Language and personality

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"Are you a different person when you speak a different language?" That's the headline of the press release, released from embargo on June 17, describing David Luna, Torsten Ringberg & Laura Peracchio, "One Individual, Two Identities", Journal of Consumer Research, August 2008.

The press headlines (not many, so far) echo the same idea: "How Switching Language Can Change Your Personality" (Reuters and New Scientist, published at ABC News); "Switching languages could cause you to switch personalities" (Discovery Reports, Canada); "Change in language alters personality" (IT Examiner, India — subhead "Oh, fickle woman"); "People switch personality with language" (Times of India);  "For bilinguals, a distinct personality for each language" (Agence France Presse).

The Times of India took this language = personality concept as the basis for an editorial, "Why not adopt American English?":

Many Indians consider American English infra dig. But it's time we got over this distaste. A recent survey has found that people unconsciously switch their personality when they change languages.

Since American English is by far the most dominant language today, anyone who wants to be a confident player in a globalised world has to speak the American lingo.

But in fact, as the press release and most of the articles explain, it's only bicultural individuals who were found to change their personality when changing languages (where "bicultural" means not identifying strongly with the dominant culture of either language). And it was only certain bilingual individuals who were studied: Hispanic-American women living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And it was only certain aspects of their personality that were measured: degree of self-sufficiency vs. other-dependence, along with some related gender-role associations. And (as the press release and the articles don't tell us) those aspects of their personality didn't change all that much.

Here's the paper's abstract:

Bicultural bilingual individuals have incorporated two cultures within themselves and speak the languages of those cultures. When cued by a particular language, these individuals activate distinct sets of culture-specific concepts, or mental frames, which include aspects of their identities. Three studies show that language-triggered frame switching (i.e., switching from one set of mental frames to another) occurs only with biculturals, not with bilinguals who are not bicultural. The studies uncover frame switching at the within-individual level, and they include both qualitative and experimental evidence. They also provide a methodology to identify the relative activation strength of specific mental frames in different languages.

Perhaps the most interesting thing was the direction of the shift:

Traditionally, popular stereotypes of the Hispanic and the Anglo cultures might lead to the assumption that the Spanish language would cue bicultural females to register as other-dependent and that the English language would cue them to register as self-sufficient (Martínez 1995; Vega 1990). However, some researchers suggest a recent and significant shift within the cultural fabric of Anglo and Hispanic female subcultures (see Martínez 1995; Vega 1990). Hispanic females have begun to express more self-sufficiency and Anglo females more other-dependence. Thus, while remnants of a machismo-based interaction are still present in various Hispanic social subgroups, these are increasingly considered a facade (Webster 1994). In fact, a large ethnographic study on gender and participatory democracy among urban Hispanics in California found that an overwhelming majority (84%) of Hispanic women support feminist goals (Takash 1993). Hispanic women are frequently and actively involved at the grassroots level, fighting for equal rights (Hardy-Fanta 1993; Takash 1993). It is noteworthy that independence and assertiveness seem to be dominant values emerging in the discourse of some female Hispanic groups (Farr 2005). In contrast, the social trend among Anglo women appears to have reverted toward traditionalism (e.g., moms as homemakers; Chandler 1999; Luttrell 1989; Ovadia 2001).

But in all three studies, the shift was small in quantitative terms — about 4-12% of the quantity measured.

I'll describe the studies, briefly, in order. In Study 1,

Fourteen female informants participated in two language-specific sessions set apart by 6 months. Only bicultural female informants were included, to eliminate potential differences based on gender and to enable us to focus on any language-triggered differences in our findings.

