Emotional language use and bilingualism

Authors: Anna Hatzidaki, Assistant Professor and member of the Bilingualism and Psycholinguistics (BiPsy) Lab, Dept. of English Language and Literature, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens (NKUA); Mikel Santesteban, Senior Researcher and member of The Bilingual Mind research group, Dept. of Linguistics and Basque Studies, University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU).

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Our brain is ready to acquire linguistic representations of one, two or multiple languages. When we learn new words, these are assigned a meaning based on our experiences and are included in our mental lexicon that is organized as a semantic network where words are linked to one another based on their semantic similarity, co-occurrence, etc. (Collins & Loftus, 1975). For instance, the word “love” might be linked to words such as “hate”, “passion”, “happiness”, and so on. These linguistic representations allow us to exchange information and communicate with our fellow humans, including expressing our emotions or understanding those of others.

In the case of bilinguals, there are several factors that may affect the activation of words, such as age of acquisition, frequency of use or recency (if a word was recently used or not), thus making some words more accessible in one language than in another, in which case speakers may resort to language switching. Frequent users of two languages may also switch between their native language (L1) and a second/foreign language (L2) because they feel at ease with both of them, and decide which one to use depending on the contextual environment (Blanco-Elorrieta & Caramazza, 2021; Green & Abutalebi, 2013; Green & Wei, 2014). Thus, although swearing in L2 may seem as natural as venting in L1, you may have noticed that in the presence of other bilingual speakers you let off steam in the L2 but when you are by yourself in the L1. Or that the way you use emotional words (e.g., “anger”, “fear”, “happiness” etc.) or words with affective connotations (e.g., “love”, “passion”, “hug” etc.) in each language differs, and so does your reaction to them when uttered by others in your L1 or L2. Why would that be? Don’t the two languages carry the same emotional load? Don’t they have the same impact? Research has shown they do not.

Feeling at ease speaking in the two languages we know, it does not necessarily mean that we experience emotions in the same way in both; in the language we were raised with and in a language that we learnt later in our life, most likely in a school setting. Indeed, studies have found that emotions seem to exert their influence to a lesser extent in the less proficient and less dominant language, usually the L2 than the L1. That is, our emotional reaction seems to be reduced when the language that we use to express or perceive an emotion is a foreign language and not our native one; when we say or read, for example, “love” or the “F-word” in the L2 vs. the L1 (e.g. Dewaele, 2008; Harris, Ayçiçeĝi, & Gleason, 2003; Toivo & Scheepers, 2019; see Pavlenko, 2005 for a review). Even more impressive is the finding that our moral judgement and decision-making may also be different when they are informed by emotional content presented in a foreign vs. a native language, resulting in more deliberate choices in the former case than in the latter (the so-called foreign language effect; e.g. Costa, Foucart, Hayakawa et al., 2014). For instance, if we faced the dilemma of being able to save five people even if that meant that we had to sacrifice another person, we would more readily make a utilitarian decision (to kill one person) if the dilemma was presented in our L2 than in our L1. How so?

Well, emotions are multifaceted and ingrained in language (e.g., taboo words, reprimands or endearments) and accompanying paralinguistic features (e.g., tone of voice) from early on. We learn to associate certain emotional states with certain expressions in certain contexts and form episodic memories in L1 that an L2 is difficult to parallel. Our autonomic nervous system that controls physiological aspects that are modulated by emotional content, such as breathing, heart rate, or pupil dilation, has also learnt to react strongly to emotional input from the language we have been exposed to early on, that is, our native language. Plus, there is that additional cognitive effort a foreign/second language entails that may use up some of the available resources that would otherwise be spent on engaging fully and automatically in emotion processing in the L2 (see Caldwell-Harris, 2015; Hayakawa, Tannenbaum, Costa et al., 2017; Satpute & Lindquist, 2021 for reviews). Finally, we should not forget that language also functions as a carrier of sociocultural views and norms, which may differ cross-linguistically, suggesting that perception and emotion expression may manifest differently between an L1 and an L2, and as such, language switching may be used purposefully for emotion communication (Lindquist, Satpute, & Gendron, 2015).

So, what does that mean? Why does it matter to know that emotional resonance may not be the same in our two languages and that we seem to be more detached in the L2 than in the L1? Findings from this strand of research are of paramount importance not only for gaining a better understanding of the effects learning and using more than one language has on the way we think and behave as bilinguals (or multilinguals), but also for the implications bilingual language use and emotion expression may have for social interaction. Emotional states can be expressed through language and language can influence the perception and memory of emotion-related content. Obtaining information about this bidirectional relationship may help attribute observed (linguistic) reactions to the right source, avoiding misunderstanding, misinterpretations, and consequently, misjudgement. You see, a delayed or a different than-the-one-expected emotional verbal response from our interlocutor in their L2 may not be because they are “cold” or “indifferent” but because emotional language processing in their L2 is not the same as in our L1. Being aware of such differences can also help us employ each language in the right context to avoid mistreatment or misdirection of attention in political, legal and judicial environments where life-or-death decisions are often at stake (e.g., international policy-making, police interrogations, witness testimonies), but also in trivial situations of daily emotional interactions that take place in L1 or in L2. (Now you know why your foreign partner swears so easily in your native language.) Crucially, relevant research findings may be considered in clinical situations to create language contexts for regulating emotions (e.g., by using the L2 to decrease psychological distress) and treating mental health conditions that affect one’s emotional state (Dylman & Bjärtå, 2019; García-Palacios, Costa, Castilla et al., 2018; see Ines Martinovic & Jeanette Altarriba, 2012 for a review).


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Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation (PID2021-124056NB-I00) and the Basque Government (grant number IT1439-22).

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