How a Shift in Language Leads to a Shift in Personality
People with the ability to speak more than one language have long been subject to scientific research in the area of brain function. Many conclusions have been drawn including that being bilingual is associated with greater thinking flexibility, can delay the onset of certain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and allows one to communicate and understand the world from a different perspective. These are only some of the benefits of speaking more than one language. Interestingly, recent research suggests that bilingual and multilingual speakers behave differently depending on which language they speak.
What does that even mean? Does bilingualism cause multiple personality disorder? Not quite. Researchers say that personalities don’t necessarily change 100% when languages shift but rather certain aspects may become more pronounced or restrained. I can attest to this notion as I feel much more confident and self-assured in Spanish. My fear of public speaking evaporates and I am not afraid to let my voice be heard. I tend to have more self-doubt and over analyze things while thinking and speaking English. It's interesting to note that level of fluency and context (situations, people, etc.) are also important factors in whether personalities adapt when languages change.
An important detail is that personality shifting tends to happen more frequently with individuals that are bi or multicultural. For instance, I grew up in Mexico but have spent the rest of my life in the US. I speak Spanish with my family and English at work and with friends. I celebrate both Mexican and American holidays. That’s biculturalism. If a person learned Italian later in life but doesn’t necessarily practice aspects of that culture, they can be defined as bilingual but not bicultural. I know, psychology.
So why am I telling you all about this? Well, I was recently listening to an episode of Latino USA when this topic was raised. A producer said that she worried her non-Spanish speaking Caucasian boyfriend only knew a fraction of who she was. That he would never be able to see the whole of her because he didn’t understand Spanish. Thus, he would never get to interact and experience that essential part of her… This spoke directly to me because I’ve historically dated non-Spanish speaking men. The heart wants what the heart wants, kay! As I listened, all of a sudden this sentiment I’ve always felt was being articulated to me for the first time. That the whole of me isn’t always perceived by people close to me that don’t speak Spanish.
The same segment mentioned that one can think in one language but feel in another. This also resonated with me as I’d venture to say I think in English but feel in Spanish. I say this because English feels like a very straightforward language to me. It conveys what needs to be said in the most efficient way. It works. It fits the pragmatic aspect of who I am and I speak it most of the time, yet I tend to feel deeper than the confines of this language allow. Spanish, on the other hand, can be profound, poetic, sensitive, honest and romantic. And I would use all those adjectives to describe how I usually feel things. Feeling in Spanish can be comparable to riding an emotional roller coaster. In the span of a day, one can go from feeling the happiest to experiencing crushing sadness and melancholy while ending the day with extreme rage. It can be exhausting! It’s as if English gets you from point A to B, while Spanish concerns itself with the width of the journey. Spanish, at the end of the day, conveys much more emotion.
Basically, I feel like my truest self when I am thinking in Spanish. My inner monologue is gentler and less erratic. However, there is a paradox as I only speak and think in Spanish about 15% of the time. Also, my Spanish is not as sophisticated as my English, in terms of vocabulary. So, although I feel most like myself in Spanish, I struggle to express myself with the ease I do so in English. Obviously, this can be solved through practicing, reading, etc. Or perhaps, simply moving to South America to get my Spanish to match my English. That’s the idea I find most appealing, obvi.