Your personality is unique to you. It’s the set of traits and characteristics that make you different from other people. It’s also what’s consistent about you from one situation to another. So it’s only reasonable to assume that your personality would stay the same no matter what language you speak. But that’s not what personality researchers have found.
Although there are many theories of personality, the most commonly used model in personality research nowadays is known as the Big Five, originally proposed by psychologists Robert McCrae and Paul Costa. As the name implies, the model describes personality in terms of five core traits, which can be remembered with the acronym OCEAN:
These five traits are considered universal, but different cultures place more or less value on each. For example, when researchers administered personality tests to Americans who spoke only English and Mexicans who spoke only Spanish, they found the Americans to be more conscientious, extraverted, and agreeable than the Mexicans on average. This finding suggests that people tend to shape their personalities to fit cultural norms or stereotypes.
These researchers then asked Spanish-English bilinguals living in Texas to take the personality test twice, once in each language. When the participants took the test in English, their scores were similar to those of American monolinguals. But when they took the test again in Spanish, their scores were more like those of the Mexican monolinguals.
In other words, the bilinguals’ personalities changed somewhat depending on the language they were tested in. The researchers explained these findings in terms of what they called cultural frame shifting. Bilinguals alternate the language they use depending on the context, in a process called code-switching. However, because of the intimate relationship between language and culture, you also need to shift your cultural framework whenever you switch your language.
Other researchers have found similar results, even with bilinguals who’d learned their second language as adults. In one study researchers administered personality tests to German-Spanish bilinguals. Regardless of which what their first language, they all tended to have different traits when tested in Spanish than when tested in German.
Both groups displayed more extraverted and neurotic personalities when they took the test in Spanish, and more agreeable personalities when they took the test in German. In other words, their personalities reflected cultural stereotypes, such as Spanish people being more outgoing and emotional or German people being more orderly and helpful. These findings support the idea that bilinguals shift their cultural frame as they switch their language.
Similar results were also found among Chinese-English bilinguals living in Hong Kong. As expected, these bilinguals reported personality traits closer to Chinese cultural norms when tested in Chinese and more like American norms when tested in English. Furthermore, the ethnicity of the interviewer as either Chinese or American also had an influence. That is, these bilinguals yielded personality scores tending towards the cultural norms of the person they were talking to, regardless of the language they were speaking in.
Language and culture are inextricably linked, and when a person speaks a particular language, the norms and stereotypes of that culture are brought to mind as well. Studies like these show us that our personalities aren’t as stable as we’d like to think. Rather, we modify our behavior—and even our thought processes—depending on the group we’re currently associated with. Thus, when bilinguals switch from one language to another, they shift their personalities as well.
P.S. For a somewhat different perspective on the issue of bilingualism and personality, see the posts here and here in the Psychology Today blog "Life as a Bilingual" by François Grosjean and Aneta Pavlenko.
P.P.S. On Wednesday, May 13, 2015, I spoke with Matthew Townsend of BYU Radio about the relationship between language and personality. You can listen to the interview here.
Chen, S., & Bond, M. (2010). Two languages, two personalities? Examining language effects on the expression of personality in a bilingual context. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 1514–1528.
McCrae, R. R., & Costa, P. T. (1990). Personality in adulthood. New York: Guilford Press.
Ramírez-Esparza, N., Gosling, S. D., Benet-Martínez, V., Potter, J. P., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2006). Do bilinguals have two personalities? A special case of cultural frame switching. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 99–120.
Veltkamp, G. M., Recio, G., Jacobs, A. M., & Conrad, M. (2012). Is personality modulated by language? International Journal of Bilingualism, 17, 496–504.
David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).