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A Personality For Every Language

Your sense of humor, moral compass and attitude may seem like characteristics that eventually become a defining part of your personality—qualities and principles developed over the years that make you “you.” But studies say these traits are actually malleable when switching languages.

Multilinguals tend to have multiple personalities depending on what language they’re speaking, research shows. In one study from 2001-2003, more than a thousand bilinguals were asked if they “feel like a different person” when speaking a different language; two-thirds said yes.

In 1964, Susan Ervin—a sociolinguist at University of California, Berkeley—recruited 64 French adults who lived in the U.S. for an average of 12 years and who also spoke French and English fluently (40 of whom were married to an American). Ervin gave them the “Thematic Apperception Test” on two different occasions six weeks apart, where the subjects were shown a series of illustrations and were then asked to create a three-minute story describing each scene. One session was conducted only in English, the other in French. There was a consistency in themes, Ervin found, depending on what language the subjects were speaking: Those in English emphasized more female achievement, physical aggression, verbal aggression toward parents, and attempts to escape blame. But in French, there appeared more domination by elders, guilt, and verbal aggression toward peers.

She continued similar studies in 1968, where she analyzed Japanese women living in San Francisco, who, while bilingual, were largely isolated from other Japanese in America, mostly married to American men, and only spoke Japanese when visiting Japan or with bilingual friends. Ervin had a bilingual interviewer give various verbal tasks in both Japanese and English. In one exercise, the women were asked to complete sentences that were sometimes presented in English and other times in Japanese. When asked to finish the statement, “When my wishes conflict with my family …” in Japanese, the response was typically “… it is a time of great unhappiness.” In English, however, the women generally completed the sentence with “… I do what I want.”

Another study analyzed how levels of proficiency affect morality. Researchers utilized the model that divides moral judgment into two forces: intuitive processes, driven by the emotional aspects of a dilemma and favoring individual rights, and rational processes, which entail a conscious evaluation with utilitarian tendencies. The study showed that individuals tend to make utilitarian decisions when speaking in a foreign language. Participants from the U.S., Korea, France, Israel, and Spain were given the same scenario: A train is about to kill five people, and the only way to save them is by pushing one man in front of the train. Half were asked this question in their native tongue, the other half in a foreign language.

When using a foreign language, participants from all countries were 50 percent more likely to say they’d push the man (the utilitarian answer: sacrifice one to save five)—a pattern researchers correlated with a reduced emotional response. Participants feel an increased psychological distance when the scenario is presented in an alien language, trading emotional concerns for rationality. Researchers hypothesized that responses were highly dependent on levels of proficiency, as increased fluency helped people become more emotionally grounded in a foreign language.

Image by Sue Clark, licensed under Creative Commons.