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.
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?”
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!”