Multilinguals: Your Personality Changes When you Change Language

Declan Mulkeen

9 Nov 2016

We have all met multilinguals and marvel at their ability to change from one language to the another seamlessly. While you may be envious of their ability to speak more than one language are you aware that they may behave differently depending on which language they are speaking?

Discover the latest thinking on multilinguals and how their personality may well change depending on which language they are speaking.

Multilinguals: Mounting Research Points to Change of Personality

An interesting concept has been explored about multilingualism and personality in an article published in The Economist. It questions whether a speaker’s personality can change when their spoken language changes.

Being able to speak another language is generally linked to a more flexible brain

Many issues are considered. For example, being able to speak another language is linked to a more flexible brain. This, coupled with cultural influences amongst languages, may have an impact.

For example, some multinguals reported a difference in speaking style. These differences ranged from the level of perceived rudeness to frequency of interrupting another speaker.

Reasons cited for these characteristics included cultural differences in the acceptance of more rude language to the structural differences between the languages spoken.

Word order may have an impact. If the meaning of the sentence is revealed earlier in one language, interrupting in that language may reduce the risk of misunderstanding the speaker if the significant word or words have already been uttered.

If the meaning of the sentence is revealed earlier in one language, interrupting in that language may reduce the risk of misunderstanding

Lack of Subtlety and Nuances When Learning a New Language

Different speaking styles may exist with little choice, especially as they are being learnt.

Many language learners report that when learning a new language they often feel too blunt or direct, not because they wish to be so, but because they have not yet developed a sufficient vocabulary in which to be more nuanced.

Many new language learners report that they often feel too blunt or direct

Others report that they are still translating words in their head when speaking in their new language and may not have an awareness or are forced to ignore subtleties in the other language.

Language and Culture

The connections between language and culture are complex, and no doubt have some influence on language and personality.

The author of the article goes on to explain how in a French-speaking country in West Africa there is a tradition of greeting complete strangers with a hearty ‘bonjour’.

Meanwhile, next door in an adjacent English-speaking West African country the author noted it would be odd to say ‘hello’ to a complete stranger for no apparent reason in English!

The connections between language and culture are complex and no doubt have some influence on language and personality

The link between language and culture

Many multilinguals are not necessarily multicultural. For example, a business professional may learn another language for work, but as an adult, they are much more likely to transfer their own culture into their new language or perhaps merge their new language skill into the corporate culture.

On the other hand, there are people who grew up in a truly multicultural environment, where their cultural reference points are likely to switch along with the shift of language.

This was explained to the author of the article by someone who was born and raised in Gibraltar with one Spanish parent and one British parent.  Growing up bilingual, he explained a constant feeling of needing to either restrain or express himself if he was speaking the language that did not match his emotional state at the time!

Bilingualism and Personality: Level of Fluency Cannot Be Ignored

Finally, the level of linguistic and cultural fluency should not be ignored.  Being able to speak a new language with all of the correct syntax and other formalities may still make the speaker sound like they have little personality when speaking it.

Transferring the personality of their mother tongue may sound confusing, especially if very different emotions are expected between the words and actions exhibited.

Only when a speaker matches their linguistic personality with their new language are they likely to be considered truly multilingual.

This includes the use of slang, tone and matching body language. A whole new you, perhaps?

Only when a speaker matches their linguistic personality with their new language are they likely to be considered truly multilingual