"Bilinguals, Two different personalities?"

"Bilinguals, Two different personalities?"


Bilingualism is a great fascination. You’re speaking and thinking in different languages; even if they are related it’s like being someone else, like donning a new personality every time you switch languages!

Almost every bilingual has noted that they speak differently and even behave differently when speaking different languages, and even scientists have observed the phenomena: The famous Professor Susan Ervin-Tripp once performed an experiment involving Japanese-American bilinguals to complete sentences in both Japanese and English.

The results were interesting: When they finished the sentences in Japanese they were much more subdued and family-oriented, while in English they were more independent. For example, the sentence beginning ‘When my wishes conflict with my family . . .’ was finished by one study participant with ‘. . . it is a time of great unhappiness,’ in Japanese, but with ‘. . . I do what I want’ in English!

Decades later, Professor David Luna and colleagues at Baruch College performed a study involving Hispanic-American bilinguals. He asked the participants to interpret advertisements picturing women. First, he asked their interpretations in Spanish, then, six months later, in English. In Spanish the bilinguals described the women in the ads as self-sufficient or extroverted. In English, however, they used much more traditional and family-oriented language to describe the same images.

Bilingual- Bicultural

People who are bicultural and speak two languages may actually shift their personalities when they switch from one language to another. Language can be a cue that activates different culture-specific frames.

Researchers studied groups of Hispanic women, all of whom were bilingual, but with varying degrees of cultural identification. They found significant levels of “frame-shifting” (changes in self perception) in bicultural participants—those who participate in both Latino and Anglo culture. While frame-shifting has been studied before, the new research found that biculturals switched frames more quickly and easily than bilingual monoculturals.

The researchers found that the women classified themselves as more assertive when they spoke Spanish than when they spoke English. They also had significantly different perceptions of women in ads when the ads were in Spanish versus English. In the Spanish-language sessions, informants perceived females as more self-sufficient and extroverted.

In one of the studies, a group of bilingual U.S. Hispanic women viewed ads that featured women in different scenarios. The participants saw the ads in one language (English or Spanish) and then, six months later, they viewed the same ads in the other language. Their perceptions of themselves and the women in the ads shifted depending on the language. One respondent, for example, saw an ad’s main character as a risk-taking, independent woman in the Spanish version of the ad, but as a hopeless, lonely, confused woman in the English version.

The shift in perception seems to happen unconsciously, and may have broad implications for consumer behavior and political choices among biculturals.

 Florence, fluent in both Dutch and French, has come across an interesting phenomenon in her bilingual personality which she briefly talks about.

Recently, I began asking myself to what extent we change when we speak a different language. Does our perception of reality change? Our emotions?  Our attitudes? You may wonder why this question bothers me so much. The answer is that I, myself, have the impression that when I am telling a story, or describing a situation, I recount it slightly differently depending on the language I am speaking.

I am bilingual and bicultural. My parents are French, but we moved to Rotterdam when I was three years old, and I was brought up there. I learned Dutch in kindergarten, while playing with other kids, and then at school. At home we always spoke French, but I considered Dutch my fist language during my school years and studies. I moved back to France a few years ago and have been living there so far.

I get the impression that my personality slightly alters when I switch from speaking Dutch to French (and vice versa). For example, when I am talking about the same subject with my Dutch friends via Skype, and then recount the story to my French friends; I feel that I present the story in a different light. In Dutch, I am more tolerant, open and sympathetic, while in French, I am more calculative. It doesn’t sound like a big problem, but it is a strange feeling, when you cannot express exactly what you actually think of something or someone, because it changes depending on the language you speak.

I started to read about this phenomenon and it seems that I am not the only one with this linguistic split personality. For example, Alexia Panayiotou, a psychologist and economist from the University of Cyprus, did a study on English-Greek bilingual children. She read them the same story in both languages and asked them to comment on this story. The differences in their reactions were significant: In Greek they were more sympathetic and cared for the hero, while in English they were rather indifferent. In another study, Chinese-English bilinguals were asked to describe themselves in each respective language and surprisingly their self-esteem and self-description differed depending on the language they were using. In English they reported higher self-esteem and described themselves in more individualistic terms, while in Chinese they perceived themselves mainly as members of groups they belonged to.

Such findings make me realize that language is immersed in culture, we learn languages in particular contexts, and that these contexts influence our perception of reality and our way of expression. And that translating from one language to another requires much more than linguistic fluency!


Other testimonies

  • This is so true! I have Danish parents, grown up in France, and now living in Holland for the past 9 years. I am a different person in each language, adapting myself to the culture of the people who speak it. I have always wondered how the language could affect the message so much. It also affects my tone of voice and my emotions.


  • As a bilingual Japanese and English speaker, I find myself less likely to accept praise when speaking in Japanese than when speaking English. Furthermore, a colleague once told me that even if he can’t hear me, he can tell which language I am using from 15 meters away, by looking at my posture, gestures and general body language.  


  • I grew up speaking French and Czech (I come from a mixed marriage) and realized over the years that I tend to be more cynical, detached and also quieter when I tell a story in Czech, tuning it down, whereas I’ll say the same story louder, more colorfully and enthusiastically in French.


  • It is impossible to become really fluent in the language without absorbing some of the culture, which includes facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures, etc. I grew up in a bilingual household, American-Spanish. In Spain when you are discussing something in a group you will not be taken seriously unless you raise your voice, talk over your opponents and show a lot of strong emotions which signals passion and people respect that. But in the States if you argue in the same way you would be dismissed as someone who cannot control himself.


  • I speak English and Spanish fluently. But get this…. when I talk to girls in Spanish I just seem more at ease and natural. I do a lot better in this frame of mind. I notice in English everything gets taken too literally. Spanish is a whole lot more playful and gregarious a language. The people also respond well to its flirtatious nature. And awkward moments are very rare, unlike English. That’s an amusing observation. Lots of people seem to find languages like Spanish, or Italian, or French particularly flirtatious or friendly. I can’t remember anyone saying this about, for instance, German.