Some language learners say they don’t feel the same when they speak another language. They say they feel underconfident, or that they speak too slowly. Others say their sense of humour, which is a large part of their personality, gets lost in translation. Is this just a feeling or is there some truth behind it? Does speaking another language that isn’t our mother tongue mean that we lose an element of our personality? Many bilinguals say they think and feel differently depending on which language they are speaking. True biculturals tend to switch their frames of reference when they change languages. Research in this area is growing but there are still a lot of unknowns. Let’s delve more deeply into the topic.

“A different language is a different vision of life”

Federico Fellini

Language shapes the way we think

Words are very often culture-specific, which implies that certain concepts are more common in some languages than others. In her TED talk, “How language shapes the way we think”, Lera Boroditsky addresses how our realities can be determined by different grammar structures, noun genders – and even sounds. One of the oldest examples of this is the many different Eskimo words for snow. The Innuits have approximately 50 words for snow (soft snow, slushy snow, wet snow etc.), which means when it comes to talking about the white stuff, no other culture can get close to that level of nuanced sophistication. The Dutch word Bespreekbaarheid (literally speakability) is a culturally congruent concept in The Netherlands, alluding to openness that allows communicators to speak freely with one another. Sometimes this kind of cultural openness is misinterpreted by cultures that are less direct. This can be the case when communicating with the Japanese for example, where the concept of kuuki o yomu or “reading the air” requires more understanding of context in the communication of messages. These kinds of examples exist in every language or dialect and highlights how language shapes our culture or culture shapes our language. But does using another language really change our personality? Let’s look at another area of research – code-switching – to find out more.


Code-switching was originally studied in the context of second-language acquisition and refers to the process whereby native speakers of one language shifted from one language to another and vice versa. This means the brain switches back and forth between different languages or language varieties.  According to The New York Times, this improves cognitive skills and can help prevent dementia in later years. Our native language is a natural part of how we communicate. When we learn another language, we initially apply our own cultural context to the language we are speaking – as we don’t know any different. As we gain more insights into a culture and a language, we start to code-switch – which shows that speaking a foreign language goes beyond grammar rules, verb tables and vocabulary lists. Joseph Shaules has looked at the topic of “linguaculture” (where language and culture are highly integrated) extensively and in his book “The Intercultural Mind”, he investigates the complexity of language, thought and meaning. Clearly, there’s a strong connection between language learning and culture. It very much depends on how deeply you immerse yourself in the culture of the foreign language you’re speaking. Ordering a coffee in another language isn’t going to require a personality shift! Bilinguals code-switch a lot as they have more vocabularies to choose from. This is where code-switching merges into cultural frame-switching – and there’s evidence that this is linked to personality.


Frame-switching refers to the process by which multicultural individuals with experience in different cultures seem to access different culture-specific mental frames depending on the language they use. That is, words in two different languages that may seem to be exact translations of each other are likely to have divergent sets of culture-specific conceptual associations. If learners of another language live in a culture for a long time or grow up as a TCK (third culture kid), they learn some things in one language and maybe other things in a different language. For some this means being educated in one country and one language, for others it means experiencing an important part of their life in another culture/language, such as childbirth or playing a particular sport, where the language acquisition and cultural experience becomes part of their personality. The deeper the experience, the greater the chance of a person’s personality being impacted.


So, let’s take a look at frame-switching in the research. A leading researcher in the field, Ramirez-Esparza in her “Do bilinguals have two personalities? A special case of cultural frame-switching” (2004) tested bilingual English/Spanish individuals for various personality traits. She found participants’ responses to questions to be different depending on the language they were speaking. Researchers used the Big Five Inventory to measure the perceived personality of their candidates. Results showed that bilinguals scored differently depending on which language they used in some areas, scoring higher in agreeableness in English and higher on neuroticism in Spanish. The results implied that personality tests cannot be seen as universal and the chances are that if you speak more than one language, you will have more perspectives, visions and thought processes than monolinguals.

On the other hand, researchers concluded that the differences weren’t overly profound and that deep individual personality traits remained the same – introverted individuals were still introverted, for example. But that differences were noticeable even if they were only subtle.

Over to you

So how do you feel when you speak another language? Do you translate word for word, code-switch or does a deeper cultural frame-switch take place? When learning a language, you don’t need to worry about this as a beginner, but I think as we immerse ourselves in another language and culture, we should be aware of this unconscious shift. It will help us to communicate more effectively across cultures and market our products more successfully in the global marketplace if we pay attention to localizing marketing campaigns, for example. Politeness should always be our goal when working across cultures and what this looks like differs around the globe. To a certain degree, we shift from one culture to another naturally. Does our personality change in the process? Maybe a little, but language doesn’t mean we change our values, and values are the bedrock of our personality.

Be authentic

 Authenticity is also crucial when working across cultures – it’s important to hold steadfast to important values on a personal and cultural level. But being aware of different languages and the different mindsets that accompany them, will help us to understand the cultural values and opinions of others. Choosing a language course for employees where they can acquire the language skills needed in their professional context is a real help and not just a “nice to have”.

For many, another language is merely a communication tool, for others it is another vision of life. But by making a conscious decision to work on foreign language skills, you actively make a choice to immerse yourself in another learning process, and by understanding otherness you will ultimately have a deeper understanding of yourself. And this will enhance your personality.

As an intercultural trainer, English language and communications coach, I help clients to communicate effectively in global teams. It you’d like to make sure you bring your personality into your team whilst working in English, please get in touch. And if you think your team could do with some team coaching, I’d be very happy to help, just send me a message!


Further exploration:

Ramirez_Esparza et al (2006: Journal of Research in Personality) Do bilinguals have two personalities? A special case of cultural frame switching

Shaules, Joseph (2015: Intercultural Press) The Intercultural Mind

“How language shapes the way we think” TED talk by Lera Boroditsky