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  • Michelle Lebowe

Unveiling the Multilingual Persona: How Speaking Different Languages Transforms Our Demeanor

There's an intriguing theory suggesting that individuals exhibit different demeanors when switching languages. This phenomenon, often referred to as "cultural frame switching" (or a change in persona related to language, in lay terms), is supported by several studies. Researchers have found that bilingual individuals might exhibit different personality traits depending on the language they are using at the moment.

For example, a study conducted by David Luna and colleagues found that bilingual Hispanic women described themselves and others as more assertive when speaking Spanish compared to English. This shift in perception is attributed to the different cultural contexts associated with each language​ (New Scientist)​​ (Bio Overview)​.

Similarly, Sylvia Chen and Michael Bond's research indicates that bilinguals adapt their behavior to align with the cultural norms of the language they are speaking, leading to noticeable differences in expression and interaction​ (Psychology Today)​.

I always regarded this concept as mere speculation until last week. Most of my interpreting work involves translating from Portuguese to English. However, this week, I had the distinct pleasure of interpreting for an economics expert—a true brainiac—from English to Portuguese.

What an exhilarating experience it was! His language was clear, the terminology straightforward, and he made complex concepts remarkably accessible to any audience, regardless of their educational background. He was lively, dynamic, and playful. It felt like narrating a story to a close-knit group, except this story was rich with scientific data, seamlessly absorbed by everyone due to his engaging style.

In that moment, I noticed a transformation within myself. I always mirror the speaker's style—more informal if they are, and vice-versa. However, I realized that my intonations, my playfulness, were markedly different.

This shift was partly due to the nature of the speaker but also reflected a change in my personality when switching languages.

Interestingly, this shift in demeanor isn't linked to native versus acquired languages, according to the studies. And, despite English being my first language and Portuguese acquired at a native level - most people can't believe I'm not Brazilian-born unless they hear me speak English -, in Portuguese, I'm undeniably more playful.

I'm a jokester in any language, that's just a part of me, but there's a distinctively playful, less rigid side when I hablo Portuguese (and speak a terrible attempt at Spanish, so it seems).

Noticing this change was fascinating. Seeing the object of studies at play, being able to perceive this in a concrete way and realize the actual manifestation of one of my multilingual personas, not mention reaching the conclusion that no, I am not immune to this effect and no, it is not just the product of imagination.

Now I have awakened a desire to learn several other languages. What kind of persona will reveal itself? Stay tuned and maybe you'll see first hand!

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