Does Splitting Languages Split Your Personality?

by Translation Guy on May 19, 2010

I know a lot of readers of this blog are bilingual switch hitters, speaking two languages, sometimes more, sometimes even multiple languages at the same time. Comes in handy, especially when you are doing multiple language puns, which are an even lower form of humor than monoglot puns. More seriously, are you the same person in one language as you are in another? Do bilinguals have split personalities? If so, which one of you is reading this?!!

A few years back, researchers at the University of Texas asked bilingual Mexican-Americans “a set of questions designed to assess personality, such as ‘Are you talkative?’ and ‘Do you tend to be disorganized?’ Many participants changed their answers when questioners switched from Spanish to English or vice versa.”

“When participants spoke in English, their responses emphasized assertiveness and achievement. These traits fit with the individualist ideals of the United States, as opposed to the group-oriented culture of Mexico, explained lead researcher Nairan Ramirez-Esparza.”

I’ve seen it in my daughter when she switches back and forth from Japanese to English, but maybe it’s just the way she acts when she talks to me. My wife always said she liked me better in English than in Japanese, which I guess is part of the reason we live in NYC instead of ToKiO, I suppose. I’ll bet bilingual readers have had similar experiences. I’ve seen people really turn it up so that the transformation was uncanny. Chris Field, a genial and easy-going guy who is also one of our ace Japanese interpreters and TV talents, has a Japanese persona that is absolutely killer―really the evil Japanese twin that can send a shiver down your spine when he is cranking it up. When he turns it down, that same persona is super-effective in making professional Japan-US encounters productive and efficient, as his split personality bridges the cultural gap that can muck things up in trans-Pacific encounters.

As a language professional, Chris can turn it up or down consciously, but the language effect appears to have a big impact sub-consciously, too.

You don’t need to be a psychologist to know that people can switch between different ways of interpreting events and feelings in even one language, but this kind of “frame shifting” seems to be easier for bilingual people who are active in two different cultures, and language is the trigger.

Researchers David Luna from Baruch College, New York, and Torsten Ringberg and Laura Peracchio from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, found that women classified themselves and others as more assertive when they spoke Spanish than when they spoke English. One part of the study got the volunteers to watch TV advertisements showing women in different scenarios. The participants initially saw the ads in one language―English or Spanish―and then six months later in the other.”

“‘In the Spanish-language sessions, informants perceived females as more self-sufficient and extroverted,’ they say. For example, one person saw the main character in the Spanish version of a commercial as a risk-taking, independent woman, but as hopeless, lonely, and confused in the English version.”

So this has a lot of implications for bilingual communication, both in our personal lives and in the profession of translation. If you are working on helping a client understand a message through back translation or balancing a test instrument, these split linguistic personality-types can make or break a translation or adaptation. Ever seen this phenomenon in action, professionally or personally?


  1. Frank says:

    That’s a very interesting study with my extraordinary results – I hope to dig deeper into this. Thanks for the intro Ken.

  2. Peyton T. says:

    Just Curious
    I speak 2 languages (learning a third) and people think i’m like really dumb
    but are bilingual people smarter?
    and does it depend on the language?

    I speak English, Gujarati (an indian language), and i’m learning french

  3. Alexandra says:

    No i think bilingual people are really smart. I know that if you are going to apply for a job, you should put down on your application that you are bilingual because most jobs are looking for someone who is bilingual.

  4. People who are bilingual have an advantage over the rest of us, and not just in terms of communication skills. The bilingual brain develops more densely, giving it an advantage in various abilities and skills, according to new research as well…

  5. Claire White says:

    Multiple languages are processed in the same part of the brain, but the connections between them require more neural networking and therefore use more of your brain power. We can’t increase our number of neurons or brain cells, but we can increase the number of electrical connections or chemical synapses between them, and that is what makes bilingual or multilingual people smarter. For example, bilingual education students in elementary school routinely outscore their monolingual counterparts on standardized testing by fifth grade level. That is no coincidence. First they learn English, then they catch up academically, and finally surpass the native-born.

  6. Wyatt Inglis says:

    Do bilingual people dream in their mother tongue or second language?

  7. Well in my dreams (I moved to Canada from China like 7 years ago) it depends on who I’m dreaming about…like my parents speak chinese ’cause that’s what they’d speak at home but my friends speak english because that’s what they use to speak to me in real life.

  8. Madelyn G says:

    My Grandma is bilingual and said that when she first moved to England when she was 18 she dreamed in her native language but at some point (she does not know when) this switched to English.
    I wondered what other people thought?
    I myself only speak one language fluently so this really intrigues me.

  9. Further to that. When you complete everyday tasks, do you “think” in your first-learned language?

  10. Ayep, definately.

  11. Gregory says:

    What an awesome question!

    My wife is originally from China. She learned Kejia (Hakka) from her mother, then went to school and studied Mandarin. Later, she moved to Guangzhou (Canton) and learned Cantonese. She speaks each fluently, so English is her fourth spoken language and second written language (amazingly, most all chinese dialects share the same Chinese Hanzi character writing system).

    I am American and English is my first language. I speak German and Mandarin, but not fluently.

    My wife thinks in a blend of Kejia and Mandarin, and reads mainly in Mandarin, since she learned to read in school. When she is reading English, she will often take notes, translating the English into Hanzi for easy reference later, along with any notes she wants to make.

    I think almost exclusively in English, but I often drift into translating words into Chinese or German if I know them, especially since we speak a blend of Chinese and English at home.

    So for me the answer is a yes, but for my wife, it really is based on when she learned to talk (Kejia/Hakka) and when she learned to write (Mandarin), when she thinks in either of those two languages.

  12. Janet P. says:

    My bilingual kids are smarter than your English only kids!

  13. Judy1949 says:

    Too bad we can’t say that you’re smarter than either set of kids…

  14. Very interesting post, and great blog, TranslationGuy!

    I’ve been saying this for years, with most people’s reactions ranging from being offended to being mildly interested, although, as Claire White explains, it’s pretty obvious that learning several languages allows us to use more of our potential.

    As for the switching, I’m Italian, but I have had moments thinking in German and French after living in Germany and France for a while, and after living in Australia for four years (and counting) I often think in English, now. People do tell me that I am indeed different in the two languages, and I can say the same about my partner. And when one stops to think about how language works, it is not at all surprising, really.

    Also, my dreams tend to be multilingual, although, as many people have pointed out, it depends on the context and the images used in each dream…

  15. Emily says:

    I am from the United States (and therefore a native speaker of the English language) but have been living in Argentina for three years. Though I consider myself bilingual, I have been told on many occasions that I am a very different person in English than I am in Spanish – always by Spanish-speakers.

    I´m never sure how to take the comment.

    I feel like I am generally the same in both English and Spanish. A few things may come out with more ease in English, but I don´t feel like the difference is huge. Still, it does make me wonder whether my Argentine friends and acquaintances will ever know the “real” me …

  16. No, written Cantonese and written Mandarin are NOT the same. The fact is that when Cantonese write letters etc. or essays they write in Mandarin (but they pronounce it in Cantonese…). Movie and tv scripts are written in Cantonese and they do NOT use the same character sets as Mandarin. Many words are the same with a different pronunciation, but the word for he/she for example, in Cantonese, is completely different from Mandarin and has no meaning for a Mandarin speaker.

  17. cna training says:

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  19. ress says:

    it was very interesting to read.
    I want to quote your post in my blog. It can?
    And you et an account on Twitter?

    • Ken says:

      Nice of you to ask, Ress. Please quote at will, and follow me on Twitter @TranslationGuy

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