Multilingual, Multi-Personality

06 May 2014
Dining out in Chinatown

Photo by London Transport Museum

In the past, I’ve speculated on how the second language acquisition process contributes to changes in the personality of the learner. Recently an article called Multilinguals Have Multiple Personalities on New Republic caught my attention. It turns out it’s actually based on the same research as I quoted in my Cross-Cultural Marital Communication: Sacrifice, Identity, Choice post, but it’s still an interesting topic well worth revisiting (5 years later).


This time, rather than insights, though, I just have questions. I’m curious how my readers out there might answer the following:

1. Do you consciously try to create and/or maintain a different personality for your foreign language (FL) speaking identity?

2. If you don’t consciously try to create and/or maintain a different personality for your FL identity, how do you determine if your FL personality is any different from your native language identity?

3. If certain languages tend to influence personality in a certain way (as the New Republic article suggests), what personality traits would speaking Mandarin Chinese impart onto its non-native speakers?


Here are my own answers:

1. Yes, I did that. I could only keep it up for so long, though, before my fluency made me self-conscious about maintaining my more outgoing, chatty Chinese self. I suspect that some people might be able to keep it up, though, depending on the specific “personality modifications” and the degree to which they’re applied.

2. Even after I “corrected” my Chinese self, making it more like my English-speaking self, my two personalities aren’t going to be 100% the same, if the New Republic article is to be believed (and I believe it). Most people I know don’t have the language skills or the opportunity to make such a comparison. Maybe Jenny from ChinesePod is in a decent position to judge, but she knows me mostly from how I am at work. That leaves basically just my wife, who’s not a native speaker of English, but is still in a good position to judge. No way to get an objective assessment, though (short of participating in an official experiment)!

3. This is really hard to say. One way to judge might be to look at how expats in China relate to each other in China, compared to how they relate back home. For example, they may be less shy about asking someone how much they make (kind of a taboo in most western countries). So… speaking Chinese makes you nosier about money?? Not exactly insightful. Obviously, there are problems with the method, too. I’m especially curious what other people think about this: what personality traits would speaking Mandarin Chinese impart onto its non-native speakers?

Leave a comment and answer all three questions, if you have the time! (Insight into acquisition of any language is fine; it doesn’t have to be Chinese.)


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Quick background: I began studying Chinese 10 years ago through an intensive language program, then I lived/worked in China for nearly 5 years. Now regularly talk in Chinese and do some grad school work (non-language acquisition-related) in the language.

    1. I definitely used to maintain a separate Chinese personality. I was a good deal chattier and I told significantly more corny (and very obvious) jokes. As I lived in China, my “Chinese” and “English” personalities started to converge, most likely due to an increasing level of comfort in the language.

    2. My wife (non-Chinese) and I learned Chinese together, and she was able to comment on my differences in personality. Individually, I also just felt different speaking Chinese than English (though this is not a particularly objective standard), particularly as I tried to fit my thoughts into what I could actually say.

    3. As soon as someone looks at me, they instantly know that I am not Chinese. As such, I am significantly more strategic in how I speak with people. I generally focus on having a great first hour of conversation with someone in Chinese with as few mistakes as possible, even if this means jumping past topics I’m less familiar about. Otherwise, I am quite nervous that they’ll speak to me like I’m an elementary student (or, even worse, not even speak to me in Chinese at all).

  2. I’ll just respond quickly to the questions and then move on to something else:

    1) Only for short periods of time, only at a lower proficiency level
    2) By talking about it with people who know you in several languages
    3) This is impossible to say, see below

    I think the main problem is that environment overlaps with language for most people. I have learnt most of my Chinese in Taiwan, so I’d be very careful with any statement about language influencing personality. I think it’s much more likely to be the environment and the people I have met here that creates the sense of a different personality rather than the language difference, although of course language might be a part of it too.

    For me, the biggest difference is between English and my native Swedish. A vast majority of my English output is written language and I have never lived in an English-speaking environment. That means that my English is suitable for writing rather than everyday language, and, as a result, when I’m forced to using English for everyday conversations, I feel awkward and people usually perceive me as being stiff or boring. That’s of course not only because of the language I use, but it’s definitely a significant factor.

