In English, I can be confident, open and social. In Polish, however, I find myself to be slightly more distant. It may sound bizarre (or even borderline schizophrenic), but I often feel like different people in different languages. Of course, I don’t mean two separate people entirely, but it’s as though certain aspects of my personality come through, often causing my Polish and English friends to view me as a different kind of person! Then there are my “mixed” sentences (unfortunately irritating to a large number of people), in which I am capable of starting a sentence in Polish but ending in English (naturally, I only do this when I know that the person speaks both languages). Sometimes, this mysterious “switch” also makes me feel rather uncomfortable when I have to speak Polish to someone with whom I usually communicate in English. Why? I haven’t figured that out yet. Do all bilinguals get this?

Some time ago, I stumbled upon an article by Noam Schneiber, in which he explains that he stopped speaking Hebrew to his 3-year-old daughter because he is “much colder” in Hebrew than he is in English. In fact, he also writes that their relationship changed drastically as soon as he did so – his daughter began opening up to him more, and he himself felt more at ease. So, surely, I deduced that I am not alone in my strange perception of changing personalities.

A psychology professor from Berkeley University, Susan Ervin, conducted quite an interesting study back in 1964, where she examined 64 French-American bilinguals (French natives living in the US for over 10 years and/or married to an American). She presented them with a series of illustrations and asked them to make up a matching 3-minute story for each picture. During the first session, only English was spoken and during the second, 6 weeks later, only French. She found that the subjects significantly changed the themes of their stories depending on the language. In English, the themes of female achievement and attempts to escape blame were prevalent. In French, on the other hand, domination of the elders and guilt were seen more often.

A few years later, Dr.Ervin conducted another study, where Japanese-American women had to complete sentences either in Japanese or in English. Once again, the participants proposed very different endings to identical sentences in the two languages; possibly showing a change in perception of the same topic.

Forty years after that, in a similar project, Professor David Luna from Baruch College asked Hispanic-American bilinguals to interpret a set of advertisements, portraying women in different situations (with a 6-month gap between the two interpretations). It turned out that in the Spanish version, the women were seen as more self-sufficient or independent, while the English analyses focused on family-oriented, more traditional perceptions.

Michelle Koven, a researcher from the University of Illinois, also looked at the ways that bilinguals talk about their personal experiences in two languages. In this case, she found that the Portuguese-French participants emphasized different aspects of their personalities depending on the language spoken.

Naturally, there are also opposing views such as the one presented in the Life with Two Languages by Dr.Francois Grosjean, where he argues that these feelings have nothing to do with altering “personalities” but rather with the change of context. He points out that bilinguals usually interact with different people in the two languages and thus, they simply adapt to the given environment or culture. Certain surroundings or situations require specific behaviours or attitudes, and thus we get the impression of a personality change.

Whether it’s the shift between different personality traits or an adaptation to a given environment, us bilinguals should be happy. After all, research shows that we have more flexible brains (because we are able to switch between languages rapidly from an early stage), which in turn means more creativity, a better understanding of mathematical concepts and better decision making. Moreover, it is worth to note that scientists have discovered that the onset of dementia may be delayed by up to four years in bilinguals. This phenomenon remains unexplained for now, but it is possible that speaking two languages helps to keep nerve connections in the brain healthy. Not to mention the fact that it is easier for us to learn a third, fourth or tenth foreign language…