InLinguistic Discussions

Do We Change Our Personality When We Talk in Another Language?

Main image of the blog entry about multiple personalities when you speak in different languages.

Watching some language YouTube videos, I stumbled over a couple of videos about the question: Is there is a change of personality when we switch to another language? As you might expect, most YouTubers claimed that such a change really happens. I mean, why wouldn’t they? Fewer people would watch their videos in case this phenomenon not existed.

I will discuss some of the points in favor of multiple personalities. However, (SPOILER ALERT) you will find out why I, someone who grew up bilingually, believe that this theory is still far from guaranteed!

What is Personality?

Let’s start with reading less exciting dictionary definitions. According to these, personality can be defined as:

  • the combination of characteristics or qualities that form an individual’s character.
  • the type of person you are, shown by the way you behave, feel, and think.
  • the visible aspect of one’s character as it impresses others.
  • a celebrity or famous person.

I am sure we can all agree that we can neglect the last point (you will still find a reference to it in the text).

Based on this, supporters of this theory argue that your visible characteristics, behavior, feelings, and thoughts change in a different language. Why is that?

Limited Vocabulary

It is quite difficult to ever build up a broader vocabulary in a new language than in your mother tongue. Especially in the beginning, we all know only but a small array of words we can form sentences from. As a result, we cannot always express ourselves as we would like to. We are forced to use words that we know in places where other terms would have been more appropriate.

The argument is: As we cannot express ourselves well enough, others never get to see our true personality. In each new language, we have a different vocabulary, which allows us to talk about specific topics.

Let’s say you really love food and love to talk about it in your native tongue. Your passion shows up in the high number of expressions you are able to use in a convo. E.g., “I found the salad flaccid. The meat was super tender!” I had to look these adjectives up. So, I could not have expressed myself well if this would have happened in a conversation. See?

Formal Language Use

This argument is similar to what I mentioned earlier. When we learn a language, we most likely study the formal textbook language. We hardly get to know slang words and commonly used, sometimes grammatically incorrect phrases. They only come up in songs or everyday conversations.

However, we don’t get to understand how and when informal-language use is appropriate. So, we often reduce our usage of it and choose a formal, “stilted” way of speaking. People who are accustomed to hearing you talk in your mother tongue will feel that you have a somehow different personality. Do you, thus, have another personality?

Phonology, Gestures, Countenance

Man and woman talking in the streets.

Oh, how many videos have I watched of some bilingual Italians. They love to state how they feel miraculously liberated when speaking in Italian. Like a basketball player scoring 15 points in a row, they feel “on fire.” They become more expressive, louder.

More claims that I have heard were: When speaking French, one pouts and shrugs more often. In Chinese/ German, one shouts as if he/ she was angry. In the case of English, we can be more confident and direct, even a bit rude at times. Spanish conveys a lot of positive emotions and energy.

The argument is that whenever we switch to another language, we start communicating differently. This is seen as a form of showing a different personality.

Scientific Evidence Regarding the Change of Personality in Another Language

I love scientific evidence and an evidence-based approach. Yes, I am not a big fan of discussing a topic without some facts. This is why I will present you the results of three known studies.

The first is a 2006 study led by Nairan Ramírez-Esparza, an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Connecticut. In psychology, we measure personality by five dimensions, The Big Five. Bilingual Mexicans took this psychology test in English and Spanish. They indeed scored differently in extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness! Interesting!

Another study from 2008 showed that a switch to another mental frame happened in a new language. By the way, this happened only to bicultural people. An example would be a person with a German father and a Dutch mother.

Finally, in a more recent study, Hong Kong Chinese-English bilinguals filled out personality inventories in English or Chinese on perceived traits regarding themselves. Again, the results strengthen the belief that we do experience a change of personality in another language.

My Conclusion About the Change of Personality in Another Language

I know, I know, I wrote in the beginning that I don’t agree 100% with the prevailing opinion that some sort of “change in personality” exists. Who am I to question the sentiment of the majority? Shouldn’t I, who speaks six languages (at the time of this post), more than anyone be in favor of this opinion? Well, my language abilities actually made me doubt it!

Limited vocabulary and formal language use

Remember these two arguments? Let’s disarm them together. Both advocate that we are not able to express ourselves because we miss the knowledge to do so. Then, I ask myself: Isn’t this something that studying a language for a longer period can cure? Can we not put the effort into learning more vocabulary and experiencing more real-life conversations? Do we, then, lose our newly gained second personality?

This happened to me. I remember having difficulty to speak about certain topics in Spanish and speaking a clean Castilian “ostia, tío”-version of Spanish. Yet, after spending a semester in South America, I was able to talk about everything that I also would want to talk about in, e.g., German.

Phonology, Gestures, Countenance

This argument builds on the thought that we look and sound different as we talk in another language. Now, have a look again at the definitions of personality at the beginning of this article (except the last definition).

If we define personality as something that is perceived by others through the way we act, then we can surely speak of a change in personality. However, if we define personality as the unique bundle of qualities and characteristics that defines us, then claiming a change in personality would become a lot harder.

My opinion

I tend to see personality as a combination of values, believes, and characteristics that a person has. This means that I am hardly convinced by people stating they have a different personality when they start talking more impulsively in Italian. Nevertheless, as I speak six languages, I asked myself: “Do I change my opinion about things, the way I work, or how I feel about certain topics when I switch to French or Serbo-Croatian?”

The answer is: No! In my opinion, there is only one true self (unless you have schizophrenia). Just because I talk faster or use more swearwords, this fact does not change.

Nevertheless, I am not that arrogant to think that everyone around me is wrong while I am right. There is enough scientific evidence supporting the view of a personality change. Moreover, many people report experiencing different feelings in different languages. Thus, I do admit that there certainly is something happening. I see no problem in agreeing on the fact there is some change in personality, just to a lesser extent than everyone would like to make us believe!

And if you do not want to learn another language to experience a change of personality, you can still be a personality by becoming a celebrity or famous person.

Do We Change Our Personality When We Talk in Another Language? – The Surge of a Surprising Blog

In this blog, you will discover a bunch of proven tips on how to crack the language-learning game! Just give me a bit of time. This was blog entry number ten for me, and I hoped you enjoyed the discussion. I will now start the blog’s social media channels. Be on the lookout for some interesting additional content all around languages! Language speaking and personality present, indeed, a controversial topic. More research is needed to answer the question of whether there truly is a change of personality when talking in another language.

There will be a loooooot more articles coming!

Are you asking yourself: “Who is this guy whose words I am reading right now?” You will find some information about me here.

Person shown writing in a book.
#10 QuickTip: Start a personal language notebook. Write down every doubt, interesting thought, or important piece of grammar. Do so exclusively in the foreign language.

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1 Comment

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    February 17, 2022 at 16:07
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