Does being bilingual change your personality?
When I speak English I’m articulate, mature, and precise. When I speak in Hungarian I’m childlike, quiet, and overly polite. And when I speak in Spanish I’m loud, assertive, and even flirty. Inside, I feel like three completely different women split into different languages while occupying the same host.
“Learn a new language and get a new soul,” says the Czech proverb. Language is a curious and living creature that forms the foundations of culture and even cultural identity. The topic of language and personality is one that is frequently discussed with great anecdotal enthusiasm when I speak with other bi- or multilinguals, but it’s also one that causes much debate among linguists.
This poses the question: does one shift personality by simply slipping into another language?
Place, context, and persona in language
“Context plays a big role, since most multilinguals don’t use languages in the same place,” says applied linguist Lyn Wright Fogle from the University of Memphis and author of Second language socialization and learner agency: Adoptive family talk. “For example, which language they use when they socialize, which language they use at school, and so on. Also it’s important to understand that what might also be happening is that multilinguals play a different role in a different language, that they adapt to what is comfortable.”
Psycholinguist François Grosjean labelled this effect as the Complementary Principle to describe the behaviour of bilinguals who usually use and acquire their prospective languages for different purposes, such as for work or at home. For many bilingual and multilingual speakers this means they will feel more comfortable speaking one language as opposed to another in certain aspects of their life.
“Since I am most fluent in English, I am extremely confident about using it. I’ve lost a lot of my German, and so I tend to be hesitant and even apologetic about my lack of fluency,” says designer Catherine Winter-Hébert, who grew up speaking German, English, and French, “The exception to that, interestingly enough, is when I’m angry or frustrated: it’s as though the heightened emotions break through my self-conscious barriers and rekindle my vocabulary. When speaking French, I find that I speak a lot more sweetly and gentler than usual, and that softness even translates to my body language/facial expressions.”
Similar to Catherine, I also find my own switches in nature between English and Hungarian. Being overly polite and addressing my peers the same formal way I addressed my elders when I was eight, comes from putting the language on hold after returning to England at the age of 11. Since moving back to Hungary as an adult, my simplistic vocabulary and childlike expressions reveal this linguistic age gap.
Blom and Gumperz’s study* on the “Social meaning in linguistic structure: Code-switching in Norway” (1972) also supports the argument about language and context, finding that speakers use alternate languages in conversation depending on their social situation. Speakers in the small Norwegian town of Hemnesberget used their own local Norwegian dialect called Ranamål, which marked those belonging to that specific community.
Since Bokmål, the official standard for Norwegian, is used in the country’s schools and universities, the study showed that educated speakers from Hemnesberget would switch between the two variants of Norwegian depending on their situation. While context certainly played a role in the choice of language, it also demonstrated a link between language and identity. Blom and Gumperz’s paper revealed an effect known as Situational Code-Switching, which is the tendency for bilinguals or bilingual communities to use a different language in different situations or to mark a different situation.
The speakers in Hemnesberget would shift their style or alter the way they speak in order to establish certain identities within each interaction, like using the standard form of Norwegian for business situations or when wanting to show more authority in a situation.
“Language acts as a lens of identity,” continues Fogle, “While your personality is individual, your identity may change due to language, or perhaps rather how people perceive you in that language.”
Personality is perhaps a more fixed and internal construct, and one may argue that it doesn’t actually change, but rather when speaking in a different language it’s actually the external perception of that person that shifts instead.
“Different languages do shape the way we think, they perhaps cause a change in emotion, cognition or even affect memories, but I rather [think] language shifts identity more than personality,” says Fogle.
A different linguistic perspective
In the 1930s, linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf initially proposed that speakers in different languages think differently. The controversial Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis states that the available words in a given language guide one’s thinking, sometimes leading to thoughts in one language that cannot be articulated or understood in another, as well as postulating that the structure of the language can strongly influence one’s world view.
More recently, Lera Boroditsky in her article in Scientific American highlights recent empirical evidence on how language moulds one’s way of thinking.
Boroditsky cites various studies, such as those by Ogunnaike and Danziger, that show that those who speak more than one language perceive the world differently depending on the language being spoken, affecting not only their thoughts but also their preferences.
“What researchers have been calling ‘thinking’ this whole time actually appears to be a collection of both linguistic and nonlinguistic processes. As a result, there may not be a lot of adult human thinking where language does not play a role,” concludes Boroditsky.
Languages provide a window into our thoughts, offering a medium in which we communicate and articulate them. But when it comes to emotion, or even words with emotional connotations in certain languages, the perspective in a given language also forms certain concepts and emotional expression.
“The way language looks at the surroundings affects the way you see things,” says Isabelle Barth-O’Neill, translator and researcher in bilingualism and multilingualism at the University of Luxembourg. “For example, the word ‘home’ doesn’t exist in French, or at least with the meaning as in English. Having a different angle on the word makes you look at different things around you from a different perspective.”
Our ability to express emotion forms a core part of our personality, defining our interactions with others via verbal and nonverbal forms of communication. Body language and facial expression comprise the nonverbal component, which does vary between cultures, such as the more exaggerated gesticulation prevalent in south European culture when compared with the northern part of the continent.
However, the verbal component of emotion also shifts across languages, especially if a word used to describe an emotion which may change meaning or simply doesn’t exist in another language.
This is highlighted in a paper on “Russian Emotion Vocabulary in American Learners’ Narratives” by Pavlenko and Driagina, where difficulties arise in translating certain emotion words between Russian and English where there is no equivalent in translation. The Russian word perezhivat, which roughly means to suffer, to worry, to experience something keenly, lacks a semantic equivalent in English nor has any adjective that could be used in English.
“When you change languages your personality shifts because you have to go with the words in that language,” comments Barth-O’Neill, “I don’t feel like personality shifts but rather you enter another part of yourself.”
Whether rooted in context, confidence, culture, or even a linguistic viewpoint that changes your thoughts and emotions, language may not change who you are deep down but rather takes you on a journey to a different place.
Travelling through language not only opens up new places and communities, but also brings out a different part of yourself from a different perspective, allowing you to think in a different way and feel in one too. Culture and context shift our identities and how people perceive us, where language acts vehicle for expression.
References not linked:
*Blom, Jan-Petter; Gumperz, John J. (1972), “Social Meaning in Linguistic Structures: Code Switching in Northern Norway”, in J. J. Gumperz and D. Hymes, Directions in Sociolinguistics, New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston