You’ve probably come across people who are multilingual and you’ve admired their ability to switch between different languages with ease. However, as you marvel at their fluency in more than one language, has it ever occurred to you that their behavior might change depending on the language that they are speaking at the moment?

Read on to find out the current theories on multilingual people and how their personalities can actually be altered when they switch from one language to another.

How being multilingual influences your personality

A number of issues are considered when trying to find out whether someone’s personality changes when they change language. For instance, the ability to learn and speak another language is associated with neuroplasticity; that is, the flexibility of your brain. Add to that the fact that language is heavily influenced by the culture in which it emerges and it becomes clear why language might impact someone’s personality to a large extent.

One example of an aspect of personality that multilingual people report being affected most is their style of speaking. The differences noted included the frequency with which the speaker interrupted another speaker and how rude others perceived the speaker to be. Some of the reasons put forward for these characteristics include the structural differences in languages and the extent to which rudeness is accepted in the culture from which a language emerged.

It also makes a difference how words are ordered. For example, if the ordering of words in a particular language allows for the meaning to be revealed earlier in the sentence, the risk of misunderstanding the speaker is lessened because it is more likely that the main word(s) have already been uttered.

It takes time to learn how to communicate in a nuanced manner

People typically adopt a different speaking style when they change language, especially when they’re still learning it. When you’re still a beginner, you may find that your manner of speaking is usually too direct or blunt, not because you want to come across that way, but because you don’t have enough vocabulary to communicate in a nuanced manner when speaking the language.

Initially, you may notice that you’re still translating words from to the new language in your head. As a result, you may not be fully aware of the subtleties of the new language or you might be forced to ignore them as you translate the words.

Culture and language influence each other

Culture and language influence each other in a complex way. It therefore stands to reason that the culture from which a language emerges can influence the personality of a speaker. For instance, people in French-speaking nations of West Africa are accustomed to greeting strangers with an enthusiastic „bonjour“. In contrast, their counterparts in English-speaking West African countries consider it odd to say „hello“ to a complete stranger in for no apparent reason.

Being multilingual does not necessarily mean that someone is multicultural. For instance, a business professional may learn a new language in order to facilitate their work. However, having learnt it as an adult, such a person is more likely to imbue the culture they grew up with into the language or they might integrate the new language into the corporate culture.

In contrast, some people are raised in a multicultural society and as a result, their cultural reference point tend to switch whenever they switch to a new language. For example, consider a person raised in Gibraltar by one British parent and one Spanish parent. Having been raised speaking both English and Spanish, the person may constantly feel the need to either express or restrain themselves depending on the language they are speaking at the moment.

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The level of your fluency in a particular language and culture considerably impacts your personality in ways that cannot be ignored. On one hand, speaking a new language with all the formalities and correct syntax might make a speaker sound like they don’t have much personality when they speak. On the other hand, transferring the personality of their native language into the new language can be confusing.

Balance is key

It is only when you match your linguistic personality with the language that you are learning that you can achieve true multi-linguistic prowess. The same goes for the use of body language, tone and slang.