These were "first- or second-generation Hispanic Americans, 24-59 years of age, and living in a Midwestern city", presumably Milwaukee (where two of the authors are based). Although the subjects are called "bicultural", the authors also write that

We measured the degree of their identification with Hispanic culture with a five-item, seven-point scale: “I do not identify strongly with my ethnic group” (reverse coded); “I enjoy celebrating Hispanic/Latino cultural events”; “I think it's important to support activities that maintain our cultural heritage”; “If I had children, I would make sure they learn their cultural tradition”; and “In terms of your affiliation to the Anglo/Latino culture, how do you view yourself?” (very Latino/very Anglo; reverse coded). Higher scores denoted a higher identification with Hispanic culture. Scores ranged in the high end of the scale, between 5 and 7.

As we'll see, this is oddly at variance with the way they define "bicultural" in their other two studies. Anyhow, these 14 subjects completed "a reduced version of the Bem inventory", which is

… a 20-item scale including 10 “other-dependent” characteristics and 10 “self-sufficient” characteristics. Informants were asked to report whether those characteristics applied to them on a seven-point scale (1 = never or almost never true, and 7 = always or almost always true). Scores were added to form self-sufficiency and other-dependence indexes for each individual. Other-dependent (self-sufficient) characteristics suggest a more (less) traditional perception of a woman's role in the world. Composite scores were obtained by subtracting the other-dependent from the self-sufficient scores.

They don't tell us how these indices were calculated — were they just the sum of the 10 answers in each category, which is the literal interpretation of what they say? Or did they use the average? or some proportional measure?  This will obviously make a big difference in the interpretation of the result, which was that the M-score (difference between "self-sufficient" scores and "other-dependent" scores) was -0.19 when the women were interviewed in Spanish, but -0.54 when the women were interviewed in English, for an average difference of 0.35. (The difference was statistically significant, they tell us — but it's also important to know what its magnitude was.)

If we take them literally ("scores were added to form self-sufficiency and other-dependence indices"), then the sum for each index could have been as high as 70, and the difference as small as 0.5% of the total. But I believe that the usual way to report BSRI results is on a seven-point Likert scale, and on that basis, the average difference between the two conditions was 0.35 out of a possible 7, or 5% of the scale range. Actual average values tend to be around 5, so on that basis the effect of the language of the interview was to shift average Bem scores by about 7%.

We have to keep in mind that these are first- or second-generation Hispanic-American women, being interviewed either in English or in Spanish in a university setting, by "three male interviewers of similar age (25-35) … two of whom were biculturals". It seems to me that there are many things about this intercultural setting, besides the cultural frames associated with a language in some general sense, that might evoke feelings of self-sufficiency or other-dependence to different degrees for women of different cultural backgrounds.

The paper also provides some very striking quotations illustrating differences in the subjects' evaluation of evocative ads. Thus a woman sitting alone on a hill overlooking a lagoon was described by "Esperanza" in Spanish like this (only the English translation is given):

I think that she is strong. A woman likes to go out and travel. Women who are more feminine like to go to a nice hotel and have their nails done, and all that. There are other women who like to travel to places where they will have nice drinks, dance, and all those things, and then there are other women who like the fresh air, outside, camping-they like to go to other countries like Africa. She is a strong woman who does not like titles, who does not like to be told what a woman should be. She wants to be outside, likes to sleep outdoors, so she looks strong.

And then six months later, the same woman's reaction in English was this:

The woman in this ad is uptight and not really relaxed. She is hardworking, trying to survive. She needs to see what's next. She went there to sort out her problems.

I would be more persuaded by these quotations if the authors had published the complete interview transcripts, or at least done some blind coding of the totality of responses. Without that, it's hard to be sure that they are not cherry-picking examples to validate the point that they want to make.

In Study 2, the subjects were twenty eight "Hispanic female students at a large urban university", which was presumably the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Their average age was 22, they were fluent in both Spanish and English. This time, the subjects were in the middle of the scale in terms of cultural affinities:

Level of acculturation was measured by an adapted version of Mendoza's Cultural Life Style Inventory (CLSI; 1989). This 10-item scale measures to what degree respondents have a greater affinity for either Anglo or Hispanic culture. The scale has five possible answers to a series of questions. For instance, one question asks to what extent respondents watch Spanish-language or English-language TV (1 = only Spanish; 2 = mostly Spanish; 3 = Spanish and English about equally; 4 = mostly English; 5 = only English). […] The mean acculturation score was M = 3.04, with a standard deviation of SD = .54; thus, respondents scored around the midpoint, suggesting that they were indeed biculturals.

