Does your identity change when you speak a foreign language? Does using words that aren’t in your mother tongue alter who you are as a person?
You bet it does.
Sure, your core values might stay the same. Speaking a new language and immersing yourself in a new culture can give you new perspectives on those values, though. Sometimes even the things about ourselves that we consider deep and fundamental can shift — even just a little — when we speak a different language.
And if you can find a new way of looking at your core beliefs when speaking another language, your personality can probably shift too.
What is personality anyway?
Before launching into all the reasons that speaking a foreign language changes your personality, let’s describe what personality is.
Personality is all the patterns of behaviors, thoughts, words, and emotions that make up your character. It’s the things you do and say that are “characteristic” of you.
Personality can be a hard concept to pin down and funnily enough, it’s not described the same way in every language. For the purposes of this article, think of it as patterns or habits — the things you most typically do or say or feel.
When you define it like that, personality definitely changes when you switch to a different language.
Words and tones have different meanings
A big part of personality is how you speak or communicate. It’s the way you say things or how you describe something. Naturally, communicating in another language changes that.
When you speak a foreign language, you can’t always use the same words to get your meaning across. Some things just don’t translate literally and some concepts don’t exist in every language. You have to find a way to say what you mean, and the people you’re speaking to may not understand it entirely as you meant it.
The pitch and tone of your voice may also change in a different language because the way the words are pronounced differ substantially from your native language. Many languages also use tone to indicate various meanings. In Mandarin, a language that often relies on intonation for meaning, the word “ma” can be pronounced four ways to mean four completely different things.
You use different non-verbal cues
Communication isn’t just verbal for most of us, it’s physical too. Hand gestures and facial expressions vary across languages and you end up using non-verbal cues you wouldn’t normally use in your mother tongue.
In French, you do a gesture with your lips sort of like blowing raspberries to signify that you don’t know something. You usually raise your eyebrows at the same time too. Since I started speaking French, I’ve noticed myself doing this way more often. I even do it when I’m speaking English.
Culture and frame of reference shifts
Your personality is shaped by your environment just as much by internal thoughts and feelings. Your habitual words and actions are a response to what’s happening around you, including cultural cues. Learning to speak another language can open up a culture and history that you didn’t have access to before and it impacts your personality as a result.
When you learn a foreign language as an adult, you lack all the memories and cultural nuance that come with it. You don’t grow up in that language’s culture and don’t have a bank of references to draw upon to help you express and understand things, like ads, pop culture, literature, or personal events.
Understanding culture may also require you to understand different dialects of the same language too. American and British English aren’t the same, and neither are Belgian French and France French. When you learn a foreign language, you have to know when to employ the right words or cultural references so that you’ll be understood by the people around you.
You may also use a foreign language in entirely different contexts than your native language, which could make you come across differently. My French is considerably more informal than my English because I only really use French to speak, and in mostly familiar settings. I struggle to write a professional-sounding email in French but I know lots of French swear words.
That brings me to another great point about cultural understanding in a foreign language: slang. The rules for when to use slang aren’t the same for all languages and you not only have to know how to say the words but when it’s appropriate to use them.
Language affects cognition and connotation
Your personality also includes your thoughts and feelings. There’s evidence that language influences the way people think: this TEDTalk from Lera Boroditsky is pretty illuminating on that subject. When you switch to a different language, your thought patterns might not stay the same.
Language also guides reasoning and memory about events. One example given in the TEDTalk linked above is how the way some languages like Spanish or French construct sentences can influence recall. The sentence “he broke it” versus the Spanish way of phrasing it “it broke itself” changes how someone remembers an event.
In some languages, grammatical gender can change the way you think about an object or concept too. Assigning something a masculine or feminine gender can cause you to associate masculine or feminine qualities with that word.
Certain words can also have emotional meanings and connotations, shaped by culture or upbringing. As an American, the way I grew up understanding “communism” was a whole lot different than the way my French partner understood “communisme” in France.
Language is identity
Language is truly fundamental to identity — wars have been fought over it. That’s why we shouldn’t let any languages disappear, or let English dominate in all parts of the world (but that’s another argument for another time).
If language is that crucial to who we are and how we see ourselves it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t change your personality when you switch between different ones.