Being multilingual

Do multilinguals have multiple personalities?

MultiplePersUteWell, 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!

Bildschirmfoto 2015-01-18 um 19.31.02

What do you think about this topic? What is your experience as a multilingual – or parent of bi- or multilingual children?

32 replies »

  1. Love and agree! I’ve also thought that the “cultural identity crisis” is not really caused by belonging to multiple cultures, but it is the change itself that can bring on the crisis- the same way it happens to many women who become mothers, or when they get married/lose their jobs etc. -see my post here: I don’t notice the personality change when switching languages. You also mention context (formal or not) which will also affect the way we use a language. Identities change over time, whether we are multilinguals or not.

    • Hi Olga, I’m glad you liked this post. When I read the link you posted on fb today I was already writing this post ;-). – You’re right: crisis can be triggered by many factors. Often it’s the change, whatever change it is and whatever is involved (language, other culture, loss of a job or any kind of loss etc.). This is actually a topic that should be explored 😉
      Everyones identity and personality changes over time, but this change doesn’t happen because of the different languages we speak.

  2. Thanks for posting this – it’s an issue I grapple with a lot. Only last night, I was in a bar with a group of Spanish people wanting to practice their English, and my statement that my English was better than my German, was met with incredulity. “What? But it’s your native language!”
    And my way of thinking and being definitely changes in different languages, but my personality certainly doesn’t. I can be annoying in all of them 😉
    I sometimes struggle with the issue that my expanding framework of cultural references, while bringing me closer to so many people, simultaneously creates interpersonal dissonance, especially with individuals who are profoundly monocultural.

    • Thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts and experiences! – It’s the same for me: the way I think in the different languages varies. It’s intersting, don’t you think? And I can relate about what you say about your expanding framework of cultural references and the “dissonance” it creates at the same time with “monoculturals”. This is an aspect that made me sad for a long time, but now I know that this is not “my” problem. It’s a lack of flexibility of some “monoculturals” and I also experienced that some of them, if they were really interested in our friendship, they made the effort to understand part of my multiculturality.

      • In the case of friendships, sure, these will only develop between me and people who embrace that aspect, but often, I find myself thwarted and frustrated by those who do not get it, and with whom I need to have a relationship of some sorts, including family members at one end of the extreme, and, at the other, provincial officials who need to process documents for me and who give me grief for not fitting into any of the blasted boxes demanded to be ticked by their computer systems.
        This may have been the longest and most impenetrable sentence I ever wrote.
        Bin halt mal ein bunter Hund.

      • Yes, ladyofthecakes, it’s frustrating that we usually don’t “fit” into those b… boxes, but maybe they should change the system? 😉 I’ve spent hours (maybe days already…) in offices, trying to be even admitted into some systems. But this would be too long to explain. However, I try not to let anyone blame me for being what I am, but to consider the system to be too inflexible to make me fit in – or adapt the boxes already existing, in a way that I fit in one (or more) of them. I find it harder and feel really sad if someone among my friends or family doesn’t get “it”. But, honestly, I can’t do more than explaining and trying to make them feel comfortable with it, right? So, after three attempts, I give up and have to find a way to coexist without suffering too much from this gap between us. Sometimes it’s also only a matter of time and these persons learn to know and accept us. In my case, I tend to be impatient and I have to learn to give people the time to understand and accept. – Bin auch ein bunter Hund und liebe meine Farben! 😉

  3. Hi, interesting topic 🙂 I agree with the fact that a person doesn’t change when talking a different language. Knowing foreign languages is just an aspect of someone’s personality 🙂

    • Benvenuta, Lucrezia! Yes, you’re right. As I said in a former post, I’m all the languages I speak. I don’t change while talking another language, but do feel different though. But that’s due to the change of language itself. That’s all.

    • Oh Nate, don’t say that. I’m so glad to have found this blog-community and to finally share my thoughts about all sorts of topics. – As for this kind of topic in linguistics, it’s a bit my “déformation professionnelle”: I was used to write scientific articles for so many years, that sometimes I let myself get carried away… 😉

  4. Great topic and a great read.

    I find that I feel I am a different person when I speak Portuguese compared to my native English because there are things that I can’t do in Portuguese. I can’t make jokes the way I do in English and swearing in Portuguese just doesn’t fill the emotional need I often have. These, and other things, make me feel different because I have to express myself differently. It doesn’t mean I have changed, but instead it means I have explored alternative ways in an alternative language.

