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Speaking a Foreign Language Makes You Change Your Personality

Federico Prandi of Babbel, the language-learning electronic platform, says learning English strongly affected his habits, but he thinks he wasn't profoundly changed by it until he moved to Germany. In Berlin, he started speaking and writing ten times more English than he had ever done before. The more he spoke, the more his teacher’s words, "Learning a foreign language changes you forever" took an unexpected shape. "I wasn’t only changing — my Italian-speaking self and my English-speaking self had become two very different individuals," he explains.

Every time he writes something in Italian, his mother tongue, his texts turn out to be melancholic, pensive and mostly pessimistic, he says. Whenever he blogs in English, on the other hand, he feels like his mind is "riding alpacas, sliding down rainbows, having a sugar rush from a six-layer wedding cake." When he goes to Italian parties, he is passive and not very talkative. He doesn't have this problem, however, at English-speaking parties. He says he feels more free and funny there.

Prandi thought something was wrong with him until he stumbled upon an article in the New Republic. He found out that all studies done on the topic suggest that multilingual people’s personalities slightly differ depending on which language they are using. "Is it something inherent to each language — as the article suggests – or does it have to do with the different circumstances in which those languages are used?" he asked himself. "I’ve never lived certain situations during my first 26 years in Italy. For example, I have never asked for a raise in Italian; I haven’t requested a credit card, debated over obscure IKEA instructions or quit my job; I haven’t apologized for losing someone’s keys and almost killing their cats; I haven’t rejoiced for winning a pub quiz and — weirdly enough — I have never told anyone 'I love you; in Italian," he relates.


Psychologist François Grosjean was also intrigued by this phenomenon. He first noted that monocultural bilinguals who make up the majority of bilinguals in the world are not really concerned by this phenomenon. Although bi- or multilingual, they are in fact members of just one culture. But what about bicultural bilinguals? He proposed in his first book on bilingualism, Life with Two Languages, that what is seen as a change in personality is most probably simply a shift in attitudes and behaviors that correspond to a shift in situation or context, independent of language. Basically, the bicultural bilinguals in these studies were behaving biculturally, that is, adapting to the context they were in.

Could it be that bilinguals who speak two (or more) languages change their personality when they change language? After all, the Czech proverb does say, "Learn a new language and get a new soul."

Despite the fact that many bilinguals report being different in each of their languages, only few researchers have attempted to get to the bottom of this question. Early in her career, Berkeley Emeritus Professor Susan Ervin-Tripp conducted a study in which she asked Japanese-American women to complete sentences she gave them in both Japanese and English. She found that they proposed very different endings depending on the language used. Thus, for the sentence beginning, "When my wishes conflict with my family..." one participant's Japanese ending was, " is a time of great unhappiness," whereas the English ending was, "...I do what I want."

More than forty years later, Baruch College Professor David Luna and his colleagues asked Hispanic American bilingual women students to interpret target advertisements picturing women, first in one language and, six months later, in the other. They found that in the Spanish sessions, the bilinguals perceived women in the ads as more self-sufficient as well as extrovert. In the English sessions, however, they expressed more traditional, other-dependent and family-oriented views of the women.

Grosjean concluded that bilinguals use their languages for different purposes, in different domains of life, with different people. Different contexts and domains trigger different impressions, attitudes and behaviors. What is taken as a personality shift due to a change of language may have little, if anything, to do with language itself. "Imagine the way we speak to a best friend and the behavior that we adopt," Grosjean writes. "Then, think of how all this changes when we are speaking the same language to a superior (e.g. a school head, religous authority or employer). We behave differently and sometimes change attitudes and feelings even though the language is the same." The same is true for bilinguals except that here the language may be different. It is the environment, the culture, and the interlocutors that cause bicultural bilinguals to change attitudes, feelings and behaviors (along with language)—and not their language as such, he explains.


