Our personalities change based on the language we speak.
Those interested in language and psychology are probably familiar with this phenomenon, but it’s often misunderstood to mean we become a completely different person.
Can I really be an outgoing hyper-social extrovert in English, but a timid home-dwelling introvert in Japanese? My personal experience tells me not really. It’s not so much that the essence of our being changes, but more like a spotlight is cast on us from a different angle.
To better explain what personality changes are brought on by language, let me take you through my personal experience. I speak two languages with native fluency (English and French) and one proficiently (Japanese). The way each one colors my personality is complicated, as those influences change not just based on ability, but also on where, when and how I learned the language.
In order to shine a beacon through all of this inner psychological murk, I’ve broken down the different types of influence into three categories: expressive, formative, and cultural. They aren’t quite as neat as I’d like them to be, but when it comes to the human mind, nothing really is.
1. I know, therefore I am
The first influence is the easiest and can be felt by anyone picking up a new language: Your linguistic ability has a tremendous effect on your personality. This is what I call the expressive influence. You can’t be subtle, funny or sophisticated unless you have the linguistic tools to express those personality traits.
This is one of the most frustrating parts of living in a country that speaks a language different from your native one. I learned the hard way in Japan—while no amount of vocabulary would transform me into a charismatic powerhouse, speaking a language I’m still learning as an adult makes me feel particularly dull and dumb.
While that feeling itself isn’t a personality trait, its psychological repercussions can be.
Because I feel unwise, I don’t speak up as much. I don’t have witty remarks or well-reasoned advice to provide in difficult situations. In a business setting, I don’t feel comfortable leading or even facilitating discussions. I become terrified of presentations and rigid when speaking in public.
My Japanese colleagues who only speak one language may not understand. They may think I’m timid or incapable of speaking in public when actually, in English, I can hold the stage. They may think I’m serious and wholesome when in fact I revel in dark and dirty humor. They may see me as a man of few words when I’m sure that you, dear reader of my English content, can testify to the contrary.
The way to close this personality gap between native and non-native language is simply by getting better. As Pablo Picasso allegedly said:
“Learn the rules like a professional so you can break them like an artist.”
Yet even the most prolific artist will always be limited by the tools of their craft. That’s why complete mastery of a second or third language won’t mean you’ll express yourself in exactly the same way. There will always be differences.
2. I speak, therefore I am
I consider myself native-fluent in both English and French. In theory, I have the grammar and vocabulary to say the exact same thing in either language.
But I don’t, and a big part of the reason is that I learned the languages very differently. This is what I refer to as the formative influence.
I learned English first as a child, then stopped speaking it on a daily basis between ages 10 and 21. My conversation partners went straight from pre-teens to grad students. In between, during some of my most important developmental years, I improved my English through TV series (thank you West Wing), stand up comedy and online games.
French was the opposite. I spoke it on a daily basis for over a decade with other teenagers and young adults, then again for three years at the beginning of my career, and that was it. Nowadays, I only use it in writing. There was much more entertainment available in English, so during that time I didn’t watch much TV in French. I would always read books in their original language, and since I’m a huge sci-fi fan and the English-language repertoire is far broader, I’ve read a lot more in English.
Humans are creatures of imitation. We see what others are doing around us, pick up traits we value and adopt them ourselves. Since those traits are expressed through language, even if we aim to build a similar personality, the catalogue from which we choose differs.
For example, in both languages, I want to be funny (I promise, someday I’ll prove it to you in my writing). In English, I like the dry, dark, witty humor I learned from comedians. In French, I like what they call “second-degree” sarcastic humor, which I picked up from other sassy teens.
Since my source material in English was largely scripted, I sound more polished, but also more generic. In French, my speech has more texture. As a result, I’m relatable but sloppy in French, and elaborate but distant in English. No wonder I would fail all my French writing assignments in high school, but get praised and encouraged to write more in English.
Also, learning French as a socially-awkward teenager means I’m a bit more awkward when speaking it. Even now as a supposed well-rounded adult, it’s easier for me to approach someone new and start up a conversation in English. Although to be fair, at my core, I don’t like doing it in either language.
