Different Language, Different Personality?

Florence, fluent in both Dutch and French, has come across an interesting phenomenon in her bilingual personality which she briefly tells us about.

Recently, I began asking myself to what extent we change when we speak a different language. Does our perception of reality change? Our emotions? Our attitudes? You may wonder why this question (raised many times in history by psycholinguists) bothers me so much. The answer is that I, myself, have the impression that when I am telling a story, or describing a situation, I recount it slightly differently depending on the language I am speaking.

I am bilingual and bicultural. My parents are French, but we moved to Rotterdam when I was three years old, and I was brought up there. I learned Dutch in kindergarten, while playing with other kids, and then at school. At home we always spoke French, but I considered Dutch my fist language during my school years and studies. I moved back to France a few years ago and married a Frenchman, who doesn’t speak Dutch.

I get the impression that my personality slightly alters when I switch from speaking Dutch to French (and vice versa). For example, when I am talking about the same subject with my Dutch friends via Skype, and then recount the story to my husband. I feel that I present the story in a different light. In Dutch, I am more tolerant, open and sympathetic, while in French, I am more calculative. It doesn’t sound like a big problem, but it is a strange feeling, when you cannot express exactly what you actually think of something or someone, because it changes depending on the language you speak.

I started to read about this phenomenon and it seems that I am not the only one with this linguistic split personality. For example, Alexia Panayiotou, a psychologist and economist from the University of Cyprus, did a study on English-Greek bilingual children. She read them the same story in both languages and asked them to comment on this story. The differences in their reactions were significant: In Greek they were more sympathetic and cared for the hero, while in English they were rather indifferent. In another study, Chinese-English bilinguals were asked to describe themselves in each respective language and surprisingly their self-esteem and self-description differed depending on the language they were using. In English they reported higher self-esteem and described themselves in more individualistic terms, while in Chinese they perceived themselves mainly as members of groups they belonged to.

Such findings make me realize that language is immersed in culture, we learn languages in particular contexts, and that these contexts influence our perception of reality and our way of expression. And that translating from one language to another requires much more than linguistic fluency!

Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Dear Reader: Have you ever noticed similar behavior when switching back and forth between different languages?

19 Responses to “Different Language, Different Personality?”

  1. This is so true! I have Danish parents, grown up in France, lived in the UK for 10 years and now living in Holland for the past 9 years. I am a different person in each language, adapting myself to the culture of the people who speak it. I have always wondered how the language could affect the message so much. It also affects my tone of voice and my emotions.

    Well done for pinpointing this issue.

  2. Thanks for your comments Christina! I am glad this issue has interested you – you probably have many different personality traits then!

  3. I’ve found something similar after learning to speak Portuguese and speaking it almost every day. I am a lot less shy in Portuguese and I am more open in what I say. I also talk a lot more and have a different tone of voice. Basically, I feel freer when I speak in Portuguese. It’s weird! I am now about to learn Romanian which is similar to Portuguese and I am interested to see how that will turn out!

  4. I couldn’t agree with you more! When I speak Spanish, I move around much more than when I speak German!
    Good luck with Romanian!

  5. As a bilingual Japanese and English speaker, I can identify totally with the content of this report. I find myself being more self deprecating and less likely to accept praise when speaking in Japanese than when speaking English. Furthermore, a colleague once told me that even if he can’t hear , he can tell which language I am using from 10-15 metres away, by looking at my posture, gestures and general body language.

  6. Hi Tim,
    this is very true! Body-language falls into the bilingual category as well!
    Thanks for commenting,

  7. I enjoyed Florance Article very much for it has been something I’ve been experiencing for a long time . nice to see it in print.
    As someone who was born in the Caribean with first language Dutch and “Papiamentoe ” and as I as a child emersed with the Spanish and English population on my Island, (magical) I taught that everyone spoke three ,four or even five languages.
    As an older adult gaining insight into people consciousness I came to the realization that Language is embedded in it’s culture. If and when you are able to assimilate into the culture through their spoken language you wil be able to smoothly fit in.
    The that at times I feel I don’t belong. there is to much to explain when talking to someone else who is gifted in a second language.
    Still I encourage everyone to allow children to learn as many languages that they want .
    I’m currently endeavoring to learn Mandarine Chinese
    must say not as easy as when I was a child.

