Edit: This study is much more relevant in terms of the question.

This study suggests (according to article linked below) that a multilingual person can have multiple personalities, each tied to one of the languages that he or she speaks.

Here's an article about the study.

One personality may be active when the person is interacting in one language, another when interacting in another language, etc.

I have seen this phenomena very distinctly in myself.

Why does this happen?

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    $\begingroup$ Very nice questions! I have no answer but perhaps a hypothesis. The people you talk to in another language are usually people from a different group. The social context might be different, therefore explaining different behavior. $\endgroup$ Commented May 20, 2016 at 18:30
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    $\begingroup$ @RobinKramer Yes, that makes sense. $\endgroup$
    – Fiksdal
    Commented May 20, 2016 at 18:33
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    $\begingroup$ Could you give some more detailed description of the study findings? Just reading the abstract, I didn't get "multiple personalities" out of it. $\endgroup$
    – user3169
    Commented May 21, 2016 at 3:31
  • $\begingroup$ @user3169 Here's a simple summary based on the study: dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3004943/… $\endgroup$
    – Fiksdal
    Commented May 21, 2016 at 3:36
  • $\begingroup$ Could you edit your question to add this? $\endgroup$
    – user3169
    Commented May 21, 2016 at 3:44

3 Answers 3


That is a really interesting question. There are some studies that found that the emotional response is strong in one's native language compared to languages that are acquired later. For instance, a study by Harris and colleagues found that physiological arousal was stronger to swear words or childhood reprimands in the first language of the participants compared to a fluent second language [1]. For bilinguals, the response was similar for both languages.

Coming back to your question, this could indicate that people might display different personalities, because they judge the emotional content of language differently in their non-native language. This could have to do with the context in which the language was learned, i.e. in infancy versus classroom learning. Alternatively, differences in exposure might make a difference, because hearing words and phrases in many different context provides a better understanding of their connotations.

[1] Harris, C. L., Aycicegi, A., & Gleason, J. B. (2003). Taboo words and reprimands elicit greater autonomic reactivity in a first language than in a second language. Applied Psycholinguistics, 24(04), 561–579. http://doi.org/10.1017/S0142716403000286

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    $\begingroup$ Nice answer. Bilinguals, in this context, means people who have been fluent in both languages since childhood? As opposed to people who learned a second language later? (I thought bilingual could refer to both?) $\endgroup$
    – Fiksdal
    Commented May 21, 2016 at 9:50
  • $\begingroup$ It seems like the Harris study did not report the precise definition of bilinguals in their sample. Some authors define native or bilingual language as exposure to the language before 4 years of age. However, that depends on the question of the study. 'Bilingual' proficiency does not necessarily depend on the age of acquisition, but there are some differences in the mechanisms. For example, early acquisition is not accompanied by a foreign accent. One could therefore distinguish between bilinguals and high proficiency second-language speakers. $\endgroup$ Commented May 21, 2016 at 10:17
  • $\begingroup$ Alright, I see. $\endgroup$
    – Fiksdal
    Commented May 21, 2016 at 10:20

This is a typical example of the misrepresentation of scientific reseach in popular media.

The orignal study concludes that "language effects on cognition are context-bound and transient, revealing unprecedented levels of malleability in human cognition". The word "personality" does not appear in the original paper. Nevertheless the Daily Mail comes to the conclusion that "[s]peaking two languages really could give you a split personality, researchers have found". No, they haven't.

To understand what is going on here, I recommend the following video to you:


So what does the study find? It finds that the different grammatical structures of different languages can influence how people perceive the world and process information. (Please note the word "can" here! It does not always happen, and only to a small extent.) This is an old hat and called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

As for how this changes the "personality" of multilingual speakers: It doesn't. It changes the information that the speakers use to assess the situation and plan their behavior.


Both of my parents and I are multilingual. We come from Czech Republic and have learned multiple languages through our lives as we moved around.

I have noticed, even within myself that I "feel" different speaking a European language compared to English.

Not being able to go into the neurobiology of brain plasticity and change within when developing with multiple languages I can give my understanding through Psychology.

I think that language can be contextual in different parts of a persons life if it is a progression in time from one language to another as opposed to learning multiple languages at the same time. This in turn can build associations that bind the language with emotion at the time of learning the language.

For example, when I learned Czech until I was 7, which I have a different emotional connection and association with. So when I hear it and speak it I feel different. I feel calmer and my stress level decrease, I also realised I have different reactions to circumstances.

However when I deal with day to day life in English I feel more assertive and actually aggressive in my speech and reactions.

I believe that the learned associations between the language and the persons life can create a type of personality that isn't necessarily a split personality as it is the same cognitive person.

Sorry if I used the wrong expressions in trying to describe the scenarios from my own experience and introspection on the same topic.


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