Learn Another Language, Gain Another Soul?

Language has a profound impact on our daily lives. But can it affect our personality?

Research findings in this field indicate that bilinguals act differently when they speak one language versus when they speak another language. One bilingual in a Psychology Today post on language and personality noted that, “In English, my speech is very polite, with a relaxed tone, always saying “please” and “excuse me.” When I speak Greek, I start talking more rapidly, with a tone of anxiety and in a kind of rude way…”

The most plausible explanation for such behavioral changes is that people learn to associate certain memories, cultural norms, or mental states with different languages. In one post in his series called Life As a Bilingual, François Grosjean explains that bilinguals use different languages for different situations, or domains of life. This idea that different languages encode different world views is called Whorfianism, which you can learn more about in this article from The Economist. An individual’s world view refers to the beliefs and ideas that orient a person, social group, or culture in the way they interpret and interact with the world.

For example, I use English at school and work, but I speak Korean at home with my family. So, I associate English with professional settings and behave more politely when I speak English, but I associate Korean with personal experiences and my childhood and behave more impulsively when I speak it.

Not all English-speaking bilinguals become more “polite” when they talk in English. People can learn the same language in different contexts, so people who speak the same language may associate different memories with that language and get primed to act differently. However, bilingualism does not always translate to being bicultural or multicultural. This means that people who speak two languages but are monocultural do not report feeling a shift in personality like bicultural bilinguals do. An individual may be monocultural but multilingual if they learned a language other than their household language but was not immersed in the culture of the new language. For example, I may learn how to speak Spanish through several college courses but not be included within the culture of the Spanish-speaking world.

Another theory of language and personality claims that the structure of the language itself influences personality in different ways. This theory is highly contested but compelling. For example, in a Verb-Subject-Object (VSO) language the action comes before the subject in a sentence so most of the information is already imparted before the speaker finishes the sentence. The theory supposes that this allows speakers of VSO languages like Greek to be more likely to interrupt another speaker. English sentences have the verb after the subject, so English speakers tend not to interrupt as much during a conversation, as the majority of the information in a sentence is imparted to the listener near the end of the sentence. There currently is no conclusive evidence that these structural differences in language have a significant impact on our personalities.

Language has always been a point of interest for me. I am a 1.5 generation immigrant – my parents immigrated to the US when I was four and my brother six. Because I was exposed to English at a younger age than the rest of my family I picked up the new language the fastest, and I often acted as a mediator between my parents who still occasionally fumble their English, and my brother who forgot most of his Korean and relearned it in his later years.

Although I am now more proficient in my second language than my first, there are some aspects of English that I still don’t quite “get” like a native speaker. Conversational English and English slang, for instance, have eluded my complete mastery, and I often take twice as long to respond to questions in English than native speakers as I must repeat the words in my mind to process them. On the other hand, I grew up hearing household Korean slang from my parents and I can process Korean sentences faster, as long as they don’t contain words I don’t know.

I think it is true that language (or the memories and circumstances associated with a language) can affect personality. When I use Korean, I am loud and childish, with a bit of a potty mouth and the vocabulary of an elementary school kid, while in English, I am more hesitant, refined, processed, and vague. I also have a larger vocabulary but seemingly less spunk. However, the effect of a language on an individual’s personality varies for each person depending on their personal experiences with that language, so we should beware of stereotyping languages and their speakers.

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