    • That’s a very important point, Stephen. I think that we often switch to another language to “fill the emotional need” we have at that moment. I can’t say certain things in German, I need to speak Italian to “feel” them the right way. I also express myseld differently in the different languages I use. I think, through the languages we speak, we discover and express more facets of our character.

  5. Hope you don’t mind me posting a link. It’s a link to a RN ‘all in the mind’ episode from last year that I think you will find fascinating. It’s made clear in the episode that multi-linguals, when they deftly switch from one language to another during ordinary speech, are actually displaying a higher form of language. Here’s the link:

    While I’m on it, a personal note: it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that we all possess multiple personalities–and no, not n the silly pseudo-psychological way we often see on the TV screen :>). Those differences we have at different times and when in different social circles are too pronounced to be referred to as moods or accommodations. I’ll also layer in a few other items besides language that causes these shifts: communications mode (various online comm tech’s for instance), overall social millieu, blood sugar level (seriously) and, especially for teens, time of day.

    • Maurice, this is brilliant! Thank you for posting this link. I understand and share your thought about the “multiple personality” we all have in terms of multiple ways of seeing and perceiving and therefore expressing the world through a wider range of “languages”. When we talk about multilingualism we never mention the capacity of acquiring also the different sociolects,and the diastratic and diaphasic dimensions (see Coseriu 1981 for these). About the other “items besides language that causes these shifts” you mention: they are all very important for our language (or code) choice. Let’s think about this and see if we can find more “triggers” for these shifts…

  6. People have noticed the personality shift in me when I change languages. Some English speakers have said I sound angry when I speak Arabic, even when I’m asking where the store is.

    What I love about languages is that I can synthesize all the “personalities” I’ve picked up among my languages. I can appropriate the different personality traits that come out at different times with different languages. I can talk about things “like a Russian” or so and take advantage of what I’ve learned from integrating into one or another culture. My personality is so much more complex and rounded out thanks to my languages.

  7. Is it really a personality shift that takes place when you’re changing languages? Or is it more that when you speak another language you’re whole expression changes? I think there’s a thin line between the “personality shift” considered as a disorder (i.e. borderline etc.) and the change of expression of part of ourselves while changing the language. For example, if I talk German, I tend to be much more rational or let’s say, that when I express some emotion in German it’s perceived less “emotional” than if I say it in Italian or French. Maybe that’s only stereotypes about these languages that are perceived by others. Anyway, I feel different when I speak the languages I know and I sound different too. In every language I experience another part of myself in a more intense way. It’s not that I change personality, I just can express better part of my personality by changing to another language. I don’t know if this sounds clear enough. – I think that our personalities really gain a lot if we talk more languages and learn more about other cultures. It’s like if you have more colours to paint a painting. The more colours and shades of colours you have, the more colorful the picture can get – if you use the colours wisely…

  8. Hi, I am an Indonesian and living in Bern, so I do speak three different languages in my daily life (4 if you include Berndeutsch). I gave up the idea on multiple personalities based on the language, since sometimes I don’t even realize in which language I speak.
    Once my American friend surprised me by telling me how different I sounded when I spoke Thai (well I was living in Bangkok for a while) to English. The gesture also was different. The funny thing was, I did not even realize it.
    Nevertheless, my oma (who read, wrote and spoke fluently 7 languages and was a linguist) believed that language shapes our identity(-ies)

    • Hi, Adhe, I’m glad you found my blog! Your linguistic situation is very interesting! I guess that if we talk all those language and switch without noticing, we are already at some “multilingual”-level where everything just mixes up in a new dimension. No, seriously, I like very much what your oma said: languages shape our identities and they make us very colourful.

