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Are you a different person when you speak a different language? (6/28/2008)

culture, language

People who are bicultural and speak two languages may actually shift their personalities when they switch from one language to another, according to new research in the Journal of Consumer Research.

"Language can be a cue that activates different culture-specific frames," write David Luna (Baruch College), Torsten Ringberg, and Laura A. Peracchio (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee).

The authors studied groups of Hispanic women, all of whom were bilingual, but with varying degrees of cultural identification. They found significant levels of "frame-shifting" (changes in self perception) in bicultural participants-those who participate in both Latino and Anglo culture. While frame-shifting has been studied before, the new research found that biculturals switched frames more quickly and easily than bilingual monoculturals.

The authors found that the women classified themselves as more assertive when they spoke Spanish than when they spoke English. They also had significantly different perceptions of women in ads when the ads were in Spanish versus English. "In the Spanish-language sessions, informants perceived females as more self-sufficient and extroverted," write the authors.

In one of the studies, a group of bilingual U.S. Hispanic women viewed ads that featured women in different scenarios. The participants saw the ads in one language (English or Spanish) and then, six months later, they viewed the same ads in the other language. Their perceptions of themselves and the women in the ads shifted depending on the language. "One respondent, for example, saw an ad's main character as a risk-taking, independent woman in the Spanish version of the ad, but as a hopeless, lonely, confused woman in the English version," write the authors.

The shift in perception seems to happen unconsciously, and may have broad implications for consumer behavior and political choices among biculturals.

David Luna, Torsten Ringberg, and Laura A. Peracchio. "One Individual, Two Identities: Frame-Switching Among Biculturals" Journal of Consumer Research: August 2008.

Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by the University of Chicago Press Journals


1. Alicia Granda

7/3/2008 4:53:11 PM MST

I am a 22-year old Chilean-American, raised in New York City while spending my summer vacations in Chile since I was six months old. I spoke Spanish at home and learned English in school and have always been able to switch between both languages very easily. When I speak in English, my voice is very monotone, low and at times soft-spoken. But when I speak Spanish, the pitch in my voice is much higher and varies more in sound, its also more assertive sounding and stronger. Finding this article gives me some information of how language changes personality, something I had never thought about but is definitely of interest. Thank you for the insight!

2. Lucy Scott-Kellermeier

7/4/2008 11:00:01 AM MST

I am an American teaching at a bilingual school in Germany since 1982. I have noticed the degree of affinity I feel for colleagues can vary depending on which language they are speaking. For instance, I remember in my younger single years finding an American colleague witty and charming when I first meet him. After about a year, we were at a German colleague's house and speaking only in German. I perceived the same American to be arrogant and boorish.
Oddly enough, I detect no change in my reactions to CHILDREN when they switch from one language to another. I only respond differently when interacting with adults.
Alicia G. mentioned difference in voice timbre. When I speak French (it was my second language as a child) my voice is at least a register higher!

3. Ragarnok

8/4/2008 11:53:18 PM MST

@3 I think you are missing the point here, we are not talking about the context (between friends, at the restaurant etc...) but the mean (the language)

From my personal experience (I speak 4 different language and understand 6) and I can say that this article is accurate, but not so much because of the different language by themselves (you could theoretically say the same thing in different language) but the difference in culture determining the phrasing, timing and the particular expression to each language get you automatically into a different mindset.

4. CI CI

8/10/2008 7:03:38 AM MST

I'm sorry my english is so poor i can't speeke so many i like your inter age and your paint yes i
like it i hope i can watch many new thines aout art just so so
thank you

5. CI CI

8/10/2008 7:14:41 AM MST

I'm sorry in the wrong age write some wrong i think it's art page

6. LoongKen

8/10/2008 2:16:52 PM MST

I noticed long ago that when my friend Michael spoke French, his posture changed radically from when he spoke in his native English. He just looked French in his attitude and body language.

7. BrDoc

8/10/2008 7:19:41 PM MST

Sorry to burts anyone's balloon, but I studied precisely these effects in 1975 when I earned a Master's degree in linguistics. The particular subfield is called sociolinguistics, and a great many books and papers have been published that document these effects. The most common name used to refer to these effects is "code switching."

8. Ash Frog

8/14/2008 9:30:54 AM MST

"One respondent, for example, saw an ad's main character as a risk-taking, independent woman in the Spanish version of the ad, but as a hopeless, lonely, confused woman in the English version," write the authors."

Wouldn't that have more to do with being ethnocentric than having your personality change?

The article was interesting, but I only "shift" my personality when I speak Farsi in front of adults. Around kids my age it's no different than when I'm speaking english.

9. D

4/16/2009 8:49:06 PM MST

I've been learning German, and while I'm not yet very fluent, I have noticed I tend to feel more assertive and confident while speaking German, which seems counter to the views expressed here, which seem to suggest people tend to feel more in control while speaking their native language.

10. DJ

4/22/2009 2:32:27 PM MST

This is absolutely true. I live in a province in Holland called Friesland, and it has its own language called Frisian.

When I talk frisian I'm much more outgoing and sharp in tongue, and when I talk Dutch I sound quite a bit duller and I'm much less extrovert. I think slower when speaking Dutch, maybe this has to do with the primarly language you learn in your Childhood that your Brain utilizes as 'thinkingcode'. I'm just guessing, but I can absolutely confirm this.

