Change of Language, Change of Personality
Understanding the link between language and personality in bilinguals
People who speak more than one language usually use their chosen languages for different purposes, different situations, and with different people. In doing so they might change their accents, attitudes, and even their facial expressions. Many would agree that what doesn’t change is the basic personality. However, there are those who believe that there is a relationship between language and personality change.
Bilingual 1: “When I’m around Anglo-Americans, I find myself awkward and unable to choose my words quickly enough … When I’m amongst Latinos/Spanish-speakers, I don’t feel shy at all. I’m witty, friendly, and … I become very out-going.”
Bilingual 2: “In English, my speech is very polite, with a relaxed tone, always saying “please” and “excuse me.” When I speak Greek, I start talking more rapidly, with a tone of anxiety and in a kind of rude way…”.
Bilingual 3: “I find when I’m speaking Russian I feel like a much more gentle, “softer” person. In English, I feel more “harsh,” “businesslike.”
Could it be that bilinguals who speak two (or more) languages change their personality when they change language? After all, the Czech proverb does say, “Learn a new language and get a new soul.”
Despite the fact that many bilinguals report being different in each of their languages, only few researchers have attempted to get to the bottom of this question. Early in her career, Berkeley Emeritus Professor Susan Ervin-Tripp conducted a study in which she asked Japanese-American women to complete sentences she gave them in both Japanese and English. She found that they proposed very different endings depending on the language used. Thus, for the sentence beginning, “When my wishes conflict with my family . . .” one participant’s Japanese ending was, “. . . it is a time of great unhappiness,” whereas the English ending was, “. . . I do what I want.”
More than forty years later, Baruch College Professor David Luna and his colleagues asked Hispanic American bilingual women students to interpret target advertisements picturing women, first in one language and, six months later, in the other. They found that in the Spanish sessions, the bilinguals perceived women in the ads as more self-sufficient as well as extrovert. In the English sessions, however, they expressed more traditional, other-dependent and family-oriented views of the women.
The spontaneous reports by individual bilinguals, and the results of studies such as those mentioned here, have intrigued me over the years. I noted first of all that monocultural bilinguals who make up the majority of bilinguals in the world are not really concerned by this phenomenon. Although bi- or multilingual, they are in fact members of just one culture. But what about bicultural bilinguals?
Imagine the way we speak to a best friend and the behavior that we adopt. Then, think of how all this changes when we are speaking the same language to a superior (e.g. a school head, religious authority or employer). We behave differently and sometimes change attitudes and feelings even though the language is the same.
The same is true for bilinguals except that here the language may be different. It is the environment, the culture, and the interlocutors that cause bicultural bilinguals to change attitudes, feelings and behaviors (along with language)—and not their language as such. In essence, there does not seem to be a direct causal relationship between language and personality.
A Swiss German-French-English trilingual gives us a concluding statement that is fitting:
“When talking English, French or German to my sister, my personality does not change. However, depending on where we are, both our behaviors may adapt to certain situations we find ourselves in.”
Ervin, S. (1964). An analysis of the interaction of language, topic, and listener. In John Gumperz and Dell Hymes (eds.), The Ethnography of Communication, special issue of American Anthropologist, 66, Part 2, 86-102.
Luna, D., Ringberg, T. & Peracchio, L. (2008). One individual, two identities: Frame switching among biculturals. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(2), 279-293.
Grosjean, F. Personality, thinking and dreaming, and emotions in bilinguals. Chapter 11 of Grosjean, F. (2010). Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.