Why do we feel different when switching languages?

This post was contributed by Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

Jean-Marc Dewaele

Jean-Marc Dewaele

Few topics elicit as many passionate discussions among multilinguals as the question whether a switch of language includes a switch in personality. Some, like Ilan Stavans, the Mexican-American author of Jewish origin, feel that every language they speak allow them to be a different person and are proud of their hybrid multilingual self:

Changing languages is like imposing another role on oneself, like being someone else temporarily. My English-language persona is the one that superimposes itself on all previous others. In it are the seeds of Yiddish and Hebrew, but mostly Spanish…But is the person really the same?…You know, sometimes I have the feeling I’m not one but two, three, four people. Is there an original person? An essence? I’m not altogether sure, for without language I am nobody. (Stavans, 2001: 251).

Is this feeling of difference when switching from one language to another just a myth? What proportion of multilinguals experience this difference? Is this linked to anything particular in the person’s background?

John McWhorter, a great American applied linguist, made a relatively off-the-cuff comment towards the end of his 2014 book The language hoax, attributing the fact that many multilinguals feel different in their different languages to the fact that they started learning the foreign language (LX) later in life and that a lack of proficiency in the LX limits their ability to express their full emotional and pragmatic range. While this explanation sounds perfectly plausible, McWhorter provides no evidence, nor any references to back it up.

Reading McWhorter’s assertions, I wondered whether he was right. Do multilinguals really feel different when switching to a language acquired later in life? Is it because they may still retain a foreign accent, or not be as fluent as the native speakers? I did not like the attribution of difference to a sense of deficit. François Grosjean and Vivian Cook have argued convincingly that it is wrong to see a multilingual functioning in an LX as a failed native speaker of that language. LX users (myself included in English) are legitimate users of the language.

A couple of years ago, I collected a large database on communicating emotions from multilinguals around the world with my friend Professor Aneta Pavlenko. It included an open question: ‘Do you feel like a different person sometimes when you use your different languages?’ which was coded according to the degree of agreement with the question.

A total of 1005 bi- and multilinguals provided feedback. This seemed like a perfect database, and opportunity, to test McWhorter’s hypothesis. An analysis of the distribution of the answers showed that close to half of the participants had answered with an unqualified “yes!” to the question, over a quarter had said “no!”, with the remaining participants having a more nuanced answer.

It turned out that feelings of difference were unrelated to age of onset of acquisition and levels of oral proficiency. In other words, participants who had started learning the LX later, and were not highly proficient in it, did not feel more or less different than those who had started earlier and felt more proficient.

A comparison of those who started learning the LX early (between birth and age 2) and late (after age 2) showed no difference in feelings of difference. Context of acquisition of the LX, the degree of multilingualism and gender were also unrelated to feelings of difference.

However, more highly educated, and older participants reported higher levels of feelings of difference. Foreign language anxiety was also positively linked with feelings of difference: those who felt more anxious in their L2 and L3 were more likely to feel different when switching to these languages. Feelings of difference seem directly or indirectly linked to personality traits (Ożańska-Ponikwia, 2013; Wilson, 2013).

Participants’ reported that their own self-perceptions did not necessarily match those of people around them. Perceptions were often presented as being dynamic, varying over time and differing between switches to specific languages.

Participants mentioned variation in both verbal and non-verbal behaviour: feeling less funny in the LX because of lack of vocabulary, being more taciturn in one language, raising voice pitch, covering the mouth, avoiding looking interlocutors in the eye, adopting a different body language, sticking to linguistic or cultural norms of the L1 to stand out in the L2 or vice versa. Some participants reported possessing different persona in their different languages.

The debate on the causes of these intriguing differences is likely to continue forever.

Find out more


Dewaele, J.-M. 2015. Why do so many bi- and multilinguals feel different when switching languages? International Journal of Multilingualism,http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14790718.2015.1040406

McWhorter, J. H. 2014. The Language Hoax. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ożańska-Ponikwia, K. 2013. Emotions from a Bilingual Point of View: Personality and Emotional Intelligence in Relation to Perception and Expression of Emotions in the L1 and L2. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Stavans, I. 2001. On Borrowed Words. A Memoir of Language. New York: Penguin. Wilson, R. J. 2013. Another language is another soul. Language and Intercultural Communication, DOI: 10.1080/14708477.2013.804534


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