So, these findings relate mostly to bilinguals or trilinguals. With people who speak more than three languages, the personality change is raised to a whole new level. Tim Keeley, professor of cross-cultural management at Kyushu Sangyo University in Japan who speaks 20 different languages, thinks that learning a new language causes you to re-invent your sense of self – and the best linguists are particularly good at taking on new identities. “You become a chameleon,” he says in an interview for BBC Future. Resisting the process of reinvention may prevent you from learning another language so well, Keeley argues.

It is well known that if you identify with someone, you are more likely to mimic them – a process that would effortlessly improve language learning. But the adopted identity, and the associated memories, may also stop you from confusing the language with your mother tongue – by building neural barriers between the languages. “There must be some type of home in your mind for each language and culture and the related experiences, in order for the languages to stay active and not get all mixed together,” Keeley says. Finding such a "home" for each language might explain why Keeley can switch so effortlessly between those 20-odd languages.

Of all the polyglots BBC journalist David Robson met at one of their meetings in Berlin, Michael Levi Harris demonstrated these principles best. An actor by training, Harris also has an advanced knowledge of ten languages, and an intermediate understanding of twelve more. When he starts speaking another language, his entire body language changes as well. “I’m not really trying to consciously change my character or my persona. It just happens, but I know that I am suddenly different,” he says.

Harris thinks that anyone can learn to adopt a new cultural skin in this way. The important thing, he says, is to try to imitate without even considering the spelling of the words. Everyone can listen and repeat. "You may find yourself over-exaggerating, in the same way that an actor may be a little over-the-top in their performance to start with – but that’s a crucial part of the process," he explains.


It is now accepted among linguists that when adopting a new language, people adopt a new personality based on the perception they have about the target culture. This phenomenon is called "mirroring," and it begins early in life if a child is exposed to another language. This exposure does not have to be in real-life conversations; it can develop in front of a TV or a computer screen. Adopting a personality of a cartoon character is very common in childhood, because those characters are funny, interesting and care-free. They appeal to children. Learning a second language requires a "positive" atmosphere, and nothing creates a more positive atmosphere than humour, which cartoons contain in abundance. Cartoons also eliminate the pressure of being aware of learning another language. A child may repeat certain funny sentences from cartoons, and they subconsciously become ingrained in his/her mind, as "Suggestopedia," the method of learning a foreign language by memorising sentences in a playful atmosphere, suggests. 

Different languages can evoke different memories of your life, as the Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov famously discovered, and having English connected to the surreal and fascinating world of cartoons evokes pleasant childhood memories, which also helps establish positive associations with the American version of the English language and with American culture, for instance. Language is pregnant with meaning, and the language in cartoons carries with it a proliferation of the culture and the set of values children are prone to adopt more easily at that age.

In a survey conducted among English-language students in Lithuania, most interviewees with native-like proficiency in the American version of English answered affirmatively when asked if they are aware of using some lines from cartoons and films when speaking English, especially when telling jokes. One student wrote that "when I’m making a reference or a joke, then [...] I remember the cartoon or even the specific episode really vividly, though some phrases have grown on me so much, people have told me I use them regularly even though I don’t really notice it." The source of inspiration for one student's dry, sarcastic humour in class turned out to be his favourite cartoon, South Park, known for its crude language, satire and dark humour aimed to attract young adults. In the questionnaire, he concedes using lines from South Park when telling jokes. 

Almost all students who filled out the questionnaire were aware of having identified with a specific cartoon or film character when speaking English, and one admitted that he tried to replicate their manners of speech, and still does it. After the initial stage of second-language acquisition, young people move to different media and, as the language comes more naturally, tend to forget the initial stimulus in the language-learning process. Having cartoons as the single source of English in a Lithuanian-speaking household, however, has to make one, even if unconsciously, mimic the character that pronounces the sentence he/she is trying to reproduce when speaking English.

There will certainly be more research done on this topic, but the analysis conducted so far, as well as the testimonies of users of multiple languages, all point to the fact that adopting a different personality when speaking a different language is not only a byproduct of multilingualism, but a necessary prerequisite.

Svetozar Postic

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