Language and Personality: Who Are You?

Who are you? This is a question that most of us think about throughout our lives. Our self-image and personality probably changes over the years as our interests, relationships, and life experiences show us new sides to ourselves. 

So, what’s the role of language in who we are? Does the language we speak affect our personality and the way we interact with others? What if we’re bilingual? Does our personality change depending upon which language we’re speaking? That’s what François Grosjean, Ph.D., a Professor Emeritus of psycholinguistics, explores in an article in Psychology Today.

In his 2011 article, Dr. Grosjean opines that, yes, our personalities do often change depending upon which language we’re speaking. However, the reason this happens doesn’t necessarily lie in the language itself. He points out that the change is likely a product of culture and context because bilingual people often use their languages for different purposes. For example, you may only use English at work, and only speak Spanish at home with your family. This is the key to Dr. Grosjean’s findings. He shares: “Different contexts and domains trigger different impressions, attitudes and behaviors. What is taken as a personality shift due to a change of language may have little, if anything, to do with language itself.”

It’s little surprise, then, that someone may display more business-like or assertive tendencies while using one language at work and a more relaxed personality when using a different language at home—or vice-versa. I also think that vocabulary plays a big role here. There are simply words in one language that do not completely translate into another language, and thus the feeling and emotion behind those words will always change slightly from one language to another. (Take, for example, the Japanese word “tsundoku”. This is the action of leaving new books piled up on a table or on a bookshelf, unread, waiting to be opened. What a lovely word!)

Dr. Grosjean updated his findings last year in another article for Psychology Today. He again found that environment was the primary reason for these personality changes. If you yourself are bilingual, I’d love to know if you experience these changes.

Photo courtesy of Atlas Language Services.

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