Did you know that bilingual people are known to have multiple personalities? Sounds dramatic, but don’t worry – it doesn’t mean that your close friends who speak more than one language switch personalities like Billy Milligan. The emotional and psychological processes might vary from language to language, and if you yourself are a bi- or multilingual, you might have noticed that your foreign-language-self might be more direct and expressive, or vice versa – more emotional and thoughtful.
Due to grammar peculiarities and different vocabulary ranges, bilinguals can tell one story in two different ways. You might see it while using writing services: writers with different cultural backgrounds could create two points of view on a subject. Besides some language theory, many psychological factors are involved, which show how complex and unpredictable our mind is.
Differences in Grammar
While vocabulary can be compared to a set of tools, grammar in a language is a pair of hands which operate these tools. Not only is grammar essential for sentence building, but it can also describe one action differently. For instance, in English, the variety of verb tenses relies on the duration of the action, its relation to past or present and so on. However, in Ukrainian and many other Slavic languages, there are only three verb tenses – past, present and future. So while in English we can describe a continuous action (“I had been working there for three months”), in Ukrainian we would simply state a past action (“I worked there for three months”).
Of course, this fact doesn’t create multiple personalities, but it affects our approach to storytelling. While in some languages bilinguals would pay close attention to sequence of tenses, in other languages they don’t emphasize on this, simply stating the fact of the action. Therefore, in such situations the speakers start depending on the context and might even change their view of events (Prigg).
Bicultural or Bilingual?
Due to social, religious and cultural differences, bilinguals might express their opinion more carefully on certain subjects which are not common to discuss in their first or second language. Researchers have even found that gender perception varies for bilinguals: while using Spanish, the speakers portrayed women as more self-sufficient and extroverted; in English, they would describe women as more family-orientated and dependent (Grosjean). What is more, humor and jokes vary from country to country, so an English native speaker would tell jokes and approach funny situations differently than, for example, German speakers.
Also, manners and communication can vary drastically from country to country. While Americans are known for their friendly and easy-going approach even to complete strangers, many Europeans tend to be more restricted when it comes to interactions with a stranger. Bi- or multilingual speakers would then also change the way they communicate with people depending on which language they speak.
Some cultures require a polite introduction and formal tone: Koreans, for example, define five speech levels depending on the formality of the situation. Japanese language has a few ways of showing respect, which would change the form of the verb in a sentence. In the meantime, English allows us to approach any person with the same pronoun “you”, regardless of whether they are a senior or a minor. Consequently, an English-Japasese bilingual would perceive a formal situation differently due to the level of formality which both of these languages impose on the situation.
This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of multiple personalities in bilingualism, as it relates not only to the language itself but also to upbringing and the psychology of the human mind. Of course, we should not imply that it is true for all people, but many bilinguals have reported that emotional attachment to a language defines how they communicate.
A great example of this is, surprisingly, swearing. Many bilinguals find it easier to swear in another language, as they don’t feel the negative connotation of the swear words as much as in their native language. Interestingly enough, swearing in one’s native language is reported to provide more emotional relief and add expression to the situation (Grosjean). That is why you might hear your bilingual friends swearing in their native language in a particularly harsh situation: the emotional connection to these words is stronger and provides more stress relief. On the other hand, some bilinguals find their second language richer in expressive words, so they might insert them into a conversation in their native language.
Moreover, it could be easier for bilinguals to express negative emotions or discuss controversial topics in another language, since they can’t help but feel a bit more emotionally distant from their second language. This is especially true for those who didn’t grow up in a bilingual environment but acquired the language later in life: their emotions haven’t been tied to their second language while they were growing up. Another explanation for this is upbringing. If a bilingual person isn’t used to expressing their emotions freely in their language due to emotionally detached family or friends, they would feel more free to communicate in a foreign language.
All in all, the notion of multiple personalities in language learners can be approached differently. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating concept to be researched – just like human character, it is a complex theory which varies from person to person and from culture to culture.
Prigg M. Being bilingual really can put you in two minds: Researchers say people can have different personalities in each language. Dailymail.com, 2021.
Phoneia.com (July 27, 2021). Multiple Personalities in Language Learners. Recovered from https://phoneia.com/en/multiple-personalities-in-language-learners/