Curse Of The Cunning Linguist

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A look at why people seem to change personality when they speak another language.


Hats off to those that can speak another language. Seriously, it’s a real skill to have. And given the continual shifting of international loyalties, population spikes, and global economic uncertainty; very useful too (!).


Languages open doors to people, places, and cultures – which explains the continued popularity of apps like DuoLingo, Babbel, and Busuu. But what’s intriguing is our perception of how languages should be spoken: the visible and audible changes we witness in a person’s character when they switch tongues.

Guess Who?


Sometimes it seems as if language has transformative powers. If you live or work in an international environment, this phenomenon will be very familiar to you. One moment your colleague is a cheeky extroverted Englishman; but as soon as he picks up the phone to a customer in Paris, his voice drops two octaves as he switches to business French, adopting a serious, formal demeanour. Out of nowhere.

Who is this person? Why are they suddenly so different??


language change personality


This is a phenomenon known as ‘cultural frame switching’. Back in 2006, University of Texas researchers conducted a study ‘Do bilinguals have two personalities? which revealed that English/Spanish speakers offer different sides about themselves in each language. When asked the same questions in English and Spanish, the English (American) answers were more focused on things like success and achievement, while the Spanish (Mexican) answers were concerned with family and community.

But there’s a difference between being bilingual – and therefore bicultural – and consciously learning a new language.


Perceptions Persist


Let’s be honest; those of us who start a language afresh rely on perceptions of what native speakers of different languages act and sound like. Yup, when all else fails we trade on stereotypes(!).

Even when we’re trying to avoid stylised hand gestures and accents it’s hard not to. To the untrained ear, different languages seem to exude peculiar nuances when they’re spoken. For example: the ‘quaff and chuckle’ of British English; the infinite compound noun-joining that gives German its undulating tone; or Spanish’s quickfire trilling.

(If you haven’t already, watch this hilarious tongue-in-cheek YouTube video “What Languages Sound Like To Foreigners”)

Whether new speakers aim to mirror sounds consciously or not, trying on a new linguistic dress can bring all sorts of responses from others too – which can shape our new ‘foreign’ persona.


So the next time you’re accosted in the street by an overseas visitor asking for directions, try not to chuckle at their admirably awkward attempt to speak your native language (!). You wouldn’t want to make them feel unwelcome. Encouraging them will leave them with a positive impression of your country, its people, and your language.

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