Wednesday, 12 April 2006

Change your personality, learn a new language

The personality of people who are bilingual changes depending on which language they use, lending credence to the Czech proverb “Learn a new language and get a new soul”.

That’s according to Nairan Ramirez-Esparza and colleagues who assessed the personality of dozens of people in America and Mexico who were fluent, current users of both English and Spanish.

Participants twice completed a questionnaire gauging the ‘Big Five’ personality dimensions of extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness and neuroticism – once in English and once in Spanish. Across three separate samples, the researchers observed the same pattern – when the participants completed an English version of the questionnaire, they tended to score higher on extraversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness, and slightly lower on neuroticism, compared with when they completed a Spanish version.

However, it’s important to note that the overall shape of participants’ personalities did not change profoundly depending on which language they used. The researchers explained: “Thus, an extravert does not suddenly become an introvert as she switches languages; instead a bilingual becomes more extraverted when she speaks English rather than Spanish but retains her rank ordering within each of the groups”.

The research with bilinguals was consistent with a study of thousands of monolingual participants who spoke only Spanish, or only English, that showed English speakers tended to score higher on extraversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness.

Careful analysis confirmed none of these reported effects were due to the way the questionnaires were translated. Instead, the researchers explained the effect of using different languages on personality as a kind of ‘Cultural Frame Switching’ – “the tendency of bicultural individuals (i.e. people who have internalised two cultures, such as bilinguals) to change their interpretations of the world… in response to cues in their environment (e.g. language, cultural icons)”.
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Ramirez-Esparza, N., Gosling, S.D., Benet-Martinez, V., Potter, J.P. & Pennebaker, J.W. (2006). Do bilinguals have two personalities? A special case of cultural frame switching. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 99-120.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to a site where you can test your own personality (the same site used by the researchers to test monolinguals).