    Still, I don’t feel different subjectively when speaking the different languages that I know. It’s impossible to know if I would make different decisions in different languages, but I suppose you could examine this by doing several psychological tests in different languages and see what happened. That would be very hard, though, considering that translating such tests is very hard in the first place and that tests created in different languages might not test exactly the same thing.

    • Thanks for the comment! You’re totally right about the environment side of the equation… It can’t be ignored or separated.

      Now you’ve got me curious what your Swedish personality is like! I only know you through your English writing. I guess I’ll never know…

  3. David Moser Says: May 6, 2014 at 3:03 pm

    I would say that I definitely come across as a different person in Chinese and English, but mostly due to my serious inadequacies and deficits in Chinese. Overall, I would characterize the difference as this: In English I come across as someone who is clearly highly educated, and someone who pays great attention to the subtleties of language and word choice. As I speak, I tend to be always stalking the elusive “mot juste”, always correcting and refining my choice of words. I also freely mix registers, from scholarly, to slangy American, to neutral polite, to jokingly wacky, often using or quoting language from Hollywood movies, books, or stereotype cliche. In Chinese, by contrast, I tend to come across as someone who prefers simple, vanilla words and phrases, and who seldom uses low-frequency or colorful words or idioms. In Chinese I blunder, I stutter, I struggle for the commonest phrases. I paraphrase, I repeat, I use hand gestures, I leave sentences dangling for the listener to fill in. I come across as someone who clearly has ideas and education, but who speaks simply, cautiously, and frequently makes utterances that are understandable but oddly off-the-mark, tone deaf, weirdly inappropriate, or cutely wrong — but communicative. And I’m totally incapable of mixing registers in Chinese, unable to quote things like poems or lines from movies, and I can’t imitate accents, or muster a subtle semantic nuance with a well-chosen, flavorful word. Never. Everything I say is flat, prosaic, and seldom completely grammatical. I’d say these two “personalities” are more a result of the sheer difference between my clumsy Chinese and my native English. Some foreigners compensate for this problem by learning a lot of swear words or tricky idioms to throw out and impress the Chinese listener. I never did that, and never do that. What you hear is what you get, with me. I think I definitely “come across” as the real me in Chinese — mainly thanks to extra-linguistic aspects like facial expression, tone of voice, context, and the listener’s patient decoding — but it’s definitely like a Skype call with a bad connection and lots of background noise. Much gets lost or garbled.

    • Wow, thanks for the thoughtful (and very 谦虚) answer. Although I can’t claim the same level of “highly educated” as you, I can identify with a lot of those feelings.

  4. David Moser Says: May 6, 2014 at 3:13 pm

    And just as an important footnote: I think all this talk of “Are you a different person in another language?” applies to bilinguals; that is, people who grew up speaking two or more languages. For what it’s worth, I am NOT bilingual. I am a native English speaker who speaks pretty good Chinese. I think the question really doesn’t apply to me — or people like me– at all. The talk of “becoming another person” in this regard is strictly speaking not a linguistic issue, but a sociological one. I “become a different person” at a Thanksgiving dinner with my grandparents from the “me” who is at a bar drinking with John Pasden. In the same way, when I’m asked to go on a variety TV show and opine or quip in Chinese, I of course become a “different person”, but it’s an adaptive, contextual trick, a social game, role-playing. There are no psycholinguistic or cognitive linguistic implications at all. Just “How can I get through this situation without seeming like an idiot?” For many foreigners, they do the opposite; they opt for “Getting through the situation by acting like an idiot.” I try to avoid that as much as possible.

    • That’s a good point. Both the original article and the study it refers to look at fully bilingual people. I made the unspoken assumption that adult learners of other languages will exhibit similar personality divergence, but exactly how it differs is a whole ‘nother topic in itself (and a very interesting one, if you ask me!).

  5. 盗羊 Says: May 7, 2014 at 5:03 am
    1. I don’t try to consciously maintain a different identity, but am definitely conscious of a difference.

    2. Over time, the way I deal with people and am perceived, depending on whether I use French, English or Chinese became very obvious to me simply from analysing similar social situations, and yes, asking people about how they see me.

