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Knowledge Centre on Interpretation

Multiple languages embody multiple personalities

Does bilingualism only involve speaking two languages fluently? Or does it go beyond pure linguistics?

woman with umbrella on a yellow wall

You might be surprised but there is some evidence to suggest that people who master two or more languages may exhibit different personality traits depending on which language they are speaking. This phenomenon is known as linguistic relativity and refers to the idea that the structure and content of a language can shape the way we perceive and think about the world.

In our recent article on the KCI, we discussed the impact that languages may have on our perception of time. Given the interesting outcome, we decided to take a further look at how language influences the way we express ourselves. 

Another incentive for this second article was our recent conversation with Ayshe, a Crimean Tatar speaker, who is also fluent in both English and Portuguese. While she speaks English and Portuguese in her everyday life, she uses the Crimean Tatar language occasionally when talking to her grandparents. “I feel so much different when I speak Crimean Tatar,” she says – “Because for me, it is not a language, but a set of memories from my childhood as I learned this language from my grandparents when I was little.”

Because Ayshe hasn’t spoken much Crimean Tatar since she moved to Portugal at the age of eleven, she doesn’t feel fluent anymore and, thus, she feels that she “doesn’t have her personality in it.” However, the Crimean Tatar language remains very important in her life. “Whenever I’m building a sentence in Crimean Tatar, it’s a copy-paste from my memory of a person who I learned it from or the context that I learned it in,” she explains. Mostly, she would use these sentences and expressions in a playful and exciting context, as this feels more natural for her.

However, Ayshe said that when it comes to English and Portuguese, two languages in which she has the same level of proficiency, her friends (especially her Portuguese friends) notice how her voice as well as her level of confidence change every time she switches into English. In her opinion, English allows her to be more expressive, more confident, and even more assertive and trustworthy, which may result from the fact that when Ayshe moved to Portugal, she went to an English-speaking school where the entire syllabus was in English. 

Portuguese, on the other hand, is the language in which she is best able to convey emotions, be empathetic and more sensitive. “I believe it’s because I developed those components in my friendships, romantic relationships, as well as in my profession as a physiotherapist where we have close contact with human emotions,” she explains. 

In our conversation, we tried to dig even deeper and asked Ayshe what language she saw as her native one. “This is the hardest question anybody has ever asked me,” she laughed and said – “The languages that I’m most fluent in are not the cultures with which I identify.” I’m ethnically and culturally a Crimean Tatar from Ukraine who is not fluent in either Crimean Tatar or Ukrainian. My nationality is Portuguese and I’m fluent in Portuguese, but culturally I do not identify as Portuguese. So, I’d say that I’m a Crimean Tatar from Ukraine, based in Portugal who also speaks fluent English.”

In the end it all comes down to how we define “native language” and how we understand ethnicity and cultural identity but that would be a topic for another article. Let’s go back to the question why bi- or multilinguals tend to make different impressions depending on the language and have a look at what scientists tell us.

There have been many studies undertaken to discover differences in bilingual communication on a daily basis. For example, in 1964, Susan Ervin, a sociolinguist at the University of California, Berkeley, initiated an experiment to show the differences in how bilinguals relate the same stories in different languages. To do so, she recruited 64 French adults who had been living in the U.S. for about 12 years and were fluent in both English and French. In her study, Ervin used the “Thematic Apperception Test”: She showed the participant a series of images and asked them to make up a short story about the picture they saw. In one session, the experimenter and the participant spoke only French, and the other session took place entirely in English [1].

While analysing the narratives, Ervin looked at content differences and found that the English stories more often featured female achievements, physical aggression, verbal aggression toward parents and attempts to escape blame, whereas the French stories were more likely to include guilt, domination by elders, and verbal aggression toward peers [1]. She concluded that language and culture play a significant role “in what is perceived and experienced as a shift in personality in bilinguals.” [2]

In 1998, Michèle Koven, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, carried out another study on the impact of language on personality. In particular, she conducted ethnographic research with bilingual Parisian adults whose parents had emigrated from Portugal to France in the 1960s. All the participants in the study were fluent in both French and Portuguese and most of them still had strong connections to Portugal while living in France [1]. 

To discover the differences in how these bilinguals expressed themselves depending on the linguistic context, Koven asked them to tell stories from personal experience in both French and Portuguese. When Koven transcribed and analysed the content of their narratives, she noticed that participants emphasized different personality traits, depending on the language they were speaking [1]. She noticed that the women in the French stories were more likely to stand up for themselves, while the female characters in the Portuguese narratives tended to cede to others’ demands [1].

As an example, Koven introduced us to a story about a 23-year-old woman named Isabel, who at the time of the experiment lived and studied in Paris. Originally, she was from the rural northeast of Portugal. She moved to France at the age of five together with her parents. Isabel remembered the experience of moving as traumatic and that was the reason why she at first refused to learn French. However, while remaining nostalgically attached to Portugal, she didn’t want to move back and saw her future in urban France [2]. For the experiment, Isabel told a story – both in French and in Portuguese – about how she once lost her postal bank account details during a summer trip to Portugal and how she eventually got into fight over her money with a postal clerk in her village in north-eastern Portugal. 

After analysing both renditions, Koven noticed a tendency that, when telling her story in French, Isabel tended to be more aggressive, self-assertive, and even vulgar when describing the Portuguese administration. She made an impression of “a foul-mouthed, nervy adolescent looking for trouble,” [2] whereas in Portuguese she seemed to be “a well-mannered émigré” who perhaps didn’t want to draw much attention to her émigré status. In Portuguese, Isabel highlighted her “powerlessness to navigate the less familiar bureaucratic structure in a less familiar country.” 

This brings us again to the idea that people who speak more than one language are likely to exhibit some differences in their thoughts and behaviours depending on the language they are using. Whether it’s due to family background, cultural or environmental context, the real impact of language on our personality is yet to be fully discovered. 


1.    Multilinguals Have Multiple Personalities | The New Republic
2.    Michèle Koven, “Two languages in the Self/The Self in Two languages: French-Portuguese Bilinguals’ Verbal Enactment and Experiences of Self in Narrative Discourse (p. 410-429): Two Languages in the Self/ The Self in Two Languages: French-Portuguese Bilinguals' Verbal Enactments and Experiences of Self in Narrative Discourse on JSTOR

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