion, different languages indeed shape the way their speakers think and express themselves. But how about your personality? A person’s personality was traditionally viewed as stable over time, and language was only seen as a tool to express one’s personality. With the tools researchers currently have at their disposal, it is difficult to prove definitively whether language affects your personality or not. But the research discussed here suggests that language might at least be able to affect how your personality is expressed.

References

  • Athanasopoulos, P., Bylund, E., Montero-Melis, G., Damjanovic, L., Schartner, A., Kibbe, A., Riches, N., Thierry, G., 2015. Two languages, two minds. Psychol. Sci. 26, 518–526. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614567509
  • Chen, S.X., Bond, M.H., 2010. Two languages, two personalities? examining language effects on the expression of personality in a bilingual context. Personal. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 36, 1514–1528. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167210385360
  • Ramírez-Esparza, N., Gosling, S.D., Benet-Martínez, V., Potter, J.P., Pennebaker, J.W., 2006. Do bilinguals have two personalities? A special case of cultural frame switching. J. Res. Pers. 40, 99–120. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2004.09.001

Writer: Cecilia Hustá
Editor: Eva Poort
Dutch translation: Annelies van Wijngaarden
German translation: Natascha Roos

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