Personality Changes in SLA

When you think about the role personality plays in second language acquisition, you may be inclined to consider personality as a predictor of success. But there’s another aspect I’ve been pondering lately: possible changes in a learner’s personality in the course of language acquisition.

I’m no specialist in this area. I simply want to share my thoughts with other teachers with the hope of gaining greater insight.

Here are two questions I’ve been thinking about: (1) Do successful learners adopt a new identity while speaking in the L2? (2) Should learners embrace or resist such personality changes?

These questions are circling in my mind because two students have talked to me about the need to make changes in their communication styles for a more successful work experience. One student specifically mentioned making changes in her personality.

In her article titled “The Concept of Culture in Language Teaching Process: Secondary Linguistic Personality” (2015) Ekaterina Matveeva discusses cultural competence and the ability to adapt. I agree with the concept that awareness of cultural values allows an L2 speaker to function appropriately. The question is whether functioning in the L2 requires a change in one’s personality. Matveeva writes:

“It can be stated that multicultural linguistic personality in the process of learning a foreign language is extension of qualities of linguistic personality in the frames of a native language and development of qualities in secondary linguistic personality in the frames of a foreign language.” (80)

Are new qualities acquired? Do they replace others or are they simply added into the mix? Perhaps we could say that the learner forms qualities that are extensions of himself or herself in order to achieve successful communication in the L2. I don’t think the core of the learner’s personality changes, though. Do you agree? Nor do I think a student’s sense of identity has to change. I know we’ve all used role play in our classrooms, but the purpose has never been to become another person long-term. Role playing opens a student up to experimenting and exploring. We create safe contexts in which they can practice using language. Ideally, the confidence and fluency gained from role playing will carry over into real conversations, but students shouldn’t feel as if they have to put on a mask or play a character that’s completely different from who they truly are.

In my mind, I’m starting to visualize an octopus with arm extensions. If you’re a polyglot, I suppose each arm could be a new “you” that functions in a given foreign language. But I’d argue that even in one language, multiple extensions are necessary. How we behave in an important business meeting is often different from how we behave in a casual dining experience with close friends. It’s not just the content; it’s the language, the volume level, and likely the body language and facial expressions as well. It goes beyond register. I speak casually with both my children and my neighbors, but my behavior changes in subtle ways. In short, we adjust to the situation and to the company we’re in. Isn’t it fair to say that different contexts within a given culture can bring out different language and a different set of mannerisms? All those octopus arms are parts of me, but I choose which arms to extend into a given situation. I know what language and what behavior is appropriate. I adjust accordingly. Students need to learn to make these kinds of adjustments in the L2 culture. The ability to dial a quality up or down in degree comes with increased awareness  of cultural differences.

When one of my students suggested the need for a total personality makeover in order to speak better English, my first instinct was to say, “Be yourself.” I think it’s important for her to feel proud of who she is and comfortable in her own skin. However, I need to communicate the kinds of changes that can and should be made. What do you do when your mannerisms aren’t the norm? Is it possible that those mannerisms will cause offense?

I now think it’s a matter of being yourself with a degree of self-monitoring. An L2 learner needs to develop cultural competency: self-expression with modification, depending on the context. The goal should be to have awareness of and sensitivity to others’ values. The question for a language learner is this: Do you understand the appropriateness of your actions and your speech in relation to the people you’re communicating with?

So what can we do to support students?
1. We can help them develop awareness of register.
2. We can help them develop awareness of softened speech.
3. We can expose them in safe ways to different contexts through films, TV, works of fiction, and role play exercises. Discussion should allow for questions and prompt discovery of cultural differences.

Thank you to all my new colleagues at LaTESOL who helped me reflect on this question. One teacher shared a relevant webpage on the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity. Enjoy the additional reading!

Matveeva, Ekaterina.  (2015) The concept of culture in language teaching process: secondary linguistic personality.” Art and Literature Scientific and Analytical Journal. 10: 77-81.


Photo credit: Girl, Face, Colorful, Colors, Artistic by invanovgood. Retrieved from the Public Domain at

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