Does learning a language give you a split personality?

One of the characteristics of an advanced learner is being able to actually think in your second language rather than needing to translate back to your mother tongue. Cultural context is really important for language learners, too. So, after spending years learning about a language and the culture that goes along with it, surely the way you speak and present your ideas will become similar to people from that culture.

In my experience as a language teacher and learner, I’ve found that people seem to be split into two quite distinct groups on this. Generally, people who learn a language in a classroom and don’t have much chance to interact with native speakers of that language, won’t take on many of the cultural traits that go with their new language and their personality will remain relatively unchanged in their second language.

Of course, there are exceptions to this. Some people who learn a language at school make a real effort to learn about the cultural background that goes along with it. Usually this is because they are actually interested in the culture, though, rather than just learning about it to improve their language skills.

The second group of people tend to treat the language and culture with equal importance. Often they are people who are actually living in a country where their second language is spoken. Sometimes, they are learning to communicate with friends or new family members. Other people may be learning a language because of a specific interest in that culture (e.g. many people learn Japanese to watch anime and learning Korean to follow TV drama in Asia is very common).

I’m often amazed by the things students from this second group say to me. Some students tell me they are pessimistic in their native language but optimistic when they speak English. There are others who have trouble talking about their emotions in their own language but have no problem telling me all about their hopes and dreams in class. There are even some of my students whose posture and physical gestures are completely different when they speak English to when they speak their mother tongue. Generally, it’s the students like this who reach their goals fastest.

I have personal experience of this, too. My life is fairly evenly split between three languages. I speak English when I talk to my family in the UK or at work. I’m fairly serious and polite in English. When I speak Indonesian on the streets or with friends, I love making jokes and I’m really outgoing. When I speak Balinese at home, I swear a lot (especially when I’m driving) and I generally say what’s on my mind a lot more directly than I would in the other languages.

Of course, speaking another language isn’t going to affect your main morals and ethics, but it can be fun being ‘someone else’ for a few hours a day. Is your personality different when you speak another language?

The author
Wil Procter is a blogger and English teacher. He shares tips for advanced English learners at http://wilsworldofwords.com/. Follow him on Twitter @WilsWords.

You might also like:

7 thoughts on “Does learning a language give you a split personality?”

  1. Being from The Netherlands originally, and now having lived in Germany for thirteen years I know exactly what you mean. The differences between German and Dutch aren’t enormous but it still took me while to develop the “new me”, living abroad 😉

    My German “persona” tends to be more serious than my Dutch one. Also, my tone of voice is lower when I speak German, as several people who know me well have observed.

    Thanks for this interesting post!

  2. Yeah I agree with this – I’m told that I’m way more fun when speaking Spanish or Portuguese for example 😛 In German I’m finding myself being more analytical and focused on details than I normally would be…
    Having a multilingual split-personality is fun! 😀

  3. I agree 100 percent. I’m russian and now I’m living in Spain. My russian friends copy me when I start speaking them in Russian cause I pass some gestures from the Spanish language and also I’m more emotional and open my eyes widely while speaking 😀
    Yeah, it’s funny 🙂

  4. Thanks for the great response, everyone. It’s so nice to know there are other people out there who’ve had a similar experience.

    Alexandra, it’s interesting that the tone of your voice is lower in German. Would you say that native German speakers tend to speak that way in general or is it a personal thing?

    Benny, you are so much fun in English, it’s difficult to imagine how you could be more fun in another language ;o).

    Dasha, it’s interesting you mentioned gestures there. I have just started learning Japanese and I find I nod really often when I am speaking. I don’t know why, I just can’t help it.

    So far, most of the comments are from people who’ve actually lived in another country while learning a language (myself included). I wonder how many people reading this article have had an experience like this without going to live in a country where the language they are learning is spoken.

  5. I wonder if culture isn’t a third variable here affecting both behavior and language. I’m an American living in Kazakhstan. I don’t think that I necessarily change my personality when I speak Russian as opposed to when I speak English, my native language. I would say that when I am with Kazakhs or Russians, I am more mindful of the native culture which is more conservative (for lack of a better word) than American culture. Kazakhs don’t like public displays of emotion for example. But with Westerners I can be more open and of course I am more likely to speak English.

    However I definitely agree that different languages have different ways of expressing things and students have to both accept that and catch on to it.–many Kazakhstani feel it is rude to say please or thank you to a friend, because a close friend doesn’t need pretty words to help you out, whereas in the US we tend to always say please and thank you. I wouldn’t say I become more rude in Russian, but as a student it does help to know that because originally I was backing away from being so direct. I think picking up on these differences in expression is also a gateway to no longer translating and beginning to speak freely in a new language.

  6. My mother tongue is French and I speak it at home (especially). I learned English when I was 21, and it’s my working, serious language. Living in Ottawa, Canada, where both languages are found, I find that I switch personalities often. It’s more difficult for me to be relaxed and funny in English, probably because I had to learn it for work. I also speak Spanish and Italian and I find myself much more romantic and “female” when I speak those languages.

  7. Thank you for sharing your experience. My mother tonge is Chinese. I never been to any English spoken contries for study, but I love letters from the very begining when I knew ABC, and I kept that passion through out of my middle school, high school and college. I might doze off in any courses, but never in English course, so I alway did a good job in English, and always had a great eager to speak, to use, to learn more about English. I even dreamed of speaking English when I was high school!

Comments are closed.