Keep in mind that these are mostly minor nuances. Moving abroad won’t change you from a logic-loving emotionally distant grinch to a highly sensitive empathetic social butterfly. But these formative influences are there, deep down, and take lots of work on the self to change. It’s hard enough having to grow up in one language, let alone several.
3. They are, therefore I am
The final and most complex way in which language influences personality is through culture; the cultural influence. This is because what constitutes good communication is a cultural construct that changes from one region to the next.
When I was in the US, I was taught to be direct, concise, and positive. My teachers told me I was born unique. We’re all special, we’re all individuals.
If I disliked or disagreed with something, rather than criticize, I was expected to look for positives and embrace the uniqueness of others. When debating someone, personal experience was just as—if not more—important than research and facts. That culture of exceptionalism influenced me and my expectations of myself. It gave me a sense of entitlement, of grandeur, enveloped in a cloud of positivity that any other culture would deride as naiveté.
And indeed naive I was.
Moving to Switzerland was the cultural equivalent of a cold shower. My confidence and sense of self-worth were disparaged; seen as narcissism and self-aggrandizement. I was taught that to be special, I had to first do special things. Uniqueness was earned, not given.
On top of that, the heart-warming aura of positivity had been swapped for a damp cold blanket of cynicism. When debating someone, you won by tearing down the other person’s arguments using hard facts. Getting ahead required either great talent, hard work, or—most frequently—the right connections.
The consequence is that a lot of people, myself included, embraced the attitude so often associated with the French, which is basically: Love and be interested in the things you’re good at, and teach yourself not to care about anything else.
Since we learn to communicate by imitating and adapting to our peers, language affects my personality when it comes to optimism, openness to debate, confidence and even self-esteem. When talking to Americans, I express myself more positively and encouragingly, always looking for a good side. I shy away from debates because the American style of who-you-are-over-what-you-say doesn’t suit me. In brainstorming sessions though, I’m more confident to speak up and give opinions when everyone around me is American.
Ask my American friends and colleagues and they may actually disagree on the positivity aspect. They’ll probably say I’m a rather pragmatic, critical and somewhat negative person. That’s because all of these personality traits evolve on a spectrum, and while I move toward the American side when speaking with Americans, I don’t actually shift far enough to be mistaken for an American.
In other words, Americans may think I’m somewhat on the cold side, but they have yet to see me at peak blasé.
Since my formative teenage years were in Switzerland, I fit into that culture much more easily. I can effortlessly be myself in French; express myself more naturally without fear of being misinterpreted. I can wield cynicism with the grace of an Olympic gymnast. I don’t feel compelled to be positive, but I know I can be when the situation calls for it.
And I really enjoy a lively debate. That is, if I can get other French speakers to even care in the first place.
I am who I am
While these three influences are all similar phenomena, they take hold in different ways.
With the expressive influence, the better you speak a language, the more you can communicate in a way that’s truly your own, therefore the less the language barrier limits your personality.
The formative influence is much more static. Things that happen when you’re younger affect you more than things that happen when you’re older. That’s just how the brain works.
The cultural influence evolves in the opposite direction of the expressive influence. The more time we spend within a culture, the more that culture will taint our personality—not just when interacting with people from that culture, but all around! New cultures add layers to our selves, and when those layers are in contradiction with the norms of our “native culture”, we have the opportunity to shed off parts of our personality and grow into someone new.
As I write these lines, I’m living in Japan and speak Japanese on a daily basis. Part of what I’ve learned in my five years here has also changed how I interact with people in English and in French. My personality and the way others perceive me is still different from one language to the next, but I’ve come to see that as a huge upside. Breathing in different cultures has inspired me and allowed me to grow as a person; gotten me to question my values and preconceptions.
Some people believe that because my personality changes, I don’t have a true self. They think I lack authenticity, or play different roles.
Everybody’s personality is expressed differently in different situations. Nobody can act the same all the time regardless of circumstance, nor would it be appropriate to do so. Think of how you would change clothing depending on your environment: Just because when in Siberia you swap your usual headwear for a big furry hat doesn’t mean you become a different person.
The same goes for language. My true self is still here, just a bit harder to see underneath all the layers. We can always get along, but if you really want to get to know me, you and I need to speak the same languages.