Different Language, Different Personality?

I was a shy child who often preferred to stay home reading a book to going out on adventures with other kids. As a teenager, I was at times more comfortable with telling my deepest thoughts and emotions to my diary than sharing them with a friend. Yet I am sure that many people who know me today would describe me as extroverted rather than introverted.

How can that be? I think it might have something to do with language.

When I was 11 years old, my parents sent me to an international camp and I subsequently became an active member of the youth organization that organized it – CISV. The month-long camp, as well as the international meetings, seminars, and workshops that followed it over the years, took place in English. I got to meet people from different continents, learned a lot of exciting things, and had loads of fun. I was learning to become more extroverted and I was doing it in English.

As English was not my native tongue, I could play with this language and didn’t face the same borders or limitations in it. (Have you ever noticed that it is both easier to curse and say “I love you” in a different language?) Over the years English grew into my language for multicultural communication, travel, and friendships with people from all around the world.

Different language, different personality?

It appears that I’m not the only one noticing changes in my personality based on the language that I speak.

According to researchers who questioned over 1000 bilinguals, nearly 2/3 confessed that they felt “like a different person” when speaking a different language.

Two studies (here and here), done as far back as the 1960s, showed that both French and Japanese bilinguals living in the US change the content of their speech depending on the language they use. A newer study on this topic found that, when taking a personality test in English and in Spanish, Mexican Americans score higher on extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness on the English version of the test.

Different language, different personality. Czech proverb

Three languages, three versions of myself

I certainly notice such differences in myself. To this day, my English-language personality remains my most outgoing and confident self.

In contrast, my German-speaking personality has experienced a remarkable growth over the last few years. I used to feel trapped when speaking German, there was so much I wanted to say but I felt awkward expressing myself. Despite having become more or less fluent in the language, my German personality remains a little stiff and socially inept with a tendency to double-guess herself.

I suppose my Latvian-speaking personality remains the most balanced of the three. It has neither the increased extroversion of the English nor the stricter self-critique of the German. After all, it is my mother tongue and my most spoken language for the first two decades of my life.

Does language shape personality?

Why do these discrepancies exist? Some say it has to do with culture: as each language is closely tied to a culture, the way we speak (and what we say) is influenced by the norms and expectations for self-expression embedded in each culture. Others say that it has to do with the contexts in which we have acquired our languages and the contexts in which we use them.

I know for certain that it also has to do with fluency. To even think of having a “personality” in a language, you need to achieve a level of fluency where you stop translating yourself from another language. I certainly cannot speak of my Russian or my French personality, my knowledge of the two languages if far too rudimentary for that.

So does the language that I use affect my personality?

Yes, it does. But it is probably not that what makes the most difference. I express myself in different ways in each of the three languages that I am fluent in, but it likely has more to do with the context that I learned (and use) these languages in.

The language that I use does not make me a different person but it brings a different facet of my personality to shine.

How about you, my readers, have you noticed any differences in the way you think or express yourself when using a different language?

 

P.S. If you are interested in the connections between different language, different personality “Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages” by Guy Deutscher is a great book.

10 Replies to “Different Language, Different Personality?”

  1. The European Mama says: Reply

    I don’t think it has anything to do with culture. I think it had to do with the diffierent cultures and situations. For example I am also more outgoing in English but it has more to do with meeting people in an international environent that fits me really well and makes me more extroverted.

    1. Sounds like you’re just like me then! I really believe that our experiences in different languages has a lot to do with how we feel when speaking them and how we feel comfortable to act in the specific language environment. Latvian may be my native tongue but, e.g., I’m not sure that I would be able to flirt in it 🙂

  2. Alina Maria Vlad says: Reply

    Good article Ilze and above all excellent food for thought! As a polyglot and as a person who has lived in several European countries I do agree that you express yourself in a different way, personality wise, depending on the language you use and that I think it has a lot to do with your experience, personal and professional, you are connecting that language to. Additionally I think that there is always a dimension of your personality which prevails in all the languages you speak which is not necessarily related to your mother tongue. For example I am Romanian but I grew up with German neighbors, went to the German school and studied in Germany as well and whenever I speak a different language than German I try to express myself in a very concrete and structured way and to convey a lot of information in very few words. My take on languages is that you indeed take over a certain personal characteristic when you speak different languages but there is always a personal dominant dimension across all languages which is deeply rooted in your character.

    1. You said it really well, Alina! I completely agree, there definitely is a core that remains unchanged across the languages.

  3. Weronika Felcis says: Reply

    Indeed I feel also more extroverted in English than Polish, but even more so I remember exactly the moment when I went with Elgars (whom I knew before for over a year only in English) to Latvia and saw him with his Latvian friends in bar in Riga. A totally different person as it seemed at first! Thanks to that I learnt more about all his shades and shines.:)

    1. Haha that reminds me the first time I was out with Daniel and his school friends and he started speaking this slang German. My first reaction was: who is that guy?!

  4. You’ve discussed such a fascinating topic here. I often wonder if my son’s going to see me differently because I speak to him in Welsh (my third language) rather than English or French. I feel I’m doing the right thing to help him with growing up in a bilingual environment here in Wales, although wonder if he’ll see a different side of my personality to the people I speak to in English (or French).

    1. That’s definitely something to ask him when he grows older 🙂 I remember reading an article about a father who quit speaking Hebrew to his son as he thought the language makes him more judgemental. I suppose as long as you feel comfortable speaking Welsh with your son everything will turn out just fine.

  5. So interesting! I find this true for myself, and especially for my husband. He is very extroverted in Spanish, his native tongue, and relies on tons of jokes and plays on words in conversation. His English is coming along, but I’ve had many friends mistake him for being shy simply because his communication skills aren’t there yet.

    This also makes me think of how a culture can regard visitors or immigrants as less intelligent or any other number of things because they’re not native speakers. It is SO good to learn other languages and travel around, because you quickly learn to be more gracious to non-native speakers!

    1. That’s a really good point, Elisabeth! I think I read somewhere once that often when people speak their non-native language they are indeed perceived to be less intelligent on average. Quite sad, isn’t it?

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