The dependent measure was reaction time differences in an "Implicit Association Test" (IAT), where the subjects were asked to press a key to classify words or phrases, and the classificatory questions are disjunctions that pair two concepts in two different ways. In this case, on each trial the subject is asked to classify a word or phrase as "masculine" vs. "feminine", or else as "self-sufficient" vs. "other-dependent".  There are versions of this task. In the traditional task the category “masculine" appears in the same screen location as "self-sufficient", while the category "feminine" appears in the same location as "other-dependent". In the non-traditional task, the association of locations is reversed. (You can take a test of this kind yourself at the Project Implicit web site.)

Here are the words and phrases that they used, in the English-language version:

The basic reaction times for presentation in the different languages are not comparable, since the items have different lengths (a total of 135 syllables in Spanish vs. 86 in English) and presumably different word frequencies and so on. However, in a within-subjects design, it's fair to compare the difference between the "traditional" and "nontraditional" tasks when the items are presented in English, with the same difference for the Spanish-language version.

In English, the average response time to the traditional task was  M=858.50 milliseconds, and the average response time to the nontraditional task was M=1,025.83. In Spanish, the average response time to the traditional task was 866.82, and the average response time to the nontraditional task was 993.60 . Therefore, the difference in response times was 167.33 in English and 126.78 in Spanish … These findings provide evidence that the associations masculine/other-dependent and feminine/self-sufficient are stronger in Spanish than in English, relative to the associations masculine/self-sufficient and feminine/other-dependent.

Thus this difference of average differences was 40.55 milliseconds, or about 4.3% of the average reaction time of 936 milliseconds. And again, the effect was statistically significant, but not very large in magnitude — though you could argue that the "implicit association" effect was reduced by about 24%.

In Study 3, the authors wanted to compare bilingual women who are also bicultural, with bilingual women who are not. So they divided 93 bilingual women, average age 22, into three groups, based on the same CLSI self-assessment test used in study 2:

We assigned individuals who had average scores between 2 and 4 to the bicultural group, and individuals whose average score was smaller than 2 or greater than 4 to the monocultural Hispanic or the monocultural Anglo group, respectively.

Despite the average age, not all of the women were students: "Respondents held a variety of occupations, ranging from office managers to students. There was also a variety of national origins represented in our sample (e.g., Mexican, Puerto Rican)." (They don't tell us how many subjects were in each of the three groups.)

The sessions "began with an unrelated task to help activate the appropriate frame", and measured three things: the Bem masculinity-femininity score; a (self-reported) measure of assertiveness; and assignment of the Bem-inventory items to the masculine vs. feminine categories.

In the case of the Bem scores, the bicultural group scored 0.16 in the Spanish session, vs. -0.48 in the English session. The monocultural Anglos (-.40 vs. -0.7) and the monocultural Hispanics (-.80 vs. -.35) showed differences that were not statistically significant.

In the Bem categorization task, the subjects were asked to classify each word or phrase as either "masculine" or "feminine" or "both". Essentially all the subjects made essentially all the traditional associations, and a smaller number of non-traditional associations. But the bicultural group also made slightly more non-traditional associations in the Spanish-language version of the test — a difference of 0.57 vs. 0.43:

The monocultural groups had differences in the opposite direction that were not statistically significant: Anglos 0.53 vs. 0.58; Hispanics 0.52 vs. 0.60.

