Change of Language, Change of Personality? Uncovered Data
Undoing the causal link between language and personality in bilinguals.
Posted Jan 06, 2020
Back in 2011, and again in 2012, I asked whether bilinguals who speak two (or more) languages change their personalities when they change language. In the first post, I gave testimonies from bilinguals such as this one: "I find when I’m speaking Russian I feel like a much more gentle, 'softer' person. In English, I feel more 'harsh,' 'businesslike.'" I reviewed two studies and proposed that what is felt 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. I concluded that there is no direct causal relationship between language and personality.
In the second post, I reviewed the many comments I had received from readers who agreed with the fact that different contexts, domains of life, and interlocutors—which in turn can induce different languages—trigger different impressions, attitudes, and behaviors, whether one is monolingual or bilingual. As bilinguals, we adapt to the situation or the person we are talking to and change our language when we need to, without actually changing our personality.
Eight years later, these two posts, out of a total of 149 posts, have received the most views on my blog, showing thereby the interest readers have in this issue. I have noted over the years how Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele of Birkbeck College (University of London), among others, has attempted to explain why bi- and multilinguals feel different when switching languages (see here for an example). I have also noticed that many researchers are now preferring to couch the issue in terms of cultural frame switching or cultural accommodation along the lines of what is proposed above.
In the personality literature, I have looked for studies within just one language that show that personality ratings can be modulated depending on the situation/context the participant is put into. If that is the case, and if the modification is greater than that found when there is a change of language, then the question would be largely resolved—at the personality level at least.
It is only recently, and by accident, that I have come across two studies that show experimentally that we do indeed modulate our personality traits depending on where we are and who we are with. Let me describe one of them. Oliver Robinson from the University of Greenwich in England used an adapted version of the Ten-Item Personality Inventory (TIPI) which is a measure of the five-factor model of personality also known as the Big Five Inventory. These concern the following dimensions: Extraversion, Agreeableness, Openness, Emotional Stability, and Conscientiousness.
His participants were given pairs of items such as "extraverted, enthusiastic"; "dependable, self-disciplined"; and "sympathetic, warm," and they had to judge how strongly they felt these applied to them in three different situations: with their parents, with their friends, and with their work colleagues. To do so, they had to write a number down from a scale of 1 (disagree strongly) to 7 (agree strongly).
Oliver Robinson regrouped the results under the five personality dimensions tested and showed that the ratings were strongly influenced by context. Thus, the mean rating for Extraversion was 4.72 with work colleagues, 5.18 with parents, all the way up to 5.78 with friends. For Agreeableness, the corresponding mean ratings were 4.88, 4.54, and 5.17 respectively. The other three traits showed similar variation. The author concluded that the majority of people adapt or modulate their personality to "fit in" to social situations they are put into.
It is now worth comparing Oliver Robinson's results with those obtained in personality studies that asked bilinguals to give ratings in their different languages. For example, Sylvia Chen and Michael Bond of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University used the Big Five Inventory to measure the perceived personality of their participants. The rating scales they used ranged from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). In their first study, they asked half their Chinese-English bilinguals to assess their own personality traits in English only and the other half of the bilinguals to do so in Chinese.
If a change in language induces a real change in personality, then the results due to language should be very different. In fact, the ratings in Chinese and in English were very similar. Over the five personality traits, the mean of the absolute differences between the ratings in Chinese and those in English was a mere 0.124! In Robinson's monolingual study, on the other hand, once the 1 to 7 scale had been adjusted to a 1 to 5 scale, the mean difference was practically four times larger (0.45)!
What happens if the same bilinguals give ratings in one language and then, sometime later, in another? This is exactly what Nairán Ramírez-Esparza and her coauthors looked at in a study using English-Spanish bilinguals. The absolute differences between the ratings in the one and in the other language were again extremely low (mean of 0.116), and very similar to those in the Sylvia Chen and Michael Bond study.
Thus, as I stated in the very first post on the topic, it is the environment, the culture, and the interlocutors that cause bilinguals to adapt their attitudes, feelings, and behaviors (along with language)—and not their languages as such. The Swiss German-French-English trilingual I cited in my first post on the topic expresses this perfectly: "When talking English, French, or German to my sister, my personality does not change. However, depending on where we are, both our behaviors may adapt to certain situations we find ourselves in."
Chen, Sylvia Xiaohua, and Bond, Michael Harris (2010). Two languages, two personalities? Examining language effects on the expression of personality in a bilingual context. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36 (11), 1514-1528.
Robinson, Oliver C. (2009). On the social malleability of traits: Variability and consistency in Big 5 trait expression across three interpersonal contexts. Journal of Individual Differences, 2009, 30(4), 201–208.
Ramírez-Esparza, Nairán, Gosling, Samuel D., Benet-Martínez, Verónica, Potter, Jeffrey P., and Pennebaker, James W. (2006). Do bilinguals have two personalities? A special case of cultural frame switching. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 99–120.