If Personality is “the sum total of all the behavioural and mental characteristics by means of which an individual is recognized as being unique”, then can bilinguals have two personalities, depending on the language that they’re speaking? Or are behavioural changes linked less to the second language and more to the antipodal context in which they find themselves? This is something that we have pondered on noticing a change in our own behaviour since arriving in Milan.
Articles on the topic seem to highlight the inevitable link between bilingualism and biculturalism, with many arguing that speaking a language other than one’s native tongue naturally carries distinguished cultural associations and idiosyncrasies, which can be adopted in the language learning process. In a video published by languageisculture.com, Luca Lampariello discusses the way in which speaking a different language makes him feel. Interestingly, he cites feeling more confident, expressive and “free” when speaking in English as opposed to his native tongue (Italian) and attributes this to his cultural and political associations with the said languages. Changes in the way in which a person expresses him or herself can also be identified as an imitation of native speakers’ intuitive mannerisms: Lampariello places great emphasis on the influence of interaction with local people on self-presentation.
A study conducted at the end of October by the US science magazine, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at people of different nationalities’ predisposition to physical contact with others in whom they place varying levels of confidence. Over 1000 people from France, Finland, Italy, Great Britain and Russia were questioned by the psychologists and neuroscientists carrying out the experiment, on the extent to which they personally feel at ease with their partner, close friends, parents, relatives and strangers. Findings, perhaps surprisingly, named Finnish participants as the most open, with Italians in fourth place and the Brits coming last in fifth (see chart below).
We subsequently wonder whether speaking Finnish might make us more open to physical contact?! (We’ll let you know.)
Another consideration regarding the impact on a person’s behaviour when speaking a certain language, is previous experiences and contextual associations. For example, if a person has spent significant time learning and speaking a certain language in a formal context, then they may naturally express themself in a more formal manner. This poses the question whether personality changes are purely a reaction to situations and not in fact related to language?
It seems that simply speaking another language is not enough to alter someone’s personality. Mark Liberman argues, “only bicultural individuals were found to change their personality when changing languages (where “bicultural” means not identifying strongly with the dominant culture of either language)”. A person therefore may need a certain level of cultural understanding in order to adopt a different personality that is unequivocally linguistically linked. Perhaps this could explain why several universities across the UK award their language degrees from departments of language, culture and societies – insisting on an education that is not only linguistic, but also draws upon wider cultural and social contexts.
According to academics at the US National Library of Medicine, “language use activates corresponding cultural mindsets, which in turn influence social perception, thinking, and behaviour”. Personalities therefore change only with bi-cultural individuals, who are able to switch from one mental frame to another, in line with language. Yet, in this way, a certain level of fluency is assumed. On the other hand, a person’s linguistic doubts and insecurities may cause him or her to behave differently. For example, if a person lacks the linguistic capacity to tell jokes in the other language (as in their mother tongue), their personality may be received in another way by those around them. Such a behavioural shift is often mistaken for a change in personality, but is in fact simply an instinctive reaction to the situation in question.
Merely learning a new language does not mean that a person automatically acquires a new personality just by speaking said language. Even native English speakers from the UK living in other English speaking countries such as USA or Australia could expect to notice a behavioural change sparked by a need to acclimatise and adapt to new situation, culture, people and humour – wildly different spheres despite officially speaking the same language. This subsequently leads us to infer that personality and language perhaps aren’t as linked as we might have thought?
Proverbs from all over the world romanticise the idea that learning a new language is synonymous with acquiring a new persona (see below). We thought that the Chinese proverb gives the most accurate portrayal of language learning, but only when done so in tandem with gaining a more profound cultural knowledge. After all, honing cultural awareness through language learning and changing one’s perspectives on life, inevitably leads to changes in behaviour – an intrinsic part of a person’s personality.
Learn a new language and get a new soul.
One who speaks only one language is one person, but one who speaks two languages is two people.
A new language is a new life.
To learn a language is to have one more window from which to look at the world.
Article by: Amy Flynn e Sophie Miller-Molloy
 Collins Online Dictionary definition