Hej, hello, hola: Does your personality change when you speak another language? 

You’re more serious in Swedish, outgoing in English and funnier in French. Could it be true? Whether you’ve noticed it or not, research suggests yes, our personalities can shift depending on the language we are speaking.   

Hej, hello, hola: Does your personality change when you speak another language? 
It's not only you. There is truth to the idea that your personality feels different when speaking another language. Photo: Getty Images

Learning a new language, especially as an adult, is hard. It can feel like there’s no space in your brain for new vocabulary, it’s hard to remember grammar rules and the pronunciation just doesn’t sound right no matter what facial gymnastics you try. 

But for those who have mastered a language other than their mother tongue, have you noticed a shift in your personality depending on what language you are speaking? Or perhaps you are still learning and feel frustrated at not being able to express your ‘true’ personality in the newer language?

Your attitude to a language and the cultural values you place on it play a part in how you label your personality when speaking that language, say experts at Stockholm University

Nathan Joel Young is a lecturer at Stockholm University’s Centre for Research on Bilingualism and a Marie Curie research fellow at the University of Oslo, with a PhD in Linguistics. He says the idea that our personalities shift when we speak different languages is linked to personal history. “It’s about how you think about the place where that language is from, or where you are getting that experience of the language – for example home, work, TV.”

One exception to this culture and history link is how well you speak a language. 

“I’m sorry, I’m much funnier in Swedish!” exclaimed a friend to me once. Thinking she was not feeling confident in her English, I assured her she was funny and we moved on. 

New language, new personality

According to a number of studies over the years, there is truth to the idea that your personality can change when you switch between languages. 

While many of us can relate anecdotally to these feelings of personality shifts, US research published in the Journal of Consumer Research indicates bilinguals may unconsciously switch personalities depending on the language they are using. The study looked at groups of bilingual Hispanic women and found changes in their self-perception, also known as ‘frame shifting’.

The women categorised themselves as more assertive, self-sufficient and extroverted when speaking Spanish compared to English. “Language can be a cue that activates different culture-specific frames,” the researchers said.

Learn more about Stockholm University’s Centre for Research on Bilingualism

Nathan Joel Young and Klara Skogmyr Marian from Stockholm University’s Centre for Research on Bilingualism.

Klara Skogmyr Marian, is an assistant professor and researcher at the Centre for Research on Bilingualism at Stockholm University, a researcher at the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and an author, whose expertise is in social aspects of language learning and bilingualism. She says: The question about personality effects is interesting and I am sure that many people recognise themselves in feeling like slightly different people when communicating in different languages.”

Culture, roles and language: it’s personal

How you experience or view a culture, and its language, will influence how you feel when you speak that language. 

“Your own attitudes towards a culture and a language come into play, and what you associate with that culture. This might make you act differently and feel differently when you speak,” says Klara. “How others perceive you, your culture, and the languages you speak might also affect how you feel yourself.”

And, because bilinguals use language in different parts of their lives and with different people, depending on how and where you are speaking, your impression and behaviour will be different. 

“It is about what situations you are using that language and how that language is situated,” says Nathan, explaining that your personal background plays a big role. So, if you were raised in Sweden, for example, but your family are Indonesian, you may associate speaking Indonesian with comfort, family and your grandma. While Swedish is more formal, used at work and in your studies. Likewise English is the language you see on TV and in movies and what you speak with your international friends. Whether consciously or not, your personal view of yourself may shift in each of these different settings, affecting your perception of your personality. 

Klara reiterates this same sentiment and says your roles in different settings – like English-speaking mother, Swedish-speaking colleague – will influence how you categorise your personality in each of those languages. 

A question of personality

Is ‘personality’ quite right? It’s important to say that this idea will depend on how you define personality. When we talk about a personality change in this instance, we are not meaning a Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde situation. According to the American Psychological Association, personality is the characteristic patterns in how you think, feel and behave. So there will be differences in how you behave and your body language, for example. 

Klara points this out too and asks the question: “Should we really speak about personality or is it a shifting between cultural frames, so aspects related more to the culture?”

Expressing yourself 

Confidence and level of skill in a language also comes into play. It makes sense that you don’t feel like yourself and seem more shy and reserved when you’re still mastering the lingo.  

“Your level of ability could bridle your personality. And so maybe the way you respond to that is you personify shyness,” says Nathan. 