    3. I strongly doubt speaking Mandarin Chinese per se entails any specific behavioral traits. However, considered within the broader scope of East-Asian languages and social contexts, most Western speakers may feel they behave in a more “Chinese” way as they speak it, simply because they have to speak it with Chinese people, and therefore have to learn a certain body language, certain forms of politeness that aren’t so common in the West.

    I definitely agree with Olle regarding the influence of the environment. I started speaking English on a daily basis only after going to study abroad, in my early 20s; right now, I feel much more assertive and social speaking English than my native (stuck-up) French — but had I been forced to practice my English in a very different context (say, in a bank in Singapore), I doubt my “English personality” would be the same.

    In Chinese, I generally come across as a “nicer,” less sarcastic or negative person — because I studied this language and speak it to this day with rather nice, non-sarcastic and positive Chinese friends. Are they representative of most native Mandarin speakers? Hard to say — though it must be said that people’s sense of humor here doesn’t rely as much on irony, for instance.

    (maybe another reason I’m nicer in Chinese is that, as Daniel points out, you’re forever a laowai in China — and people tend to be nicer to you, in many situations, especially when you speak Chinese)

    Addendum –
    My girlfriend is Chinese, was born and raised in Shanghai, but speaks flawless English (started to study it very young, spent some years abroad). We speak Mandarin normally. But whenever we fight, she switches to English, because she feels cooler, more confident and more rational that way. She also feels it’s a much better language to insult people than Chinese 🙂

    (In Mandarin, she’s more emotional, much, much sweeter, and when she starts speaking in Shanghainese to fatherly taxi drivers I almost need a shot of insulin)

  6. Jon Nicklin Says: May 7, 2014 at 1:49 pm

    As a Brit living in Shanghai and working in Mandarin here, I definitely agree that I have/had a different personality in Chinese to English. In Chinese, I am more chatty and more direct (i.e. saying what I actually think). This was more pronounced in my first 2-3 years of learning mandarin – as time has gone by my Chinese self has converged with my original English personality, but there is still a difference. Also I would second what David says above about sounding less “educated” in Chinese – having learnt the language as an adult it is very difficult for me to acquire the word choice that makes people sound educated in Chinese (although am making progress on the quips and movie quotes)!

  7. My Chinese self is definitely a bit more outgoing than my English self. I think that’s partly due to the fact that I force myself to talk more for the sake of practicing (my natural introversion doesn’t lend itself well to learning a foreign language-at least the speaking part) but perhaps even more so because when I’m speaking Chinese I know that, as a non-native speaker, I’m expected to make a lot of mistakes, and therefore I’m much less nervous about the way I talk and the things that I say. When I speak Chinese I’m not afraid of being awkward, because I’m SUPPOSED to be awkward!

  8. Stavros Says: May 14, 2014 at 8:50 am

    In my experience, I’ve noticed another factor: how the non-native speaker is received by both non-native speakers and native speakers, especially if they have integrated successfully ie Jenny Zhu.

    From what I’ve seen, most English speakers expect a Chinese national to change their personality when they speak English (this is especially so in professional settings when complex messages must be conveyed as efficiently as possible). In some respects, English native speakers are asking a Chinese to get rid of their Chineseness (or at least to forget about it for the time being). This expectation seems to happen on an unconscious level.

    With non-natives who learn Chinese, I can’t say that this expectation is clear and apparent. For those who have commented, I doubt if there has ever been a moment when a Chinese has expected (and demanded) a Westerner to lose their Westerness.

    English learning is heavily promoted in China, and the expectation is that most educated people attempt to learn it to a sophisticated level. This movement has produced all kinds of phenomenon, one of which is the 假洋鬼子, the fake foreign devil. Chinese youth are expected to learn English but when they go all out and form a new personality, they are slapped in the face with this tag. Considering the Herculean effort involved in learning a foreign language, this is a tad unfair, I might say.

    • What personality changes are you referring to exactly? It’s an interesting idea, and I think there’s something to it. Clear traces of cultural hegemony there, even if entirely unconscious…

      • Stavros Says: May 19, 2014 at 11:33 am

        A Japanese example comes to mind: in a book about social intelligence the writer described a chance meeting with a young female Japanese national while visiting Japan. From his description, she was much more than a mere office lady who poured tea. He conversed with her in English; in English, she was charming and great to be with. But later, he observed her conversing with her Japanese superiors (all male) and her charming English personality completely disappeared. Suddenly (and without any notice) she transformed herself into a statue, sitting on the side lines. She made herself into a non-person. A dynamic transformation in personality.

