People who are bilingual have been a source of fascination for years, with various studies revealing that they are more accepting, tolerant and open-minded than others. The far-reaching impact of multilingualism does not end there, however, with recent research suggesting that the behaviour and outlook of bilinguals also changes according to the language that they use at any given time.
Between 2001 and 2003, linguists Jean-Marc Dawaele and Aneta Pavlenko surveyed more than one thousand bilinguals on the subject of whether they feel like a different person when they speak different languages. Incredibly, nearly two-thirds confirmed that they did, while the majority of respondents also emphasise different personality traits and express alternative emotions depending on their choice of language.
While there is plenty of research to support these findings, how do these personality changes manifest themselves? In one of the more recent essays published on the subject, New Republic editor Noam Scheiber revealed that he stopped speaking only in Hebrew to his three-year older due to the impact that it had on his persona. Scheiber claimed that his personality became far colder and less articulate when speaking in Hebrew, while communicating in English brought out his natural sensibility, patience and a greater level of empathy.
In a further study completed back in 1964, psychologist Susan Ervin set out to explore the different ways through which bilinguals shared the same story in different languages. Using 64 respondents who were fluent in both French and English, Ervin presented what is known as the Thematic Apperception Test to share a series of illustrations. Spanning two separate sessions that were hosted in French and English, respondents were asked to create a compelling story based on the images that they had seen.
Upon analysis, several topical differences came to the fore. The English narratives featured physical aggression and female accomplishment as central themes, for example, while those in French were more likely to include verbal aggression towards peers and guilt.
With English as a central theme in both of these examples, it is interesting to note the alternative perceptions that emerge depending on the speaker. While the use of English brought out traits such as patience and empathy in one instance, for example, it solicited physical and verbal aggression in another. One explanation for these variable outlooks could be the context in which each dialect was learned, with one multilingual claiming that she was friendlier and made friends more easily in her second language (which she learned at an older age and when her social skills were more advanced).
With this in mind, the context in which languages are learned solicits alternative emotions and changes our outlook, behaviour and levels of self-perception. Michael J. Koven’s body of research from also 1998 reaffirms this, with a group of French and Portuguese bilinguals emphasising different personality traits and behaviours depending on their choice of language. This suggests that the age at which languages are learned also have an impact, depending on the level of our cognitive development at the time when we become multilingual and fluent in alternative dialects.
On a final note, the cultural aspects that are deeply-rooted in language may also impact on the personalities of bilinguals. Our cultural identity has a huge bearing on how we learn and the values that we hold dear, but those who are bilingual are likely to have travelled and absorbed alternative cultures and lifestyles. This will directly change their outlook and challenge their existing values, potentially creating an altered personality that manifests itself in numerous different ways.
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