Does speaking another language change your personality?

March 28, 2017

Who are you when you speak a language other than your native tongue? That’s the question Nicola Prentice explores in a recent article for Quartz.

You’re still you, of course, but as Nicola points out, research around this topic suggests that when you tap into another language, you might also be a more open, more assertive, or more extraverted version of yourself–depending on the language spoken, and the context in which you learned it. (Or as evidenced by the picture of Crown Point Christian’s students at the top, learning Spanish might make you feel a little more like taking up Flamenco!)

After helping to conduct two studies on the connection between language and self-perception, Nairan Ramírez-Esparza, an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Connecticut, concluded:

“The language cannot be separated from the cultural values of that language. You see yourself through the cultural values of the language you are speaking.”

And as Bonny Norton, a professor of language and literacy education at British Columbia University points out:

“The minute you speak to someone you’re engaging in an identity negotiation. ‘Who are you? Where are you? How do I relate to you? How do you see me?’ So when someone says their personality changes, what they’re saying is: ‘When I talk to other people my personality changes.’”

addalingua co-founder, Lilah Ambrosi, noticed this same linguistic personality flip when after an evening of conversation with her Spanish speaking teachers and aides, her husband would ask, “‘Why is everyone so animated? What’s all the emotion about?’ I would find myself responding, ‘What? We were just talking.’ So there’s pretty clearly an emotive thing happening when I’m speaking Spanish with my colleagues and friends that’s above and beyond how I normally communicate in English.”

It’s a fascinating discussion, and one with real implications for dual language immersion students who are often learning language and culture together from native speakers of the immersion language. As Nicola points out, the context of the language acquisition matters a great deal:

“It may also be that the context in which you learn a second language is essential to your sense of self in that tongue. In other words, if you’re learning to speak Mandarin while living in China, the firsthand observations you make about the people and culture during that period will be built into your sense of identity as a Mandarin speaker. If you’re learning Mandarin in a classroom in the US, you’ll likely incorporate your instructor’s beliefs and associations with Chinese culture along with your own—even if those beliefs are based on stereotypes.”

We love seeing dual language immersion teachers weave culture into their instruction– moving beyond surface features like music and cuisine, to include things like idiomatic expressions. As we tell parents and communities around the nation, any quality dual language immersion program will include cross-cultural competency as a key student outcome. Because as Nicola concludes,

“When you learn a new language, you’re not just memorizing vocabulary and grammar rules—you also have a chance to tap into new parts of your identity.”

Three cheers to that!

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