Well, the answer is: no! People who speak multiple languages do not have multiple personalities. Having multiple personalities is a disorder, being multilingual is not!
True is, that a person who speaks more than one language, feels part of the different cultures and “acts” in different ways.
For example, when I talk Italian with Italians, I gesticulate like Italians – but not in the presence of non-Italians. I adjust my way of communicating to the situation and the language I speak.
Anyway, the cultural influences coming from other languages do not mean that one will develop multiple personality disorder! It is surely not pathological!
Multilinguals have a multiple cultural reference system. That’s all. Our personality and identity is made of many elements “in a world where more and more people grow up and live with various cultural references – even more so after the expansion of the internet – it is meaningless to stick to the monistic concept of identity. Identity can be multiple, it can be plural” (Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2003), The multilingual mind: Issues discussed by, for, and about people living with many languages, Westport, Conneticut: Praeger Publishers, p.185).
Multilinguals do not necessarily have an identity crisis because they are a part of many cultures. If they have a sort of “identity crisis”, then it’s because other people ask them to choose one (and only one!) of their cultures.
If we assume with Charlotte Burck that identity can always be “actively constructed and renegotiated” (Multilingual living: Explorations of language and subjectivity, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), well, then identity and personality are something that flows as we grow. It evolves and develops throughout our lives.
When we speak different languages, we also express different kinds and aspects of ourselves. This depends from our audience, the situation etc. In every language we speak, we create different kinds of self-expressions and experiences for ourselves.
Our different languages allow us to express several facets of ourselves, the way we perceive and experience the world, but never change our personality! (Ute Limacher-Riebold)
Multilinguals often feel “different” when they are switching between their different languages. But the difference is felt during this shifting, because the culture, the frame of reference changes with the language too. François Grosjean describes it like this: “what is seen as a change in personality is most probably simply a shift in attitudes and behaviours that correspond to a shift in situation or context, independent of language” (François Grosjean, Life as a Bilingual: the reality of living with two or more languages, Psychology Today, 2011) – I would add: but triggered by the change of language.
Let’s make an example. I usually talk German to my children, but sometimes, I switch to Italian. Usually this happens, when I’m tired or I have to tell them something quickly (for example in situations of imminent danger: “step back from that road!”). When this happens, I feel different. My expression changes, words come out much faster and I start gesticulating. But when I talk Italian in a more formal context, I slow down and do not gesticulate that much. Therefore, in my opinion, the “personality shift” has a bit to do with the language, but not only. I would say it is like wearing another mask or glove.
When I used doing role plays with my children, I changed language or imitated a strong accent (Italian, German, Swiss-German, French, English or Dutch) in order to “feel” and accentuate the difference of the character. – But monolinguals have this “shift” too when they switch from a formal to an informal register! We all use different registers when we are in formal meetings than when we talk to our children or friends. Bilinguals (or multilinguals) just have a broader framework to work with.
Usually, multilinguals have two to four dominant languages, but this dominance can vary over one’s lifetime. All our languages are always present to some extent and form our very own multi-competent multilingual identity.
It’s like having multiple tools to express ourselves: an incredibly powerful asset!
I invite you to watch our interview with Prof. Jean-Marc Dewaele where we also ask him about this topic:
What are your thoughts about this?
What is your experience as a multilingual – or parent of bi- or multilingual children?