With every language, a personality?

The Medieval Emperor Charlemagne famously said that “to have another language is to possess a second soul” but the idea that we express different personality traits when we speak another language has usually been left as anecdote.

But The Economist takes this a step further and examines the science behind this idea – which may have more weight than we might first think.

It looks at the issue from lots of intriguing angles. Perhaps the most obvious is that bilingual speakers may have different associations with each language – for example, home and work – and so come to associate different sorts of social behaviours with each.

One of the most interesting is how different language structures might allow for different behaviours, although a grammatical explanation for why the Greeks having a tendency to interrupt during conversation is given short shrift

Is there something intrinsic to the Greek language that encourages Greeks to interrupt?…

In this case, Ms Chalari, a scholar, at least proposed a specific and plausible line of causation from grammar to personality: in Greek, the verb comes first, and it carries a lot of information, hence easy interrupting. The problem is that many unrelated languages all around the world put the verb at the beginning of sentences. Many languages all around the world are heavily inflected, encoding lots of information in verbs. It would be a striking finding if all of these unrelated languages had speakers more prone to interrupting each other. Welsh, for example, is also both verb-first and about as heavily inflected as Greek, but the Welsh are not known as pushy conversationalists.

There’s plenty more interesting analysis in the Economist article and it turns out the magazine’s language blog, called Johnson (relax Americans, it’s a reference to Samuel Johnson) is very good as a whole.

Link to ‘Do different languages confer different personalities?’

8 thoughts on “With every language, a personality?”

  1. Very interesting research, which I can personally relate to. I grew up in the German-speaking part of Switzerland with Dutch parents, so languages were split between home and school/outside. I have since moved back to the Netherlands, but am studying in a place where there are lots of Germans. People who have heard me speaking both languages tell me that I sound and act completely different, that even my voice pitch changes between languages.
    I also speak French and English and have always maintained that it is important to not only know the words and grammar of a language, but also the culture that goes with it – languages have a “personality” of their own, that you need to know in order to truly master it. Maybe a bit of that “personality” rubs off on the speaker.

  2. I’d never thought about this until last month, when, after recently starting to date an Argentinian woman (I’m a white American), Humans of New York (a blog that posts a daily picture of a person in NYC along with a quote from them), posted this:

    “English is a very precise language. I like to use it when I’m describing technical things. But when I’m talking about my feelings, I find it easier to use Spanish.”
    “Why is Spanish best for describing feelings?”
    “Latin people have a lot of feelings. So they have a lot of words to describe them.”


    He would in some way seem to contradict himself, since if Spanish has more words for feelings one should presumably be being more precise when talking about them in Spanish, but regardless I was surprised to discover that someone actually felt that way about the languages they speak. When I showed that to my girlfriend (English is a second language for her), she agreed with the sentiment.

    It’s also fascinating and perturbing to have someone say they think the only language you speak isn’t as good at expressing emotion as theirs. 🙂

  3. Watch the fully telivised Canadian Parliament as they go through a bilingual logic session. Lessons to be learned here, basia for a psychological study at least.

    1. This area fascinates me also… though I am uni-lingual for the most part. I find it interesting because a woman I used to chat with on a forum was from Norway and one remarked that she tended to write in English when she wanted to write creatively. I can’t recall exactly why — but it started my interest in this topic. I have also noticed that European friends (Italian/Portuguese) are certainly much more animated when speaking in their native tongues to relatives than when they speak to those same relatives in English. Whether it’s the language, the culture, native tongue vs. 2nd language… no idea, but it’s intriguing.

  4. An endlessly fascinating subject – I too feel like a different person when speaking Spanish. I have better posture, an uplifted chest which I believe is a gesture of sensuality, and I am certainly more bold and ‘expressive’ with both feelings and information. My pedestrian theory about why, has as much to do with the prevalence of open vowel sounds in the language as it does with being possessed by a certain cultural subset and the freedom (for some types) in communicating in new languages/formats. What’s the point of being a perfectionist if you only know nothing?

    Concomitantly, I wonder, but have not stumbled upon satisfying research therein, how much weight phonemes carry in this dialogue/study. Could simply listening to sounds and determining the emotional and neuronal activation of a listener offer further insight? In poetry, we use meter, rhyme, alliteration, etc. to evoke image, emotion, and allusion at perhaps a more base level to create meaning. Not to say that a complete deconstruction has occurred or that culture and meaning have been invalidated, but there is certainly an effect that may or may not have its roots in language. Hopefully, these forthcoming books take into account some of the research done on sound/music/acoustic processing as well as physiology, despite the fact that culture and pop linguistics is way more tangible. Por que no?

  5. How cool. It’s a shame that so many American children are not raised learning several languages. I met an African author who knew no English but he knew French. Conversing in a second language I tend to focus on getting the phrasing right rather than paying attention to the stress of meeting a new person.

  6. I have seen myself acting differently when speaking another language. When I use English, I feel more precise, and my explanation becomes clearer tan in Spanish. When I talk in Italian I feel very free to express my feelings as well as in Portuguese.

    Recently I have found myself different in French.

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