The Link Between Personality and Language

Over the past few years, researchers in neuroscience and linguistics have tried to determine the link between language and personality. Labs studying ...

Over the past few years, researchers in neuroscience and linguistics have tried to determine the link between language and personality. Labs studying how the human brain process and perceives language have sprouted across universities around the world, including one at the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute.
“There’s something called linguistic relativity, and it is the idea that the language you choose changes the way you think,” explained Dr. Stephen Politzer-Ahles, a postdoctoral researcher at the lab.
In a community like NYUAD, where many members are fluent speakers of at least two languages, if not more, daily life can make one very aware of the different nuances and shades that speech can adopt. Some students who alternate between different languages find that a language switch can also lead to a subtle switch in personality.
“I'm … more animated and my tone changes a lot more in Arabic, whereas I'm usually more sarcastic when I'm talking in English,” said junior Rasha Shraim.
For many, the style and content of a conversation can vary drastically depending on the language being spoken. Sophomore Daria Baidakova, from Russia, has experienced a similar phenomenon and has noticed that even her sense of humor shifts with language.
“When I speak Russian or Spanish or Arabic I am fully natural and have the same sense of humor," said Baidakova. "Something else [happens] with English. I feel like I am losing a considerable part of me."
Are these differences related to the level of fluency of the speaker or the cultural background linked to a language? Dr. Politzer-Ahles described what is generally observed in experiments related to the influence of language on personality:
“Often, what’s found is that when people are speaking their first, or most comfortable language, they have a much bigger range [of expression]. They feel more emotional and also more logical,” he said. “And, the further they get to their second or third language, that range gets smaller. So presumably in a language acquired later or not as well, people feel differently.”
In a survey conducted by The Gazelle, a handful of students mentioned perceiving English as imbedded within an academic context and, consequently, having different connotations.
“English is a more academic language,” wrote sophomore Roberto Lescrauwaet. “Expressing everyday life is easier in a language that has not been corrupted by academic standards.”
“I think English has always been the language that I used in academic settings, so I associate it with needing to be more formal,” added junior Roshni Dadlani. “In Spanish I feel a lot more comfortable swearing and using slang.”
Students at NYUAD learn languages at different times in their lives, with fluency staggering across levels of schooling and personal familiarity. Often, a relationship to a language is embellished with different cultural associations, from the slang picked up through watching favorite soap operas to experiences living abroad.
“I probably am more animated in Arabic because it's my first language and most of my emotions throughout my childhood and teenage years were expressed in that language,” said Shraim. “I learned American English and got most comfortable with it when I lived for a year in the USA. That's also where I learned how to be sarcastic and more practical rather than expressive with language.”
The frills of manners and social niceties may also influence the ways in which students approach conversations and interact with other.s
“In Arabic, you have to spend a long time asking about the well-being of the person you are talking to before getting to the real purpose of your conversation,” said Hungarian freshman Laura Patik.
Senior Krushika Uday Patankar found that even the intensity of her voice may differ according to the language used.
“I'm more vocal about my opinions in English than in the other languages," she said. "The tone and volume of my voice is also altered: I get louder when speaking Marathi, Gujarati and Hindi than English."
The shift isn’t limited to conversations; entire relationships can be altered by language, as experienced by Lescrauwaet.
“I have had two romantic relationships in my life. One was with a Spanish speaker, the other with a person that spoke English,” he wrote. “The nature of how I expressed my emotions was completely different. Love is best expressed in the language you feel more comfortable in. With language lacking, my English relationship was more based on actions to express love."
According to Dr. Politzer-Ahles, a phenomenon called code-switching — when people switch between two different languages in a single conversation or, sometimes, sentence — can complicate interactions between people. The practice is common among speakers like those at NYUAD, who rotate through social groups in what can often feel like a linguistic game of musical chairs.
“People used to think a bilingual person code-switches because they’re not good at their other language and they have to switch back, but that’s not really true,” explained Dr. Politzer-Ahles. “The better people are at both languages, the more often they do it, partly because the language you switch to... can serve some stylistic function, or it can serve some communicative function like negotiating power. If you’re talking to someone and you keep switching to the language that you’re most comfortable in, that can be like saying: I’m in charge here.”
Although experiments on the topic can veer into the dangerous realm of subjectivity, there does seem to be a link between language and behavior.
“I don’t know if your personality changes, or you are just feeling differently about your ability to express [yourself],” said Dr. Politzer-Ahles.
Paula Dozsa is deputy features editor. Email her at
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