This post was written by Huijia Wang as part of PB101: Foundations of Psychological Science, where students are asked to explore a key finding in psychology. This is a compulsory course for students studying BSc Psychological and Behavioural Science and as an outside option, with permission, on other LSE programmes. This course is also available as a summer-school programme, IR110: Foundations of Psychological Science available here.
Different Language, Different Personality
If I tell you I have the means to change someone’s personality within a second, completely harm-free, no hypnosis, no pills, no magic wands. Would you believe me?
‘How?’ is probably what you’re thinking right now. The answer is quite simple: just ask them to talk in another language! Believe it or not, multilingual people’s personality varies with the language being used!
It is REAL!
Previous experiments done on sequential (as in second language learned after early childhood) Spanish-English bilinguals provided effective evidence of this phenomenon (Hong, Morris, Chiu, & Benet-Martínez, 2000; Cheng, C.-Y., Lee, F., & Benet Martínez, 2006). When communicating in English, these people somehow behaved more ‘American’ (more extroverted and easy-going). They also scored higher on traits that are widely perceived to be prototypically American in this test. These people apparently picked up the characteristics of those who taught them English alongside the language!
What is personality?
Personality has always been perceived as something stable over time. Critics say language doesn’t change our personalities, rather, our traits are always there: language is merely a channel to let them out (Chen, S. X., & Bond, M. H., 2010).
They are not wrong in that sense. When we are talking about personality, we are talking about the aggregates of our expressed traits that can be inferred from our behaviours. With a clear definition of personality, we can start to look into some possible explanations behind this phenomenon.
Why the cross-language difference?
Two main factors account for this: language structure and culture.
Language plays such a big role in our world. It’s so crucial that it effects the way we perceive our reality, which consequently leads to a change in our behaviour. Each language has its own unique grammar and lexicon. This uniqueness enables each to bring up certain thoughts and feelings more likely than others. This is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. To illustrate it, let’s take a look at the Inuit, a group of culturally similar indigenous peoples living in the Arctic regions.
We can never be as clever as the Inuit when dealing with snow. Why? Because their language (Eskimo) contains more than 50 sophisticated vocabularies for distinguishing various words for snow! Slushy snow, powder snow, drifting snow, snow mixed with mud, snow that looks blue in the early morning—all have their own names in Eskimo!
Do you see the difference?
I bet you are as confused as I am—aren’t they all identical? It’s just…SNOW!! However, if you are an Inuit, it’s almost intuitive for you to tell the difference.
For us to understand what it is like in the Inuit shoes, let me introduce, the Dani. In their language, there’s literally only two colours: warm (mola) colour and cool (mili) colour—no blue, no red, let alone bronze, crimson or indigo.
Biologically, they see the same colour spectrum, but their language alters their perception, and thus the difference between, for example, ‘yellow’ and ‘red’, makes no sense to them. Now this may sound absurd to you. “How can yellow and red be the same colour?” Well, congratulations! We understand how the Inuit sees us now! “How can snow sparkling with sunlight be the same as snow sparkling with moonlight? You guys are crazy.” Acquiring a new language is not only about learning new words and grammar. It’s also about adopting a new perspective of viewing the world.
“As many languages you know, as many times you are a human being” – Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk
The Dani and the Inuit may be extreme examples, but the reasoning can be applied to any other language. German is grammatically orderly. France has messed-up numbers. Chinese has no future tense. These different structures all affect the way we perceive and think about the world subtly (Lucy, J., 1997). As a consequence, we react to the stimuli in the world a little bit differently, and this is really what we captured when we say our ‘personality’ has changed.
Language is a tool for communication so we cannot isolate language from a social setting—it is culturally congruent. We speak a given language mostly because we are trying to convey something to someone from that country. Culture and language are so intertwined that it is simply impossible to only learn the language without knowing the culture behind it (Jiang, W., 2000).
The culture entrenched in language affects the way we behave. In an environment where we need to speak a certain language to achieve cooperative communication, we are motivated to behave in a culturally congruent way (Chen, S. X., & Bond, M. H. 2010). By that I mean, if we are speaking Japanese, we are most likely talking to someone from Japan, or at least someone who knows a great deal about Japan. We don’t want to be offensive. We don’t want to look weird. We want to behave in a way normal Japanese people would perceive as normal so that the conversation can go on.
This happens so naturally. We unconsciously adjust our behaviour to accommodate our respondent’s cultural norms, personality, and beliefs based on what we know about them. As a result, our expressed personality changes while switching to a different language. This is a strategy learned from life experience. Probably a survival thing, as well, back in the days when we would get killed if we agitated someone in a tribal negotiation or something.
Problems to reflect on
Almost every “third culture kid” is multilingual. They are constantly facing identity crises. These cross-language differences in personality may aggravate the situation: ‘If I don’t even have a stable personality, who am I?’ However, it still remains unclear whether people are consciously aware of their change in personality and whether this awareness does anything. What’s more, even though culture (100%) plays a big part in the cross-language change, how do people decide which culture is associated with the given language that is widely used in many cultures, such as English?
Take it easy
To what extent does language affect our personality? Does it suddenly turn an agreeable person unpleasant? Does it deconstruct all our original world views? Does it magically make our math scores go up? The answers are more than obvious: NO. In fact, language only exerts a small impact on some aspects of our personality. Therefore, if we are panicking over how easily our personality can be changed, there’s simply no need to worry. If multilingualism is part of us, how can it make you less ‘us’? Rather, we may find an excitingly different perspective to see the world—an experience hard to acquire for monolingual people.
Feature photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash