Life as a Bilingual

The reality of living with two (or more) languages

Change of Language, Change of Personality? Part II

Revisiting the link between language and personality in bilinguals.

In a first post on this topic (see here), I discussed whether bilinguals who speak two or more languages change their personality when they change language. I reproduced personal testimonies and cited two studies that seem to give a positive answer. I then argued that it is the environment, the culture and the interlocutors that cause bilinguals to change attitudes, feelings and behaviors (along with language)–and not their language as such. In essence, there does not seem to be a direct causal relationship between language and personality.

My post received many comments which I went through carefully. On the question of personality change, my respondents, probably all bilingual, were undecided. About a third thought there was no change in personality, a second third thought there was, and the remaining third didn't actually mention this aspect. This mixed reaction is not a surprise as even among researchers it is difficult to find a consensus as to how to define personality.

One respondent who believed in a personality change addressed the issue of whether there may nevertheless sometimes be a direct causal relationship between change of language and change of personality (and not always an indirect relationship as proposed above). He raised the intriguing possibility that an "initially indirect causal relationship can develop into a direct one" and he cited Pavlov's well-known study involving his dogs' reaction to the ringing of a bell. This might explain, in part, another respondent's remark. She found that a teacher was quite strict and a bit intimidating when speaking one language and more friendly in the other. She continued as follows: "If you were in a room with her and she was giving you a hard time, it was a good idea to manipulate the conversation over into the other language!".

Although divided on the personality issue, most respondents agreed with the fact that different contexts, domains of life and interlocutors–which in turn induce different languages–trigger different impressions, attitudes and behaviors. Thus, as bicultural bilinguals we adapt to the situation or the person we are talking to, and change our language when we need to (see here), without actually changing our personality. One respondent put it very nicely: "... it is not a personality change but simply the expression of another part of our personality that is not shown as strongly in our other language(s)".

Future research will hopefully use both explicit and implicit tests of attitudes and self-concept as suggested by yet another respondent. This is all the more important as it could be that not everyone is equally apt at judging that they "feel different" when they change language. In a recent study, researcher Katarzyna Ożańska-Ponikwia examined why some people report feeling different while others do not. She asked some 100 bilinguals made up of people who had grown up speaking two languages, immigrants who acquired their second language later on in life, as well as students who had stayed in a foreign country for an extended period of time, to give answers to two personality questionnaires and to give scale values to statements such as, "I feel I'm someone else while speaking English", or "Friends say that I'm a different person when I speak English".

What she found was that only people who are emotionally and socially skilled are able to notice feeling different. According to her, some people do not report changes in their behavior or in their perception or expression of emotions when changing language, not because they do not exist, but because they are unable to notice them. She speculates that it is people with above-average levels of social and emotional skills who can notice that they adapt aspects of their personality and behavior when using another language.

I personally look forward to reading more studies on this topic in the years to come. Not only will they allow me to update my own thinking on the subject but they may also help me understand my bilingual conduct in case I belong to the category of those who do not notice changes in their attitudes, feelings and behavior when changing language!

Reference

Katarzyna Ożańska-Ponikwia (2012). What has personality and emotional intelligence to do with 'feeling different' while using a foreign language? International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 15(2), 217-234.

 

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François Grosjean's website.

 

François Grosjean, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of psycholinguistics at the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland and the author of Bilingual: Life and Reality, among other books.

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