  9. Very, very good post, and I’m so glad many of us are able to relate to it.. Loved the explanation on the difference of ‘belonging to different cultures, expressing oneself in more than one way’ and the common mistake of ‘pursuing/displaying different personalities’… A must read, for sure! And thanks for the inclusion of a couple of our blogposts… much appreciated – you know you’re a constant inspiration for our blog! Greetings from La Paz! 😮

    • Thank you very much! I was sure that you can relate, as you wrote posts about this kind of topic on your site too. I guess all multilinguals or parents of multilinguals can relate to this. Btw. I got inspired by your posts and the quote from Charlemagne. Greetings from The Netherlands (yes, we’re back) 🙂

  10. Hi this is a great discussion. My experience as someone who has become fluent in Spanish only a few years ago (and I now use it everyday with my partner), is that I have a real lack of control using my new language. All the bad sides of my personality come through as it feels like a ‘filter’, that is present with my mother tongue, is missing. The words just seem to come out when in English I would have a much more measured approach. The worst part is that I don’t think practise is making it any better, it is as though my personality developed very well in English over many years and that got to where it needed to be, but the Spanish, though improving technically, is void of the personality development that came to me whilst becoming an adult.

  11. Hi this is a great discussion. My experience as someone who has become fluent in Spanish only a few years ago (and I now use it everyday with my partner), is that I have a real lack of control using my new language. All the bad sides of my personality come through as it feels like a ‘filter’, that is present with my mother tongue, is missing. The words just seem to come out when in English I would have a much more measured approach. The worst part is that I don’t think practise is making it any better, it is as though my personality developed very well in English over many years and that got to where it needed to be, but the Spanish, though improving technically, is void of the personality development that came to me whilst becoming an adult.

    • Hi, “obscreen”. I’m glad you like this topic. I don’t really understand what you mean with “all the bad sides of my personality come through as it feels like a filter”: if it’s like a filter, it stops something, but apparently using Spanish doesn’t stop, but increases your (only bad?) wordflow, right? There are some linguists who say that there are languages that are more appropriate to express feelings than others. Personally, I prefer talking Italian when I have to express a feeling very quickly or when I react spontaneously. My kids are used to this switching 😉
      I think that every language we speak gives us another canal to express what we want to express. Somehow, we unconsciuosly choose the most appropriate language in our repertoire to express certain things. I guess your personality did develop well in English for English standards and with Spanish you’re experiencing a side of your personality that is new, more spontaneous, less reflecting? I observe this when I talk Italian or French (I’m only beginning to talk Spanish but am far from being fluent yet): I’m much more spontaneous than when I talk German or English.
      (btw. I tried to find your homepage/blog but it wasn’t accessible. Could you please send me your url? – Thanks).

  12. I’m not really bilingual (yet! getting there!) But I notice my older son does change personalities to some degree depending on the language. When he’s speaking in Arabic it’s much faster, and “rough” – this might have to do with still learning, it may smooth out later. I’ve never heard him use softer words or express emotional things in Arabic. Again, maybe he just hasn’t fully grasped how to do this yet or he’s more comfortable with those types of expressions in English. It’s so interesting to watch!

    • Thanks, Amanda, for stopping by! Yes, it’s so interesting to watch the different stages our children are acquiring their languages. About the language preferences to express feelings etc., some say that certain languages are intrinsically more suited for this, because the sounds in that language are expressing it easier than in another language (but I would be careful to jump to conclusions…). Personally, I don’t think it’s always related with the nature of the language. In my opinion it pretty much depends on how we feel about the language. If it’s a language we’re used to express our feelings, we’ll probably use it more spontaneously. It doesn’t even have to be our first language! For me it is Italian (my first language was German), but I also prefer talking Italian when it comes to be serious with my children – and there, if I would agree with the theory mentioned before, German would be more suitable. But, again, I think that my children just are more attentive when I switch language, so, they would pay more attention and listen to what I say only because I switch language. – I wish you and your family a very exciting journey in discovering your language preferences and would love to know more!

  13. For me I speak 4 languages English Russian Chinese and Mongolian my native language is Mongolian but mother tong is Russian, because I grew up in Russia. And English just kind of came by it self never bothered to study or learn grammar vocabulary etc… no problems at all. But had great burden learning Chinese well most difficult part there is the writing part speaking was easy as well.

    but lately I have been noticing some decisions I make when speaking different languages and was wondering the same thing there, as I noticed I am have different characteristics when I speak different languages. Even the level of aggression depends on the language I am thinking in.

    I am more confident and would like to do presentations in English but would talk to girls in Russian seems easier, then Chinese I am so shy when I am on Chinese mode. But Mongolian I cant express my self clear on it, feels like I never get to the point what I wanna say in Mongolian.

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