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Why do we feel like ‘a different person’ when switching to another language?

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There is no doubt that nowadays bilingualism can be encountered more than ever thanks to our globalized society and increased mobility. While a lot of us may think that being bilingual means that someone speaks 2 languages simultaneously from a very young age, that’s not necessarily true.

There are different types of bilinguals based on various factors such as age or relationship between the fluency of the languages spoken, which is why it’s possible to become bilingual or multilingual later in life.

One of the most fascinating aspects of bilingualism is that people often claim that they feel like ‘a different person’ when they switch to another language. Some assume that they might be more open, bold or expressive and even their actions are subject to altering.

But can speaking a foreign language really change our personality?

To answer this question, Novakid online English school has investigated various phenomenons of bilingualism and some curious investigations on the topic.

Frame-shifting: your self esteem will celebrate your Spanish skills

The phenomenon of switching personalities based on a language is called frame-shifting and it was analyzed by professors David Luna, Torsten Ringberg and Laura A. Peracchio. 

They talk about the difference between bilinguals and biculturals, the latter being described as “individuals who have internalized two cultures and who speak the languages associated with each of those cultures.” 

According to the researchers, a change of a language might trigger the frame-shifting and to prove the hypothesis they studied a group composed of English-Spanish females. 

Participants had to view advertisements in both languages featuring female characters and describe them. Interestingly, the perception of a woman in general varied based on the language of the advertisement. 

For example, one participant’s English-language description of the female standing on the hilltop was as “insecure, worrying, hopeless” but the same advertisement in Spanish made an impression of a woman being “a risk taker, expressive and independent.”

Also, women who identified with both cultures changed their personality more than those who only spoke those languages. They admitted to feeling more assertive and independent when speaking Spanish rather than English. 

Cultural accommodation: win in English, cooperate in Dutch

When you study the culture of the target language, you assimilate attitudes, codes of conduct and values particular to that community. 

So, when you communicate with native speakers, it’s highly likely that you want to respond in a manner that favors the needs of your interlocutors. 

Here comes the concept of cultural accommodation which is very much close to frame-shifting. Studies show that when bilinguals are asked questions in another language, their answers usually reflect values of the language in question.

One example included testing how Dutch students can show different behavior when performing a task in English. Dutch culture is cooperation-based while Anglo-American culture is more competition-based. 

The experiment illustrated that the Dutch students who had exposure to Anglophone context before were more competitive and less cooperative in a game conducted in English rather than in Dutch. 

Categorization behavior: does the grammar matter?

Language can also influence the way you interpret the world around you and what linguistic expression you may use to describe an event. This assumption was proved in the study “Two languages, two minds”

According to the linguist Athanasopoulos, Germans tend to describe the goal, the endpoint of an event because their language usually looks at the event as a whole. 

At the same time, English native speakers normally will focus only on the action itself without paying attention to the goal because English grammar requires the use of the verb in the ongoing phase (e.g. -ing form). 

Thus, when watching a video with a woman walking towards a car, a German speaker would say “A woman is walking towards a car”, but an English speaker would reply “A woman is walking” without mentioning an endpoint.

During the experiment, the English and German bilinguals had to watch videos and describe the goal-oriented motion events. When they were asked to reply in English, their answers were similar to that of native English speakers and vice versa. So, here we can see that change of a language influences how we categorize things and events.

Language effect: learn Chinese to save money

Some scientists assume that the grammar of the language might change even our daily habits. The economist Keith Chen from the University of Los-Angeles published several articles discussing whether grammar might have an impact on how we spend money, our relationship with health and other spheres of our life. 

For example, Mandarin doesn’t have a future tense, using a present form for its expression. In this way a Chinese speaker feels that their future is closer to their present. 

That’s why Chinese are 30% more likely to save money than their linguistic counterparts with more marked future tenses!

Apart from the particularities related to bilingual or multilingual personality-shifting, such a change provokes some numerous benefits. It’s scientifically proven that bilinguals have more dense gray matter in their brain and tend to think more analytically. Being fluent in another language and constantly exposing yourself to the other culture may boost your self-confidence and contribute to greater openness. 

In 2017 Thomas Wederus interviewed a group of Swedish immigrants living in Dublin, Ireland and found out that for the majority of them it became much easier to express their emotions and be more extroverted in English rather than in Swedish. 

One participant described her experience of speaking English in the following way: 

“You know, that person that I was in English was maybe a little more daring, more outgoing. It was fun to get to be this lovely happy person, separate from this other person who was very contemplating and had more control. Now these two have sort of married, but they hadn’t back then.”

Learn foreign languages and ‘marry’ your personalities! 

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  1. Diana

    This is quite correct, I have been speaking three languages growing up, and now I am learning the fourth. I have noticed that that in each language I tend to express myself differently.

    • Novakid

      Hi Diana
      Thank you for your comment. Amazing! What languages do you speak?

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