Psychology of language: Do bilinguals have two personalities?

Do you speak more than one language? And have you ever noticed feeling different when you switch to the other language? Then you are not alone. Many multilinguals have reported this. Could it be that when a person speaks two or more languages, they feel as a different person when they switch language?

When I’m speaking Russian I feel like a much more gentle, ‘softer’ person. In English, I feel more harsh, businesslike.

Quote via François Grosjean

In a study by sociolinguist Susan Ervin-Tripp Japanese-American women were asked to complete sentences, which were presented in both Japanese and English. Depending on the language, the endings differed a lot. For instance the sentence beginning, “When my wishes conflict with my family . . .” one participant’s Japanese ending was, “. . . it is a time of great unhappiness,” while the English ending was, “. . . I do what I want.”

In English, my speech is very polite, always saying ‘please’ and ‘excuse me.’ When I speak Greek, I talk more rapidly and in a kind of rude way.

Quote via François Grosjean

There are several explanations for ‘feeling different’ while speaking a different language.

• Difference in proficiency

Most bilinguals have one language in which they are more proficient than the other. Due to this a person is more able to express their feelings, to tell jokes or understand sarcasm.

• Difference in culture

When we look at people who have the same proficiency in both languages, we see that there can still be a difference in culture associated with the languages. For example, let’s look at a Puerto Rican in New York who is bilingual and bicultural. This person may link feelings of home and family to Spanish while linking feelings of work or school to English.

• Difference in language: grammar and syntax

Languages differ a lot in how they are used. Let’s look at the Greek language for example.
Greek economist Athanasia Chalari says:

Greeks are very loud and they interrupt each other often. The reason for that is the Greek grammar and syntax. When Greeks talk they begin their sentences with verbs and the form of the verb includes a lot of information so you already know what they are talking about after the first word and can interrupt more easily.

People attribute this behavior to the culture, but it could be that the Greek language intrinsically encourages Greek speakers to interrupt each other.

To say you adopt a whole new personality when you speak another language may be a bit too much, but we can not deny we may think and feel very different when we speak another language.

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