Cultural Frame Switching

Born in a culture straddling borders and raised in several communities in various geographical locations, lately, I have found myself thinking a great deal about a phenomenon known as cultural frame switching.  And although closely related, this term should not be confused with code switching, which often reflects the lived experiences of various equity-deserving groups navigating the majority culture, and is defined as “changing from one way of speaking to another between or within interactions and includes changes in accent, dialect, language.”

In particular, “cultural frame switching refers to the process of bicultural or multicultural individuals accessing different culture-specific mental modules or changing their perspective of the world, depending on the language that is used.”

This raises the question: Does language influence our personality traits?

According to a 2006 study by Nairán Ramírez-Esparza et al., who studied the personalities of bilingual Spanish and English speakers, the answer appears to be, yes, and “reflects the tendency of bicultural individuals … to change their interpretations of the world, depending upon their internalized cultures, in response to cues in their environment.”

This is something I had never given much thought to—as frequently switching between languages was just a regular part of my lived experience.  However, since leaving Canada, I have grown increasingly conscious of this.  My daily interactions are almost entirely in Spanish, with minor exceptions, such as switching to English at work, and ending my night in Ukrainian with family Zoom calls.

It was not until someone who knows me in solely as a Spanish speaker (albeit an accented one) informed me how my entire personality seemed to change when I was overheard speaking English for the first time.  I have realized that I am different—in my voice, in my tone, and in my mannerisms.  Just as I know that my humour and dramatic nature are something that does not translate when I am not speaking Ukrainian.

Interestingly, I have been told that I sound Italian, German, and Russian—notably three languages I do not speak—when I speak Spanish.   Most are also surprised to find out that I have spent the majority of my life in Canada, as everyone assumes that I am from somewhere in Eastern Europe.  How strange that a culture that I have been quite removed from remains so dominant.  Perhaps this could explain why Ukrainian words, as opposed to English, surface when I become overwhelmed with a situation in Spanish.

What has become my Spanish language personality has been a result of years of immersion, friendships, and cultures—heavily influenced by where I have unexpectedly found myself in this life.  How I express myself is a result of everyone who I have crossed paths with over the years and how much of an impact they have made on my existence.

I firmly believe that everyone who comes into our lives—even briefly—we carry forward within ourselves, in our memories, in our actions, in our mannerisms, and even in our languages.  Eight months into my relocation to northwestern Mexico, I have begun to dream in Spanish, and I have noticed a dramatic change when I speak of existential concepts, such as the past, present, and future.  My mindset has shifted; my previously tricultural mind has now split into four.  And I am truly grateful for this new knowledge and influence, and for who I am becoming.

So do we really display different personality traits in different languages?  Only time and psychological and sociological research will tell.  However, for myself—as a twice immigrant and a lover of language —I will continue unravelling who I am, what my words mean, and the impact that they make.  I remain committed to deconstructing these alternate processes of thinking and new versions of myself that, perhaps, would have never existed where it not for a life of immersion in countless cultures and a love of playing with words, grammar, and syntax, helping me uncover new ways of understanding and existing this complex world.  And for that, I will spend a lifetime attempting to repay this gift in kind.