Perhaps you can relate to being the person who doesn’t say much at a dinner party, laughs at the wrong time and feels weird and awkward? But who becomes the life of the party when everyone kindly switches to English?

Of course, the way to overcome this aspect of language and personality difference (and let your true personality shine), is to learn the language.

“Try and engage in those conversations, settings and interactions where you would have a chance to develop and gain interactional competence, in the ‘wild’,” says Klara, referring to practising a new language outside the constrains of a classroom. “You will feel more comfortable over time. And that might also allow you to change the kind of personality traits or the feelings that you associate with that language.”

The benefits of being bilingual

And for those of us still struggling to grasp our å, ä and ö’s? Research on language learning in general, not only bilingualism, has shown that our brains are extremely malleable, points out Klara, adding that nothing is set in stone when it comes to language competency or how you feel about a language. 

“What we can say, without any doubt, is that the huge advantage of being multilingual is that you’ll be able to speak with more people,” says Klara.

“I think anybody coming to Sweden will notice the benefits of speaking Swedish in Sweden!”

Keen to immerse yourself more fully in Sweden? Find out about language learning at Stockholm University

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How to write a polite letter or email in Swedish

Writing letters may be a dying art to some extent, but the need to write a polite email or other message is still alive and well. What should you avoid in an email if you don't want to appear rude?

How to write a polite letter or email in Swedish

How to address the person you’re writing to

Depending on where you’re from, you might be used to a relatively high level of formality in letters and emails when compared to Sweden.

In German, for example, you’re often expected to use every title the person you’re addressing holds when addressing them in formal written correspondence, such as Sehr geehrte Frau Dr. Mustermann for a woman with the surname Mustermann who holds a doctorate.

In formal English, you’re usually expected to use ‘dear’, followed by the full name of the person you’re addressing, with or without the title: Dear (Mr.) Joe Bloggs, for example.

Swedish, in comparison, is much less formal.

Technically you can use the word bästa, followed by the full name (no title) of the person you’re writing to if you’ve never been in contact with them before, like this: Bästa Sven Svensson, although this can appear a bit outdated. Your best bet is to just go with a simple hej, along with their first name, both in text and speech. 

Avoid directly translating the word ‘dear’ in English to kära in Swedish. In letter-writing, kära would be similar to addressing someone as “beloved” or “darling”, which is probably not the tone you want to strike.

What if I don’t know who I’m addressing?

Sometimes when you send an email, you’re not sure who will be opening it at the other end. In English, you’d use ‘to whom it may concern’, and you can in theory translate this to till den det vederbör or till den det berör in Swedish, but it sounds a bit odd.

You could either just go for a hej without a name following it, or try and be a bit more specific about who it is you’re trying to reach. If you’re sending off a job application you might want the head of staff, so you could write till personalchefen. If you have a question about a course, you could start your email with till kursansvarig (to the person responsible for the course), and so on and so forth.

Avoid anything similar to ‘dear Sir/Madam’. Best-case scenario, you sound a bit strange and outdated, and in the worst-case scenario, you could appear a bit patronising, especially if you are a man addressing a woman. 

Although Sweden does technically have informal and formal words for you (du/ni), the formal version (ni) has essentially fallen out of use (so for German speakers, you don’t need to worry about when to duzen or siezen in Sweden).

Use ‘du’ unless you’re sending an email to a member of the royal family – and that brings with it a whole other set of formality rules which we won’t go in to here.

How should I end my email?

There are a few different ways you can end an email, but the most common ones are probably med vänlig hälsning and vänliga hälsningar, which translate literally to “(with) friendly greetings”. You might see these shortened to MVH or VH, but write them out in full if you’re sending an email, at least the first time you contact someone.

Other options include bästa hälsningar (similar to ‘best regards’) or just hälsningar (regards). 

You can also end your email with some kind of time-specific sign off, although these are usually best reserved for the final email in a conversation, for example trevlig helg (have a nice weekend) if you’re writing to someone on a Friday afternoon, or ha en bra dag (have a nice day). Allt gott (literally: everything good, but more like “wish you the best”) is also fine, albeit a bit less formal.

The most informal way to sign off an email or letter (which, to be honest, would probably be fine in any context), is just to write your name preceded by a forward slash: /Sven Svensson.