Well, the answer is: no! People who speak multiple languages do not have multiple personalities. Having multiple personalities is a disorder, being multilingual is not!
True is, that a person who speaks more than one language, feels part of the different cultures and “acts” in different ways. In my case, when I talk italian with Italians, I gesticulate like Italians – but not in the presence of non-italians…
Anyway, the cultural influences coming from other languages do not mean that one will develop multiple personality disorder! It is surely not pathological!
Multilinguals have a double or multiple cultural reference system. That’s all. Our personality and identity is made of many elements “in a world where more and more people grow up and live with various cultural references – even more so after the expansion of the internet – it is meaningless to stick to the monistic concept of identity. Identity can be multiple, it can be plural” (Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2003), The multilingual mind: Issues discussed by, for, and about people living with many languages, Westport, Conneticut: Praeger Publishers, p.185).
Multilinguals do not necessarily have an identity crisis because they are a part of many cultures. If they have a sort of “identity crisis”, then it’s because other people ask them to choose one (and only one!) of their cultures.
If we assume with Charlotte Burck that identity can always be “actively constructed and renegotiated” (Multilingual living: Explorations of language and subjectivity, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), well, then identity and personality are something that flows as we grow. It evolves and develops throughout our lives.
When we speak different languages, we also express different kinds and aspects of ourselves. This depends from our audience, the situation etc. In every language we speak, we create different kinds of self-expressions and experiences for ourselves. We can express several facets of ourselves but never stop being “our true selves”.
Multilinguals often feel “different” when they are switching between their different languages. But the difference is felt during this shifting, because the culture, the frame of reference changes with the language too. François Grosjean describes it like this: “what is seen as a change in personality is most probably simply a shift in attitudes and behaviours that correspond to a shift in situation or context, independent of language” (François Grosjean, Life as a Bilingual: the reality of living with two or more languages, Psychology Today, 2011) – I would add: but triggered by the change of language.
Let’s make an example. I usually talk German to my children, but sometimes, I switch to Italian. Usually this happens, when I’m tired or I have to tell them something quickly (for example in situations of imminent danger: “step back from that road!”). When this happens, I feel different. My expression changes, words come out much faster and I start gesticulating. But when I talk Italian in a more formal context, I slow down and do not gesticulate that much. Therefore, in my opinion, the “personality shift” has a bit to do with the language, but not only. I would say it is like wearing another mask or glove.
During role plays I sometimes change language or imitate a strong accent (Italian, German, Swissgerman, French, English or Dutch) in order to “feel” and accentuate the difference of the character. – But don’t monolinguals also have this “shift” when they switch from a formal to an informal register? We all use different registers when we are in formal meetings than when we talk to our children or friends. Bilinguals (or multilinguals) just have a broader framework to work with.
Usually, multilinguals have one (or two…) dominant language and its culture seems more valorized. But this dominance can vary over one’s lifetime. I had very long Italian phases, an anti-German phase, an Italian-French phase. I even had a German-Dutch-Italian phase and am now experiencing a German-English-Dutch phase… It always depends on our family use, our environment and our occupation. – But all those languages are always present and form my very personal identity. It’s like having multiple tools to express yourself: an incredibly powerful asset!
What do you think about this topic? What is your experience as a multilingual – or parent of bi- or multilingual children?