Likewise in the assertiveness assessment, members of the bicultural group scored themselves as about 12% more assertive when interviewed in Spanish (mean of 5.55 out of 7) than when interviewed in English (mean 4.91 out of 7); while the monolinguals showed no difference by language (Anglos 4.92 vs. 4.94; Hispanics 4.61 vs. 4.84).

Overall, it seems to the me that the study makes a persuasive case for its plausible conclusion, even though the effects seem to be fairly small in quantitative terms. However, I worry about a few loose ends. I've already mentioned my concern that the studies might be telling us more about the reactions (of a particular category of people) to (a particular type of) socially-charged interview situation, than about the effects of general cultural associations between words and concepts. Would the results of this experiment have been the same if the subjects had been interviewed in Mexico City or in San Juan? Or in a place where neither English nor Spanish is the dominant language? And would we get the same sort of results — personality-test differences for bicultural bilinguals but not for monocultural bilinguals — if we tested speakers of other language pairs in other situations — say speakers of French and German in Switzerland, or speakers of Mandarin and Cantonese in Hong Kong?

I'll mention three other things as well.

One is the issue of cultural diversity among Hispanics. Some subjects in this came from a Mexican background, while others had roots in Puerto Rican, and perhaps in other countries as well. These are by no means the same cultures. Indeed, among the Mexicans alone there could be a range of radically different cultural backgrounds. And these differences might well turn out to correlate with the monocultural/bicultural groupings — in which case, the different effects of language might not have anything to do with biculturality, but rather with specific cultural origins.

The second issue has to do with what it means to be bilingual: that term can cover a very wide range of relative abilities; and even apparent native fluency can mask basic differences in linguistic affinity. Anne Cutler et al. "Limits on bilingualism", Nature 340 229-230, 1989 "tested speakers who acquired two languages, French and English, in early childhood, still spoke both languages regularly, and were accepted by other native speakers of each language as native speakers". Nevertheless, they found that these people could be divided (by self-assessment) into "French-dominant" and "English-dominant" groups, whose performance on certain phonetic perception tasks was remarkably different. It's not clear that Luna et al.'s subjects were bilingual to the same degree as Cutler et al.'s subjects — it wouldn't be a surprise to find that the language abilities of their three culturally-defined groups were in fact different, as measured by much cruder methods than Cutler et al. used. But Cutler's results suggest that it's sometimes necessary to probe deeper than simple fluency. A similar conclusion is suggested by the fact that mere ability to read a second language easily is not enough to generate a Stroop effect as strong as in one's first language. This is not to say that cultural affiliation is not playing a role here, just that one can't dismiss the purely linguistic aspects simply by saying that everyone involved is in some sense "bilingual".

The third issue is the possibility that the gender of the Spanish version of the words on the Bem list might matter. Luna et al. don't give us this translated list, or discuss the grammatical gender of the words on it. But  as previously discussed here — "Sapir/Whorf: sex (pro) and space (anti)", 11/19/2003 — Lira Boroditsky has shown that speakers of European languages can be affected to a surprising degree by the (apparently arbitrary) grammatical gender of words. In her experiments, "Spanish and German speakers generated adjectives that were rated more masculine for items whose names were grammatically masculine in their native language than for items whose names were grammatically feminine". Thus

…the word for "key" is masculine in German and feminine is Spanish. German speakers described keys as hard, heavy, jaged, metal, serrated, and useful, while Spanish speakers said they were golden, intricate, little, lovely, shiny, and tiny.

But English, of course, doesn't have grammatical gender except in singular pronouns. Depending on the gender of the items in the Spanish version of the Bem list, this might create an effect that depends on grammatical gender rather than on personality characteristics. And it might actually be only the "bicultural" speakers who are actually bilingual enough to be affected by this difference.

[hat tip: Omri Ceren]


  1. Q said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 3:02 pm

    When dealing with a language like Japanese, I find it necessary to shift my way of thinking to something orthogonal to the way I normally think in English. If I had to describe what I was doing, I would say that I was translating my feelings, too, because they're best expressed in very, very different ways.