11. lizzy

4/28/2009 10:37:55 AM MST

I speak several languages and have participated directly in several cultures. I have lived in one country for my first 14 years of life and then immigrated to Canada. in my home country i was a minority as well. I strongly disagree with this article. I believe that we are ignoring cultural presuppositions that people normally and subconsciously have toward other cultures. i can tell you that i do not act differently when i speak any of the languages that i am fluent in. This theory has been addressed by an early century psychologist. his theories were discredited. Cultural perceptions and beliefs affect behavior, language dose not. Being part of a minority community i can also tell you that most do not act differently when they switch between languages. Cultural norms do not change, they are simply less important in certain situations.

12. Alan

5/7/2009 3:24:37 AM MST

Well I might not be versed at about linguistics but as far as I can tell I do notice a change in my personality when I "switch" languages. However there seems to be a stange pattern, for example when I write english I'm rather confident (My guess it's because I can rethink the words properly), when I speak english I'm usually shy (I guess it's because I have some pronunciation issues) but when I speak spanish I'm somewhat more cynical and extrovert (maybe because it's my native language), In a nutshell: we might have to reconsider more individual facts about language and culture and, of course, personal experience. i.e. inmigrants, imposed languages, etc.

13. Marie

6/26/2009 8:00:30 PM MST

I haven't really studied this, but I think saying that we are "different people" when we speak our other languages is a bit strange. On the other hand, it is logical that you may act differently speaking one language than another, but wouldn't it have more to do with the reasons others have listed -- cultural things and confidence with the language -- than the language itself? If it's your native tongue, of course you're going to be more confident -- or if you're familiar with a culture you associate with the language you're speaking, you might unconsciously incorporate some personality traits into how you act just to fit more comfortably into the mindset you need to use the language with confidence. Even things like accents can completely change the feel of what you're saying.

14. robb

7/12/2009 4:39:20 AM MST

i speak english and indonesian very well and a little bit of mandarin. yeah i agree on the cultural shift, but i personally think it happens only on a very seldom occasion. otherwise, it does not really affect me.

15. torkhum

7/15/2009 3:09:42 PM MST

From personal experience, it all depends on who, what, where and everything between those.

16. Momo

8/6/2009 8:24:24 AM MST

Totally understand. When I speak German - my voice tone is high and unconfident sounding.
I have been trying to work on it.
But alot of German women have high pitched voices - so its not so uncommon.

17. Aidan

8/17/2009 12:00:28 AM MST

This article intrigues me, because when I speak German I also feel more confident than when I'm speaking English. Speaking German I feel as though I'm in a parallel reality that's not "as real" as when I speak English.

18. Lena

9/14/2009 3:09:14 AM MST

To give a bit of background: I grew up with Russian, Ukrainian, and English in my childhood (and learned Spanish in school). (We immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine when I was one year old.) My vocabulary is better in English, but I'm completely fluent in Russian and Ukrainian. Currently, I am spending an academic semester in St. Petersburg, Russia.

I want to say that each language has its own sound and feel. Russian, for example, always felt kind of masculine and warm. Ukrainian always reminded me of bells. Because those are my first languages, I think I have some kind of nostalgic affinity with them. Thus, I believe these personality shifts may largely have to do with subjective mental associations people have with any individual language; it's very personal. On the other hand, every language has its sound and rhythm, and these likely affect the emotional palette that the speaker is working within, if that makes sense.

19. Yail Bloor

11/13/2009 4:00:31 PM MST

The Sapir-Whorf, which is essentially what this article is describing, hypothesis is widely discredited today. The idea that language affects how you think has generally been accepted to be turned on its head; the way you think affects the language you use. No matter what code switching you attempt, you will still be you. Even those linguists that still believe in SW concur that it has a much more limited effect than originally thought.

20. Nicole

11/16/2009 1:33:21 PM MST

I learned Italian as an adult, living and working in an exclusively Italian-speaking environment. On those few occasions that I found myself in the company of other Brits or Americans I found the topics of conversation seemed rather shallow and unformed.

21. Dave

12/4/2009 1:08:45 PM MST

Of course people are going to be more comfortable and "assertive" when they're speaking the language spoken at home, no matter what it is. They're more confident with it, probably have a larger vocabulary with it and, because it's used around family and friends there are positive associations with it. I do, however, sense an agenda in the way it is presented. Science isn't supposed to have any.

22. Sabine

4/25/2012 9:54:02 AM MST

I think a couple people discussing this here have gotten confused with regards to the term "Hispanic" that they used to describe their subjects.
Hispanic is just referring to their ethnicity, and does NOT imply at all that their native language is Spanish. I, for example, am a Hispanic, but was born and raised here in Wisconsin with English as my first language. So no, they were not necessarily more "comfortable" or "assertive" because it was their native language - I too feel that Spanish has a certain different quality to it that makes me more sassy and confident that I otherwise would be if I spoke English in the same context.

I have also spent a couple years abroad in Germany, and based on my experience there, I agree with this research 100%! I have always felt that while living in Germany, something was always a little different - I always knew that I didn't quite feel myself (my American self), and I did act a bit different in Germany than here. Partly because of the language, partly because of the culture. Language is, after all, the carrier of culture, and when you speak another language fluently, the effect of the culture is unavoidable. Language and culture, one could say, are almost inseparable. Without language, there is no way to convey culture.

In conclusion, people definitely will find themselves acting differently if they truly immerse themselves in another language/culture. If you live in another country and continue to act like an American, for example, you will always be treated as a foreigner and you will never be completely integrated. Anyone who says that they haven't been affected is most likely in denial or hasn't truly experienced immersion. Which is why I really recommend doing a year abroad - I think it is, dare I say, necessary in this era, seeing how global our world culture has become and how dependent on other countries and cultures we are. It is important to understand how other people think, how other cultures work! It sounds cliche and people have heard it too often, but it's true and you have to experience it yourself to understand - broaden your minds! Spend time abroad! Get to know another world!

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