Speaking Different Languages, Multilinguals Experience a Sort of Personality Switch

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different languages personality switch

Science reveals the surprising effect speaking different languages has on one’s personality.

Being multilingual is something many of us have dreamed of achieving, but only a few manage to actually succeed.

Being able to adapt to different languages and pick up the words and grammar of other cultures is something that is fascinating to those of us who can’t do it and not surprisingly, there have been many studies carried out on the personality types of those who can fluently speak more than one language.

Jean-Marc Dawaele and Aneta Pavlenko studied more than 1000 bilinguals on their personality changes when speaking different languages and almost two-thirds reported they experienced emotion changes as well as differences in their personality traits depending on which language they were using.

There have been numerous other studies into this area that support these findings, one of them being Noam Scheiber’s recent essay where he explained that he stopped using Hebrew around his three-year-old because he felt colder and less articulate than when he was speaking in English.

Older Studies

In 1964, Susan Ervin carried out a study to see how individuals told the same story in different languages. She used a series of illustrations in a Thematic Apperception Test in both French and English and asked respondents to create an interesting story using the images they saw.

The results showed that there tended to be more physical aggression in the English narratives, whereas there was more verbal aggression in the French stories. The English narratives also tended to include female accomplishment as a central theme, whereas the French narratives used guilt as a focus point.

The Multiple Personalities of Multilinguals

But why exactly does personality change depend on language? Well, a lot of it may have to do with the context in which the language is learnt. The age at which the language is learnt, as well as the level of cognitive development at the time of learning, can have a big impact on the way we feel when we speak that particular language, according to studies.

Cultural identity can also play a massive part in the way in which we feel when speaking a certain language. Whether we like it or not, culture is embedded deep into language and it can have a big impact on the way in which we learn.

Stereotypically speaking, those who are multilingual may be well-travelled so have soaked up numerous cultures and adapted the traits which each one has. This clash of cultures can manifest itself in many ways, the most obvious being through language.

Whilst these studies look into the way in which language can change personalities, it also shows that some people remain unaffected by their ability to speak multiple languages, which is interesting.

What are your thoughts on these findings? Are you multilingual and do you think it affects your personality traits when speaking one language over another?

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I'm a psychology student with a passion for books, good food and movies. I can often be found reading self-help articles snuggled up in bed with a cup of coffee or writing about anything and everything in a quiet cafe somewhere.

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One Comment

  1. Gil July 16, 2016 at 1:49 am - Reply

    I am a native Portuguese and when I speak Spanish I don’t know why but my personality changes, I am more direct and bossy.

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Speaking Different Languages, Multilinguals Experience a Sort of Personality Switch