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The Multiple Personalities of Multilinguals

by Morgane Croissant Apr 20, 2015

WE ALREADY KNOW THAT bilingual kids grow up to be more accepting and tolerant adults, but the consequences of multilingualism does not end here. Research now confirms that the behaviour of those who speak several languages changes according to the language they use: “Between 2001 and 2003, linguists Jean-Marc Dewaele and Aneta Pavlenko asked over a thousand bilinguals whether they ‘feel like a different person’ when they speak different languages. Nearly two-thirds said they did”, explains New Republic.

As a multilingual myself, I have noticed the change. I’m a much nicer human being in English than I am in French: I am more patient, I swear less, I’m more understanding towards others, and I make friends a lot more easily using my second language. Some of my bilingual friends have had the same realization. Milena who immigrated to English-speaking Canada from German-speaking Switzerland at age 7, explains that her Swiss partner (who also uses English, but at a much more basic level) sees a completely different person when she speaks English. She elaborates and says how much easier it is for her to be emotional and say “I love you” in English than it is in Swiss German, even though it is the language she speaks with her family and partner.

In New Republic’s “Multilinguals have multiple personalities“, Alice Robb explains the research that has been done in this area.

Already in 1964, Susan Ervin, a sociolinguist at the University of California, Berkeley, tried to examine the differences in how bilinguals explain the same story using different languages on two different occasions. The experiment was carried out by showing bilingual subjects pictures and by asking them to create a story around it, in French at one session, in English at the other. The results of the Thematic Apperception Test revealed significant differences. The content of the story would change with the language used.

Other similar studies have led to equal results. More recently, in 1998, Michèle J. Koven, an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, asked French-Portuguese bilinguals to recall personal experiences and life events in both languages. She focused on how the participants described themselves within their own recounts and noticed that they emphasized different personality traits, depending on which language they were speaking.

What could lead multilinguals to display different personalities according to the language they use? The context in which the learning of the language took place could have an impact on our identity when using that language, but the cultural aspects deeply-rooted in languages could also be of importance. Have you noticed a change in your behaviour depending on the language you use? What do you think has influenced these differences?

H/T: New Republic

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