    I'm not sure how that impacts my "personality" though, but anyone with any sense would probably seem a lot more "indirect" and perhaps less confident when speaking in Japanese. Perhaps the most obvious way this comes into play is that you CANNOT say "[person] is [happy/sad/whatever]" in Japanese without being wrong. You MUST say "[person] seems [happy/sad/whatever" because you don't actually know their feelings.

    Those interested in more detail should read "Expressive Japanese – A Reference Guide to Sharing Emotion and Empathy" by Senko K. Maynard. It's printed by the University of Hawai'i Press.

  2. Dan Milton said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 3:40 pm

    I remember forty or fifty years ago reading (or more likely reading about) a study in which Japanese wives of American servicemen were asked to complete sentences such as "When my husband complains about my cooking …" Sentences in Japanese tended to get completions like "I apologize and try to make something better" while sentences in English would get "I tell him to do his own cooking".

  3. Timothy M said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 10:02 pm

    Perhaps the most obvious way this comes into play is that you CANNOT say "[person] is [happy/sad/whatever]" in Japanese without being wrong. You MUST say "[person] seems [happy/sad/whatever" because you don't actually know their feelings.

    I know Japanese, and I don't think the way they talk about others' emotions is very different from English. If you pay attention, much of the time when people talk about how someone felt during a certain situation in English, they will say something like "he seemed pretty happy" or "he looked pretty happy" – in other words, indicating the same level of uncertainty as the Japanese does. It's rarer for people to just say, "he was pretty sad." Furthermore, if you're saying someone was happy when they received a gift, you would use "happy" in English, but 喜ぶ in Japanese, which would make for a direct statement about another's feelings (i.e. 彼は喜んでた). So I don't think it's really that different from English.

    Regarding this LL post: Even if the results of this study were valid, the interpretation would change based on how you define "personality" – and when I studied personality in college, there wasn't very much agreement among psychologists regarding how personality should be defined. Personally, I think the idea of using attributes like "self-sufficiency" to examine one's personality without acknowledging that if the person had grown up in a different culture those attributes would be different, is mistaken. It only makes sense if you think of personality as what is true of a person before any cultural learning takes place, plus what they learn growing up in their culture. If the way you define personality entails that personality must change with culture, then you haven't really isolated personality – what you're really looking at is the interaction between the two.

  4. Kate said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 5:10 am

    Oh wow. I will freely admit to not being a psychologist or sociologist but I get the impression there are a ton of factors or explanations this study didn't consider.

    The one that seems most attractive to me is: What if the women's language use were colored mostly by the experiences they have while speaking that language? The possibly cherry-picked examples scream to me that:

    Spanish: She is thinking about free time and vacations because in her free time and possibly in her travels, she speaks Spanish often. Also note that this is actually – at least judging by the Latin American women I know – a typical Latina idea of femininity. Free and adventurous, but also classy and well-dressed and -groomed.

    English: Most of the stressful situations in her life are conducted in English, and using that language reminds her of work and of uptight people. Also, the articles she reads in American media often talk about how stressed out women are, which gives her a different picture of femininity in an English-speaking context.

    I don't see how this has anything to do with self-dependancy and other-dependancy. It could just as well have to do with the state of mind people associate with the languages they speak. In many bilingual situations, I can imagine the two contexts are quite different.

    Also, I am sceptical of people who measure cultural affinity on a scale, and then present their results in terms of biculturality and monoculturality.

  5. Rubrick said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 5:21 am

    It seems to me, on a gut level, that a study with this many confounding variables (well described in the post) and such a tiny sample set is almost meaningless. I find this a major weakness of much of the research in psychology and its sister fields: Studies are often done on a dozen or two subjects, chosen largely on the basis of availability. The chance of noise overwhelming signal in such studies strikes me as embarassingly high.

  6. john riemann soong said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 6:46 am

    This seems to me a very crude way to measure cognition. And personality too!

