The currently accepted measure of personality is known as the Big Five. These are the five traits that seem to be reliable indicators of one’s personality. These traits are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. It would seem that we should score the same way on this test, as a measure of our true personality, every time we take it. Our personality is who we are, right? However, it’s looking more and more like the one variable that changes our personality – instantly – is the language we are speaking at the time.


Changes in Setting

Multilinguals are probably familiar with the feeling of language-based personality shifts.  There may be many reasons for this. Some hypothesize that multilingual speakers often use each language in a specific setting, and that alone can explain changes in personality. For example, a woman may speak Spanish at home with her family, English when in the workplace, and French when catching up with old friends. She may very exhibit traits of being more relaxed and nurturing in Spanish, detail-oriented and professional in English, and outgoing and chatty in French. According to this hypothesis, nothing about the woman’s personality actually changes. Instead, different roles require different attitudes, which she then associates with the languages. 


Words Shape the Mind

The Whorf hypothesis, formulated in the 1930s, would argue that something fundamental to ourselves does change when we switch languages. Whorf believed that our experience  is shaped by the words we have available to us. For example, if a person had no word for ‘wet’ or ‘moist,’ they would be unable to have the same experience of swimming in a pool or standing in the rain as someone who did possess that vocabulary. This is a controversial concept that is still being debated. 

A fairly recent example is the proliferation of the word ‘hygge’ (pronounced hue-guh) in America. Borrowed from Scandinavian countries, hygge is described a an atmosphere of warmth, joy, and coziness. Hygge is being curled up with a mug of coffee and a book. It is also the mood of sharing a delicious meal with family and friends.  This word has been latched onto because it describes a pleasant feeling we are all familiar with, have had no specific word for, and want more of in our lives. Introducing this word into our vocabulary may mean we are able to intentionally foster the feeling of hygge in our live.

To take another example, the Japanese language has no word for ‘privacy’ as we understand it. There are certainly senses of personal space, but the precise meaning is not directly translatable. The Japanese are better at creating a sense of private space even in tight quarters. The architect Yuji Yamazaki writes of living with his girlfried,

We  live in a small one-bedroom apartment. In a Japanese setting, I can establish a sense of privacy by simply holding newspaper in front of my face and be silent—Japanese privacy is established.  In my girlfriend’s culture, when you are in a room together, you are assumed to participate each other’s presence.  “What are you reading?”, “Wanna a cup of coffee?”, or “I’m bored” are the usual intrusion toward the silence.  You need to go to the other room and shut the door to have privacy.

So perhaps the lack of a word for privacy in Japanese just means that privacy is established in different ways. We would not perceive someone reading a book in the living room as having privacy, whereas in Japan they would.


Mind Shapes the World

A study published in 2009 supports this idea that the differences in personality seem to run much deeper than situational role-playing. Participants in the study were asked for their opinion on a variety of topics. The questions were first asked in one language, and then a second. Participants were more likely to favor different values depending on which language the question was administered in. This study is significant because it finds that the same participant answers differently in each language. These findings seem to contradict a situational-based personality change, or one attributable to a culture at large. 

There are several complicating factors when trying to analyze personality shifts. Being bilingual does not necessarily mean that you are bicultural. The age and situation in which you learn a second language can have a big impact on how you feel when speaking it. A man who left his native Mexico at the age of eight for the US may never feel comfortable using the informal ‘you’ to address his elders. He may therefore be perceived to be more polite in Spanish. People having this perception of him may eventually shift his personality when he speaks Spanish.

Another issue is degree of fluency. We are likely to feel more reserved in a language we are less fluent in. A gregarious native English speaker may feel hesitant and careful in German. This may become baked into his experience of German culture, and thus his ‘German’ personality.


Those of us who are multilingual can often come up with many personal examples of our personality shifting based on which language we are speaking. What do you think about how much we change between languages?