Do Multilinguals Have Multiple Personalities?

❝If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.❞

-Nelson Mandela

It has long been noted anecdotally that bilinguals exhibit different personalities depending on the language they are using. This is somewhat intuitive, as languages vary greatly in complexity and nuance. Some complex ideas, concepts and emotions simply cannot be accurately translated from one language to the next. Furthermore, the context in which one learns one's first language, generally varies greatly from that of one's second and subsequent tongues.

A recent article by Alice Cobb in the New Republic gives some credence to what has been claimed by immigrants and polyglots for years. Multilinguals actually do have multiple personalities. Cobb highlights multiple studies that sought to understand why people express certain personality traits in one language, but not another. Cobb first summarizes a recent study by noted linguists Jean-Marc Dewaele and Aneta Pavlenko. "Between 2001 and 2003, Dewaele and Pavlenko asked over a thousand bilinguals whether they 'feel like a different person' when they speak different languages. Nearly two-thirds said they did."

Multiplicity multiple personality Michael Keaton

Speakers of Latin based languages may be more expressive and demonstrative in their native language, than they are when using a colder, adopted language like German or English. Naturally, immigrants might be gregarious and outgoing in their first language, but more timid and soft-spoken when using their adopted tongue. Howver, it is tough to say whether this is due more to the actual constructs of the language, cultural factors, or the hesitancy that comes with speaking a second language, even after years of fluency.

Cobb also highlight two studies from the 1960s by linguist Susan Ervin-Tripp. The first, in 1964, studied French adults living in the United States, and the second, in 1968, focused on Japanese, women living in San Francisco. Participants in the first study were asked to invent stories about illustrations in French and then in English. In the second study, participants answered questions in English and in Japanese. In both cases, the English responses were more likely to feature undertones of personal freedom, individual liberty and rebelliousness, while the answers in French and Japanese were more likely to reflect a reverence of elders, themes of guilt, and obedience.

It is important to note that the volunteers in these studies were deemed truly fluent in both languages. Anyone beginning to learn a new language will experience some degree of personality shift when using that language, because their initial lexicon will be so limited. Subtle verbal humor, double entendre and complex sentences will be absent from the early language learner's skillset, and thus, their "new" personality will be affected accordingly.

We can posit with relative confidence that someone who is bilingual in disparate languages like Swahili and Russian would exhibit different personality traits when speaking each. Still, it's hard to prove with any degree of certainty that purely being multilingual is enough to cause someone to develop additional personalities or a changed worldview. Because it is impossible to control for factors such as the physical and emotional setting in which one learned a language, cultural factors, and personal anxieties, it is hard to show how much of a role the language itself plays in the personality changes exhibited by its speaker.

Beyond simple personality changes, the question of linguistic relativity, is fascinating in its own right. Linguists have long debated whether the structure of one's language affects one's worldview. In simplified terms, the experts can be separated into three camps, those who believe language does shape worldview, those who believe in a universality of language (most famously Noam Chomsky), and those who fall somewhere in between. Because of the aforementioned difficulties in scientific testing though, this debate will likely continue for years to come.

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