Folium: Do Multilingual People Have Multiple Personalities via NewRepublic

Folium: Multilingual People Have Multiple Personalities via NewRepublic

Folium: Multilingual People Have Multiple Personalities via NewRepublic


There is a known treatment plan for Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), previously known as Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD); which is a mental disorder characterized by the maintenance of at least two distinct and relatively enduring personality states. But there is no treatment, other than not speaking the language, for multiple personalities when speaking different languages. (ed. Except to embrace it and get multiple graduate degrees in Linguistics!)

(Switching Languages, Accents, and Personalities via Babbel)

Research now confirms that the behaviour of those who speak several languages changes according to the language they use. I have noted that my sassy, inpatient, and feisty personality traits come out when I speak Spanish. I once had a friend even tell me that my voice was deeper and more rich in tone in Spanish than in English. Michèle J. Koven, an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, asked French-Portuguese bilinguals to recall personal experiences and life events in both languages. She focused on how the participants described themselves within their own recounts and noticed that they emphasized different personality traits, depending on which language they were speaking.

“My Hebrew self turns out to be much colder, more earnest, and, let’s face it, less articulate,” he writes. “In English, my natural sensibility is patient and understated. My style in Hebrew was hectoring and prosecutorial.” – New Republic

Some argue that when a speaker changes languages and their personality changes, they don’t necessarily change personalities, rather that certain aspects of their personality become “accentuated”. They’re not saying that the languages themselves have a personality, but that the speakers are changing social spheres and adapting to their environment. Some speakers, for example, say that they think in one language but feel in the other, thus causing the disconnect.

Image from the "Thematic Apperception Test" via UTPsyc

Image from the “Thematic Apperception Test” via UTPsyc

Though there needs to be more studies done to conclude whether or not the hypothesis of whether a speaker adapts to a new personality, or simply certain aspects of their original personality is accentuated while speaking the different languages, there was a study done Between 2001 and 2003 that may change your mind. 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. 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!

“The women in the French stories were more likely to stand up for themselves, whereas the female characters in the Portuguese narratives tended to cede to others’ demands. And their own personas changed, too. One girl, Koven writes, sounded like “an angry, hip suburbanite” when she spoke French, and a “frustrated, but patient, well-mannered bank customer who does not want attention drawn to the fact that she is an émigré” when she spoke Portuguese.” – NewRepublic


(Psychology, and personality, are incredibly complex concepts. Even the MBTI is hotly debated.
However, do you notice that you move around the wheel when you switch to different languages?)

Some also argue that what is deemed ‘personality change’ could simply be a result of the different context the second language is learned. Mexican immigrants who only spoke Spanish in their homes until they were school age, thought of English as the authoritative language. The teachers spoke it and the school principal spoke it. It was what was used to discipline. They had the understanding that during class English was to be spoken, it was strict and to the point. While during recess, they could be with their friends, relax, and feel comfortable. In an article posted in Psychology Today, Dr. Grosjean argues 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.’ Monocultural bi- or multilinguals are individuals, who, although using two or more languages, live only within one culture, and according to Dr. Grosjean do not experience the multiple personality phenomenon. This suggests that the changes in how one acts and feels seem to lie within the multitude of cultures, not languages.

(The Language You Speak Says A Lot About Your Personality via ThinkTank)

Now, think about yourself speaking another language, what personality traits of yours would you believe to come to the forefront, if any?

Julie Thatcher
LEAF Contributor