If you meet me, you might think I am well-mannered, soft-spoken, and intellectual. You may also meet me and find me to be warm, laid-back, loud, and funny. How is this possible? Well, it depends what language we are speaking when I make your acquaintance. In English, I am the typical polite Canadian: often overly apologetic and a little formal. In Portuguese, my native language, my personality changes. If in English I am more reason, in Portuguese, I am more emotion. My language is more casual, less guarded and warmer in my mother tongue.
I am not the only one to have different linguistic personalities. In a study done by linguists Jean-Marc Dewaele and Aneta Pavlenko, over a thousand bilinguals were asked if they felt like different people depending on the language that they spoke. Nearly two-thirds of them said that they did.
Other research has shown that people tell different stories according to the language they are speaking. In the 1960s, sociolinguist Susan Ervin from the University of California, Berkeley, showed adults fluent in both English and French some illustrations and asked them to make up a three-minute story in each language to accompany the pictures. The stories ended up having very different themes, despite being based on the same images. English stories emphasized female achievement, physical aggression, verbal aggression towards parents, and attempts to escape blame. In French, the stories tended to talk about domination by elders, guilt, and verbal aggression towards peers. I can relate to this study since I often use English picture books to tell my toddler stories in Portuguese. Almost always, the narrative ends up being quite different from the original English one.
People’s perception of themselves also changes in accordance to the language they are speaking. In a study at the University of Illinois, Michèle J. Koven asked French-Portuguese bilinguals to recount life events and personal experiences in both languages. After analyzing the results, she found that participants emphasized different personality traits depending on which language they used to tell their stories.
So, what causes this difference in personalities? Researchers believe it’s the different context in which you learn each language, as well as cultural aspects that may be deeply rooted in the languages themselves.
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