In the book Me Talk Pretty One Day, humorist David Sedaris recounts learning to speak French as an adult under a vicious instructor. Fumbling in his attempts to master the new tongue, he feels powerless and vulnerable—almost like a different person entirely.
Anyone who’s taken on the challenge of learning a new language can probably relate. But it’s more than just a feeling: Research suggests our personalities really can shift depending on the language we speak.
Margarita, a Russian-American immigrant, came to the US at age 19 to escape anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union. Today, her experiences with both cultures seem to have colored the way she feels when she speaks each language.
When she speaks Russian, she says, she feels “guarded, reserved, uncomfortable.” But when she speaks English, she describes herself as “curious,” “outgoing,” and “free.”
Similarly, Tony, who grew up speaking English and Spanish and went on to learn French, says that when he speaks French he feels “sophisticated, elegant, suave.” His opinion of French people and culture? “Smart, elegant, admirable.”
Indeed, research suggests that our perceptions of the culture associated with a given language can impact our behavior. A 2006 study (pdf) lead by Nairan Ramírez-Esparza, an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Connecticut, and her colleagues, asked bilingual Mexican Americans to take a personality test in both English and Spanish. The test measures the “Big Five” personality traits: extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism.
The study found that subjects scored higher in extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness when they took the English version of the test. The authors speculate that this may reflect the fact that individualistic cultures (like that of the US) place a high premium on assertiveness, achievement and superficial friendliness, whereas it’s less important to sing one’s own praises in collectivistic cultures (like that of Mexico).
As a follow-up, in a not yet published paper, Ramírez-Esparza and colleagues asked subjects to write a 15-minute description of their personalities. They found that, while writing in Spanish, the Mexican-American subjects talked about themselves in relation to their families, relationships and hobbies. In English, they spoke of their achievements, college, and daily activities. Ramírez-Esparza ascribes the changes in personality and the differing focus on values to the way that language “primes” behavior.
“The language cannot be separated from the cultural values of that language,” she says. “You see yourself through the cultural values of the language you are speaking.” It makes sense that this effect is felt particularly strongly by people who are bicultural, as well as bilingual, because they have a strong grounding in multiple cultures.
It’s also possible that our perceptions of our own personalities change because we notice how people react to us when we speak different languages. After all, identity is “your sense of self, but also how you feel others are perceiving you and how that impacts on how you can project who you are,” says Carolyn McKinney, a professor of language and literacy studies at the University of Cape Town. And so you might see yourself as a confident, poised professional when speaking your native English in front of a crowd and watching the audience hang on your every word—and then feel like a blundering goofball when conducting a meeting in beginner German.
“The minute you speak to someone you’re engaging in an identity negotiation,” says Bonny Norton, a professor of language and literacy education at British Columbia University. “‘Who are you? Where are you? How do I relate to you? How do you see me?’ So when someone says their personality changes, what they’re saying is: ‘When I talk to other people my personality changes.'”
It may also be that the context in which you learn a second language is essential to your sense of self in that tongue. In other words, if you’re learning to speak Mandarin while living in China, the firsthand observations you make about the people and culture during that period will be built into your sense of identity as a Mandarin speaker. If you’re learning Mandarin in a classroom in the US, you’ll likely incorporate your instructor’s beliefs and associations with Chinese culture along with your own—even if those beliefs are based on stereotypes.
And if you learn a language without any kind of context, it may not impact your personality much at all. “It is arguable,” Jill Hadfield, a professor of language studies at Unitec Institute of Technology in New Zealand, writes in an email, “that if all you use a language for is to translate or fill blanks in decontextualized sentences such as ‘The pen of my aunt is on the table,’ you will not develop a [second-language] identity.”
For people learning a language associated with a culture they admire, that’s all the more reason to immerse yourself in it—whether that means taking a trip abroad, watching movies in your chosen tongue, finding a native speaker who can help you learn about their country’s traditions, or all of the above. When you learn a new language, you’re not just memorizing vocabulary and grammar rules—you also have a chance to tap into new parts of your identity.