    I do wonder if there are measurable external effects that correlate with personality. Eye movement? (MRI? [Probably not…]) Heartbeat, after normalising for age and %body fat? Rate of smiles?

    To reinforce the study I suppose they should have taken people who are bicultural but not bilingual (or at least not speaking a language associated with the second culture), a trait which might occur frequently in immigrant children.

  7. Suzette Haden Elgin said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 9:31 am

    When I wrote The Language Imperative, I interviewed more than one hundred multilinguals, and one of the questions I asked them was "When you're using a different language, do you feel as if you're a different person?" The responses I got fell into two distinct groups, summarizable as follows:

    "Of course! What a ridiculous question!"
    "Of course not! What a ridiculous question!"

  8. Will G said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 12:59 pm

    I agree with what pretty much all of Kate said above – although her specific examples are hypothetical, my first thought upon reading the this study was that personality would probably vary according to the subject's relationship with the dominant cultural group of the language being spoken. The authors seem to assume that when someone speaks a language they automatically identify with the mainstream viewpoints of that culture, which is by no means true. But again, there are so many confounding variables that go completely unaccounted for in this study that I don't think anything conclusive can be said either way.

    "I do wonder if there are measurable external effects that correlate with personality. Eye movement? (MRI? [Probably not…]) Heartbeat, after normalising for age and %body fat? Rate of smiles?"

    Depending on how a scientist defines personality, it might be possible to come up with such a measure, but personality is such a roughly hewn construct and so rarely correlates *with itself* that I think other approaches need to be taken to generate meaningful data.

  9. Don Osborn said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 1:00 pm

    I am not bicultural (multicultural) in the sense that I think the article means, but having learned some other languages in other cultures and used them extensively in communities where my L1 English is not used, my experience is that one speaks in a different way in the L2s, taking on perhaps some of the mannerisms and ways of thinking of the culture in which one is immersed. In effect, one learns not just to speak a different tongue, but also the ways it is used.

    Then too, you interact with people for whom the L2 is an L1 (or at least an established lingua franca), learning ways of expressing things, just like learning other aspects of the culture in which one is participating (or integrating).

    Behaviorally it doesn't surprise me at all that a person may expand or alter his or her repertoire such that one set of rules and perspectives fits with one language, and another with another. Does this make a different "personality" or just the ability to perform in different codes and adopt the perspectives necessary to do so?

  10. Bea said,

    July 1, 2008 @ 3:36 pm

    I often think about this since I'm Brazilian and am living in Boston (I moved when I was 15 and now I'm almost 19).

    There are times I truly believe I'm completely changed when speaking in English, and then Portuguese. However, I don't think it's because of the language per se.

    When talking in Portuguese I'm much more extrovert and speak in slang, in English I hardly speak in slang and hardly swear. I have, in a way, two personalities, and if I'm talking in Portuguese with a born-American but Brazilian decedent, I'm more like "myself" in Brazil (more likely to speak more and in a more colloquial way).

    I think it, as some people also said, that it depends on what personality is. It also depends on how the person learned the language, how old they were, with whom they spoke (each language)…It seems very difficult to measure "personality" and "culture."

  11. Stephen Sharp said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 11:20 am

    Both my wife and I are bilingual, she is Chinese and my second language is French, whichever language we are speaking has no effect on our core personalties, only the environment we are in at the time. For example, work mode or play mode, on holiday or speaking with friends and family. But essentially our core personality does not change. There are a lot of professional personality tests such as which have questionnaires in different languages, but the results are generated using exectly the same parameters as personality is not something that can be altered simply by language.

  12. Aradheya said,

    May 8, 2014 @ 11:33 pm

    It seems like that there are many things about this intercultural setting, besides the cultural frames associated with a language in some general sense, that might evoke feelings of self-sufficiency . If you pay attention, much of the time when people talk about how someone felt during a certain situation in English, they will say something like he seemed pretty happy.

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