I’m sitting in a Parisian cafe with a French friend and I stop to take a call. ‘You sound so rude!’ she tells me. I hadn’t done anything wrong, I’d just spoken in English. Apparently whenever I spoke to her in French I sounded softer, gentler and younger, while in English I came across as abrupt, sharp and direct. So, does language affect your personality?
The relationship between language and personality
In a scientific study entitled ‘Two Languages, Two Personalities’, two Hong Kong Polytechnic University professors investigate whether personality changes as a function of the language. Looking at the difference between English and Cantonese, they argue that while language proficiency and cultural context must be borne in mind, personality shifts across languages do exist.
Lacking a dictionary, not confidence
Language ability is key. Living in Chile, my Spanish is improving, but it’s still average. I can hold a conversation on familiar topics, but I struggle to articulate deeper nuances, irony and humour.
I often wonder if Spanish speakers consider me shy, dumb or lacking a sense of humour. I get the joke, but only five minutes later than everyone else. Someone takes a playful swipe at me over dinner. I have a great comeback, but not until the coffee arrives.
I know I’m not alone. Expater friends from all over the world tell me the same. One amigo claimed he gained five kilograms in one summer due to language. Struggling to communicate at a series of weddings in England, he felt incredibly shy and resorted to the dessert tray to look busy.
Do different languages have different personalities?
Does French makes you sound sexy? Or does it make you sexier? In ‘What Makes French Sexy?‘ linguist Liz Marasco explores the ‘je ne sais quoi’ factor, arguing that French’s syllable timing, breathy tones and rounded vowel sounds make for its sex appeal.
I once walked in on a South Korean friend speaking to her parents on the phone. I wouldn’t call it a chat, but a prolonged rant with the occasional whine thrown in. ‘Is everything OK?’ I asked, tentatively . ‘Oh sure, I was just catching up about this new restaurant they went to…’ Is South Korean an inherently rude language? Or does it just sound this way to ignorant foreigners?
I speak French, German and Spanish to varying degrees of success. German has a very structured grammar format. Word order is very important. Consequently when I speak German I’m more precise with my speech. I don’t try to wing it like I might in Spanish, even though my Spanish is not as good as my German.
Bilingual Personality Disorder
Researchers have found that native speakers of more than one language act differently according to the language they speak.
‘Rather than ask whether speakers of different languages have different minds, we ask, can two different minds exist within one person?’ writes psycholinguist Panos Athanasopoulos of Lancaster University.
Does language affect your personality?
I have three children, two boys aged three and five, and a girl aged one. When we arrived in Chile for the first time over a year ago, the boys would converse in English, now they speak together in Spanish. Have they changed or just grown up? Do their personalities alter as they switch from one language to the other? Is the Chilean slang personality different to other forms of Spanish?
Yesterday my eldest child, Sebastian, said I was being unfairly harsh on him. We always speak together in English, but I’m keen for him to learn more languages someday too.
If Sebastian could read this, perhaps he’d rather we spoke in French right away. You want a softer mum, mon cheri? Et voila!