Room4Talk blog | Multilingual people have multiple personalities

Multilingual people have multiple personalities


"Travelling and learning a foreign language open and broaden your mind"

There have been many studies on the connection between the number of languages you speak and the ability to switch personalities. It is a fascinating topic that remains a real mystery. Further study is needed, but researchers seem to be close to gaining a better understanding of the phenomenon.

There is evidence that people who speak more than one language tend to change their personality when they switch code. In other words, someone who is Anglo-French and can speak both languages could change his/her attitude and behavior in the same situation depending on the language spoken. Think about it. Has it ever occurred to you to say that German is a harsh language and Spanish and Italian sound friendlier – and the people, too? The socio-cultural environment can also affect our behavior and language can create different patterns in the brain.

Although many experiments have been carried out and there is evidence of this phenomenon, no reason or explanation has been found.

Between 2001 and 2003, linguists Jean-Marc Dewaele and Aneta Pavlenko asked over a thousand bilinguals whether they felt like a different person when they spoke different languages. Nearly two thirds said they did.

What’s more, an experiment was carried out in 1968 on Japanese people living in the US who spoke fluent English. They were given various verbal tests, one of which was particularly significant: the participants were asked to complete a few sentences using both languages in separate sessions. The results varied according to the language spoken and revealed different social perspectives associated with each language. For example, the sentence “I will probably become” was followed by “a housewife” in Japanese while in English they mentioned a job, such as teaching.

A similar experiment was conducted in Paris, analyzing the implications for people who were born in Portugal and went to live in France. The women were asked to come up with a story in both languages, which revealed considerable differences: the women in the French stories were more likely to stand up for themselves, while those in the Portuguese ones tended to be more submissive.

A possible explanation for this is the context in which we learn a language. For instance, our mother tongue can both influence and be influenced by our family, our school and the way we are brought up. On the other hand, our second and third languages can be influenced by our teachers, university, jobs and the people we speak to during the learning process.

Another explanation could lie in the structure of the language itself: for example, Romance languages are freer, while German is more logical and follows a strict word order, which is reflected in their reputation for being organized and precise.

Language could be influenced by our personality or the other way around, we don’t yet have a definitive answer – it could even be both!

However, one thing is certain: when you switch language, your personality shifts or even splits. Don’t worry! This doesn’t mean you’re a serial killer or that you’ll become “Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. These changes in personality are subtle and in any case, you can choose the language you want to speak and who you want to be (BIG PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTION!). Alternatively, you can just embrace your multiple personalities! I bet you’re dying to learn a new language now just to see whether you’re a psychopath or a genius! It doesn’t work like that unfortunately, but you can still give it a shot and see what happens in everyday life. Before you do, let’s get one thing straight: it is always you no matter what language you are speaking. This means your attitudes, behavior and personality traits are all still a reflection of who you truly are.

“Travelling and learning a foreign language will open your mind and broaden your horizons”. I guess they were right!