    Ilse, driven by the eed to understand

  8. I’ve been experiencing similar things. I grew up speaking French and Czech (I come from a mixed marriage) and realized over the years that I tend to be more cynical, detached and also quieter when I tell a story in Czech, tuning it down, whereas I’ll say the same story louder, more colorfully and enthusiastically in French.
    When I speak English (I learned it at school), I also tend to be more open and talk more freely about my feelings but I think it’s because it’s not my mother-tongue and I don’t “feel” it perfectly so my words don’t “hit me” as such when I say them…

    Very interesting article!

  9. There is definitely merit to the idea. It is impossible to become really fluent in the language without absorbing some of the culture, which includes facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures, etc. I grew up in a bilingual household (Russian-Spanish) and became fluent in English in my 20s. In Spain when you are discussing something in a group you will not be taken seriously unless you raise your voice, talk over your opponents and show a lot of strong emotions – that signals passion and people respect that. Whereas in the States if you argue in the same way you would be dismissed as someone who cannot control himself. My friends once told me that when I switch to Russian even my facial features change, becoming colder and harsher – set jaw, narrow eyes, speaking in a low voice, but with an intensity that makes everyone else listen. I’ve never noticed it myself, but it makes sense – the language reflects the collective temperament of the people.

  10. Very nice read and a great subject!

    I didn’t grow up bilingual, but I have been using my second language (English) more than the native tongue (Polish) for about a third of my life.

    My “dual identity” has much to do with living outside my home country, but language is definitely a part of the puzzle. It’s like wearing different hats… I’m now learning Spanish and it’s another part of me that some people would be surprised to see.

  11. I have this. when i switch between english (i speak it fluently) and arabic i turn into a whole new person, which i hate to the core. my arabic is very good but i stutter, which never happens in english, i stopped speaking to other people in the arabic language completely, it’s very hard for me to use the arabic language which i had once spoken with no problem, and plus i sound foreign when i speak it.

  12. I can’t agree more. I speak english and spanish fluently. But get this…. when I talk to girls in spanish I just seem more at ease and natural. I do alot better in this frame of mind. I notice in English everything gets taken too literally. Spanish is a whole lot more playful and gregarious a language. The people also respond well to its flirtatious nature. And awkward moments are very rare, unlike English.

  13. That’s an amusing observation. Lots of people seem to find languages like Spanish, or Italian, or French particularly flirtatious or friendly. I can’t remember anyone saying this about, for instance, German. 😉

  14. It’s so good to see so many people here have experienced the same thing.Im a Chinese and speak English well,i can completely feel the differences when i express the same meaning in two languages.the easten world seems to be more introverted while the westener seems to be the opposite.It’s so interesting to notice this! Languages are so beautiful~~

  15. It’s really interesting to see how much this post resonates with people. I’m fluent in both German and English, but so far I haven’t noticed a distinct change in personality. One curious thing, though: My academic or technical writing was always better in German, but whenever I’ve tried creative writing, I could only do so in English – although German is my mother tongue. Strange, isn’t it? 🙂

  16. So true ! I speak French, English and Creole and i can really relate to this article.

    As someone said, even my tone (and my speaking volume, acutally), my gestures and other things are different depending on the language i’m using.
    I know for example, that i’m kind of frustrated cause my writing is much better when i’m using French, but i can’t help it. Anytime i want to expression some emotions i’m feeling, i think in English so i have to write in that language.

    Anyway, thank you for that blog post. Now, i know i’m not that crazy 😀

  17. My mother tongue is Italian but I also speak Norwegian fluently.
    When I speak Norwegian, even if I’m talking about something funny or exciting, I sit still and I never speak loudly. I am often ironic but my sense of humor is rather…kind.
    When I speak Italian my jokes are completely different and my sense of humor is much more cynical and licentious.
    My “italian” voice sounds much pitcher and I can’t help moving my hands with continuos gestures. I have the impression people won’t fully understand what I’m saying if I don’t show them physically XD
    I love when my norwegian friends show me how I move while speaking Italian

  18. Wow what a blog. Thanks for sharing this valuable blog.I have blog in mind that I recently came through and it is also good one http://www.inlinguanewdelhi.com/i-can-talk-english-walk-english-and-laugh-english-2/

  19. @Sahib:

    Thanks for the interesting link!

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