She loves me in French, talks to me in English and gets mad in German!

Language, Culture, Personality, Perspective

What’s in a word? It depends who you are talking to! Photo credit: Megan Scudellari — Kike Calvo/National Geographic

So, I’m just gonna go ahead and answer the one million dollars question I have been asked my whole life by most monolingual people I’ve met: “does your personality change when you change language?” Yes, it does!

Now, you might say how do I know that. I’ve been multilingual since I was able to say my first words as a child. I’m originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), one of the most highly diverse linguistic landscape. An estimated total of 242 languages is spoken throughout the multilingual country. Four of those languages spoken have the status of national language:

Map of Africa in the mid-ages
  • Kongo also called “Kikongo” is one of the Bantu languages from The Kingdom of Kongo (1390–1914), an African kingdom located in west central Africa in what is now northern Angola, Cabinda, the Republic of the Congo, the western portion of the DRCongo, as well as the southernmost part of Gabon. (over 6.5 million native speaker)
  • Lingala, a Bantu language spoken throughout the northwestern part of the DRCongo and a large part of the Republic of the Congo, as well as to some degree in Angola and the Central African Republic. It has over 10 million speakers.
  • Swahili, the most widespread lingua franca spoken in Eastern Equatorial Africa including Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Swahili speakers vary widely, from 50 million to over 100 million.
  • Tshiluba: spoken in a large area in the Kasaï Occidental and Kasaï Oriental provinces of the DRCongo.
DRCongo language map
  • French served as the official language of the DRCongo during the Belgian colonial period in the country. French has been maintained as the official language since the time of independence(1960) because it is widely spoken around the educated groups and elite class in the country. It belongs to none of the ethnic groups and eases communication between them as well as with the rest of the Francophonie.

“As a Congolese or African for that matter, being or becoming multilingual is inevitable.” Espe Adzem Mjl

So being from the southern-east region of the DRCongo, I grew up speaking French and Swahili. Later on, I learned Lingala and Kikongo while visiting and traveling in other provinces of my home country. I’ve been traveling around the world and living abroad since 2008. I also learn Hindi, English, German and Spanish.

Most people I have met while traveling and living abroad are amazed by my ability to change or switch from one language to another seamlessly. While they may admire my ability to speak more than one language, only a few of them are aware of the fact that I may behave differently depending on which language I’m speaking to communicate with them.

During the summer of 2015, my friends and I were flying from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. While waiting for the flight at the gate, I helped an old couple from Monaco, France who needed to change their seats. A few minutes later I stepped in to help a family from Nairobi, Kenya finds their gate. After boarding the plane, one of my friends looked at me and asked: “what happened back there? you were a totally different person!”

Being a multilingual herself, she was able to witness first hand the change in my speaking style, tone, body language, posture, and accent when I switched languages. The differences she noticed ranged from the level of perceived rudeness to the frequency of interrupting another speaker. The connections between language and culture are complex, and no doubt have some influence on language and the “Big Five” personality traits: extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism.

For example, on a personal level, I’ve noticed the fact that individualistic cultures “like that of the US and some of the European countries” place a high premium on assertiveness, achievement, and superficial friendliness, whereas it’s less important to sing one’s own praises in collectivistic cultures “like that of the DRCongo or Africans in general”, some of the countries I’ve lived or visited in Asia, and South America.

Nicola Prentis published an article about a study conducted by Nairan Ramírez-Esparza, an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Connecticut, and her colleagues. They asked bilingual Mexican Americans to take a personality test in both English and Spanish. They asked subjects to write a 15-minute description of their personalities.

They found that, while writing in Spanish, the Mexican-American subjects talked about themselves in relation to their families, relationships, and hobbies. In English, they spoke of their achievements, college, and daily activities. Ramírez-Esparza ascribes the changes in personality and the different focus on values to the way that language “primes” behavior.

“A language cannot be separated from the cultural values of that language,” she says. “You see yourself through the cultural values of the language you are speaking.” It makes sense that this effect is felt particularly strongly by people who are bicultural, as well as bilingual or multilingual because they have a strong grounding in multiple cultures.

Nicola Prentis went on by stating, It’s also possible that our perceptions of our own personalities change because we notice how people react to us when we speak different languages. I personally experiment that every time I travel or have a new encounter.

After all, identity is “your sense of self, but also how you feel others are perceiving you and how that impacts on how you can project who you are,” says Carolyn McKinney, a professor of language and literacy studies at the University of Cape Town. And so you might see yourself as a confident, poised professional when speaking your native English in front of a crowd and watch the audience hang on your every word — and then feel like a blundering goofball when conducting a meeting in beginner German or French, etc.

The minute you speak to someone you’re engaging in an identity negotiation,” says Bonny Norton, a professor of language and literacy education at British Columbia University. “‘Who are you? Where are you from? How do I relate to you? How do you see me?’ So when someone says their personality changes, what they’re saying is: ‘When I talk to other people my personality changes.’”

However, the context in which you learn a second, third, or fourth language is essential and crucial to your sense of self in that language. People learn a language for different reasons: because it’s associated with a culture they admire, they love that language, they live in foreign countries and learn the language to fit in, or simply because of a general class requirement in high school and college. However, If you are learning a language without any kind of context, it may not impact your personality much at all.

Let’s say you’re learning to speak Hindi while living in India, the firsthand observations you make about the people and culture during that period will be built into your sense of identity as a Hindi speaker. However, If you’re learning Hindi, Mandarin, French, German, Arabic, etc. in a classroom in the US, you’ll likely incorporate your instructor’s beliefs and associations with Indian, Chinese, French, German, Arab culture along with your own — even if those beliefs are based on stereotypes and media.

I grew up in a truly multicultural environment, my cultural reference points are likely to switch along with the shift of language. Growing up bilingual, I had a constant feeling of needing to either restrain or express myself if I was speaking a language that did not match my emotional state at the time.

My ex-girlfriend is from Haggen, Germany. She learned French and English at school and often traveled to France and the United Kingdom. She speaks all 3 languages fluently with German being her native language. I used to joke with my friends about how complex she was by stating:

She loves me in French, she talks to me in English and she gets mad in German!

She loves me in French,” she associates French with romance. “She talks to me in English”: she felt more relaxed, casual and outgoing when speaking English. “She gets mad in German,” because naturally when a multilingual person gets upset, everything in the brain goes back to default setting.

I was able to tell her mood depending on the language she’d use to talk to me and that added extra glamour to our relationship!

Learning a new language is not just memorizing vocabulary and grammar rules, it also gives you a chance to tap into new parts of your own identity. it certainly changes your perspective and the way you see the world around you.

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Yann Mulonda

Chief Information Officer @ITOT | Lead Senior Site Reliability Engineer @ICF󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴 | "Learning is experience; everything else is just information!”