        With China and Japan sharing hierarchical relationship bias, it is fair to say that some of the Japanese cultural norms can be applied to China. But I have not witnessed this kind of thing myself.

      • Yes, I’ve witnessed similar things with Japanese people (women, in particular). I don’t see it so much as individual speakers’ expectations, but as a type of social pressure. It’s hard to draw the line between those two, though (if a line can be drawn at all).

  9. I consider myself to be bilingual (Finnish and English). I was born and raised in Finland but have been living in the US on and off for 11 years.

    I experience this personality shift very strongly as I change languages. As a Finn, I am very shy, introverted, and serious but as an “American” I am very flirty, hilariously funny, and very outgoing. I don’t have to consciously try to maintain these different personalities because I think they are so tightly connected to the language I speak at the moment and the cultures they represent.

    Furthermore, some people say that this shift in personality only occurs because of the environment you are using the language in. I disagree with this. I know few Finnish people here in the US and just by being in the same group of people if I change my language, the shift in my personality is very visible to those in the group.

    I have done a lot of research on this topic and discovered that such personality switch can be stronger in people who use different names as they speak different languages. For instance, my Finnish name was a nightmare for English speakers to pronounce, so I started using a different name as I spoke English. This connection has become so strong that nowadays if I for instance speak English and someone calls me by my real name (the Finnish name) it will take me a moment to realize that they are talking to me. Trying to explain something like this to a monolingual person can be quite difficult and I get confused and angry looks from people when I ask them to use the other name because I do not “recognize” the name they were using.

  10. Livonor Says: June 11, 2014 at 2:06 am

    1- er… no

    2- because my background is different, I didn’t the things I did in Portuguese with English, nor I did those same things with Japanese

    3- politeness I guess? Being more reclusive with your own opinions and things like that, all things that I already had before and get reinforced, not sure if it applies to China though.

    Maybe the different personalities are just a result of being in a different environment with new linguistic challenges, but as someone who learned his languages without changing his job or living I can tell that I’m the same person, or at least it feels so, and even if I changed completely I would be the last person on earth to care. To be sincere, I don’t think those things matter.

    I learned the Queen’s (or the president’s?) language in a “natural” way so to speak, I’m not self conscious of anything, I’m just a bad copycat of the things I heard and saw, if I went to US I would become their copycat as well and that’s probably would change my behavior.

  11. I’m probably entering this thread too late, but I just wanted to add that I’m pretty sure I come across very differently speaking different languages. In Dutch, I speak with a lot of street slang (at least, ’90’s street slang) and seldom use formal register. In English (my native language), though I have a master’s degree, I still speak with slang mostly. Like David Moser said, I also often change registers for fun, quote movies, make literary allusions, etc. In Mandarin, I seldom use slang and speak in normal to normal-formal register. I do, however, make puns (or I try to make puns — but I do often get laughs from native speakers or a 好泠!). I think part of the issue with either having a different personality or the appearance thereof is due to the granularity with which you can communicate in the foreign language. When I first moved to the Netherlands, I remember often bumping up against my deficiencies and it really bothered me. By learning more words and over time learning more of the common modes of expression — mostly by osmosis or paying attention to how people say things, not really by formal study — I got over that. My experience with Mandarin is much different. I’ve lived in Taiwan for over 10 years now and use Mandarin on a daily basis, but I’m more concerned with reading and writing for my research than I am about how my personality comes across. Unlike with Dutch, I don’t feel the need to work more on my 口語 (with Dutch, I felt no need to work on reading and writing in an educated fashion). I’d rather learn a new language. When writing papers in Chinese, however, I’m very concerned with proper expression and learning new ways to express ideas. My language abilities with German and Cantonese are not strong enough to even make any kind of statement about personality. I still spend my efforts on understanding what the other person is saying and trying to form a response. I don’t remember how to say the expression, but in Czech, there’s actually a saying that means you have a differently personality for each language you speak.

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