The bilingual personality switch

The bilingual personality switch

Earlier today I started a new discussion thread on my Facebook page regarding bilingualism and second-language acquisition. The topic has garnered quite a few responses and given me cause to reflect and analyze my own linguistic performance in different languages – for whatever it is worth.

The status I posted, quite flippantly I might add, was as follows:

Have just been listening to a lecture on second language acquisition, in which the concept of bilingualism was addressed, plus one thing that I’ve never actually heard discussed before. It’s the idea that when bilingual people switch languages, they also switch personalities. It is something I’ve been aware of almost my entire life. I’ve been bilingual since I was five (well actually I was trilangual at that time – and still am, though my third language has changed) and at some point I started to realize that I felt like a different person when I spoke different languages. I used to refer to it (in jest) as being schizophrenic. Now I know there’s actually a term for it: socio-psychological. Ha! ~ Has anyone else had experience with this sense of switching personalities when you switch languages?

I am fascinated by the different responses the question has garnered, and also glad to discover that I’m not alone – that many other people experience the same thing when switching between languages.

It has also prompted me to think just how I change when speaking one language as opposed to another. I have concluded that the changes are subtle and would probably not be discernible to an outside observer unless it was someone who knows me very well. While there are certainly some slight changes in my mannerisms and tone of voice when I speak English as opposed to Icelandic (or German), it can also be hard to determine if that is a result of the language switch per se, or than the company I am keeping at any particular moment. After all, everyone changes mannerisms etc. depending on the social setting in which they find themselves.

Actually I believe that the personality change has more to do with my own psychology and how I experience myself when speaking the language than any overt changes in my bearing. A lot of that has to do with my level of comfort in the society to which the language belongs – and a lot of that has to do with cultural and social references. For example, when I was an adolescent, I lived the greater part of the year in Canada, and spent a few weeks in Iceland each summer. As I gradually moved further away from my Icelandic peers linguistically speaking, I started to feel more awkward and socially inept, which in turn had an impact on my self-image and self-esteem. By “linguistically speaking” I mean that I was out of the loop with regards to slang, turns of phrase, and the different ways of expressing myself as an adolescent in that particular language. I remember the summer when I was sixteen being quite relieved when my trip to Iceland fell through. I felt so removed from my Icelandic “self” that going there was actually quite anxiety-provoking, and I was very happy to be able to rest in my Canadian “self” for the summer.

And those different “selves” were intricately tied up with the use of the language. I can’t really say how or to what extent – and indeed, getting a comprehensive picture of all this would probably take a lot of time and self-analysis, which I’m not inclined to undertake right now. However, I suspect that this question of the personality switch has had a far greater impact on my life than I’m seeing right now and will no doubt come more clear as time goes on and I start to integrate the awareness that this “switcheroo” concept is a recognized phenomenon. In fact, I think it may have played a significant role in why I stayed away from Iceland for so long before moving back, and why I had so much anxiety about actually biting the bullet and making the move.

And just as a final thought, I find that this subtle shift in personality is not only confined to linguistics, but also the mode of expression. By which I mean that I find myself almost a different person when I sit down to write text than when I express myself verbally. But that is a topic for another day.

[photo credit]

  • Mark Maghie
    Posted at 16:50h, 28 September Reply

    Alda–I think you are right about the social awkwardness aspects of this. Certainly those of us who are learning a new language find that we are more reticent and shy in speaking simply because we don’t know the language as well. That seems obvious. And the stress you experienced with the summer trips and feeling like you were not “in the know” about the latest developments in slang, etc. (no doubt more stressful as a teen) is something to be expected as well. The interesting part for me is with those who are fully functioning, fluent non-natives. I wonder, though one may be fluent in many languages, whether there is really only one place that a person can be him or her true self, which is his or her native land. Yes, one can adopt something of a nation’s cultural or behavioural ethos (e.g., being precise, straight-faced and efficient in German), but is that really a different personality or is it just a cultural expectation? Interesting topic. Thanks.

  • alda
    Posted at 17:56h, 28 September Reply

    Mark, I wasn’t just referring to not knowing the language. I spoke and understood Icelandic perfectly as a teenager, but I lacked certain cultural or social references. All of this, of course, is part of a much larger and complex framework when it comes to learning languages – there are so many interconnected factors that are both linguistic and social/cultural. And I’m certainly not saying that my experience as a teen was a determining factor in the whole “schizophrenic personality” thing. Nor do I think that you can only truly feel yourself in your native country. Iceland was my native country, yet for many years I felt most comfortable in my English-speaking self.

  • herve
    Posted at 19:33h, 28 September Reply

    Having become a bit of a polyglot at a later age myself I have a different experience . I find that the language I speak influences how I behave. ( for the record: French native, learned Icelandic and English in my 20’s , Spanish in my 40’s; (I discount my high school learning of German as it is non-existent) Back to the languages: when I speak Icelandic, my tone is measured, my cadence even, I don’t gesticulate; in French, I am more animated, as the language and culture lend themselves to it, and the same goes for Spanish. I find myself somewhat limited by English as it is more of a “mercantile” language and seems to miss some of the nuances of the romance languages. There have been a number of fascinating articles written on the subject; if I can find them again, I will forward them to you

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