Harris, C.L., Gleason, J.B.,& Aycicegi, A. (2006). When is a first language more emotional? Psychophysiological evidence from bilingual speakers. In A. Pavlenko (Ed.), Bilingual minds: Emotional experience, expression, and representation. Clevedon, United Kingdom: Mulilingual Matters.
In this article, Harris and Gleason move away from computational accounts of language acquisition in bilingual speakers and consider the role of emotion. They note that, traditionally, investigations into the emotional and subjective experiential accounts of language has been shunned due to the idiosyncratic nature of emotion, which runs counter to a research agenda that seeks to identify the universality in linguistic processes. However, Harris and Gleason point out that there is significant overlap in subjective accounts of language, and that the subjective quality of specific experiences can be very similar across individuals. They point to consistent results found in recent research conducted by Dewaele (2004), in which greater emotional intensity was endorsed when speakers used taboo in their native language than in a second language. Harris and Gleason also point out that when emotion has been considered in psycholinguistics, it has been thus far limited to investigations of monolingual speakers. The article goes on to review recent studies conducted by the authors further investigating the role of emotion in bilingualism – specifically, are utterances in L1 more emotionally arousing than utterances in L2?
In a series of studies, the authors use psychophysiological measurement (SCR) in conjunction with self-report to investigate emotional responses to specific phrases. SCR was chosen as these responses are generated not only to threat but also indicate the degree of relevance a specific stimulus holds for the individual. In the first study, participants included native Turkish speakers residing in the U.S. Participants were presented with a series of phrases in both L1 (Turkish) and L2 (English) that included taboo words, reprimands, aversive words, positive words, and neutral words. Whereas emotional reaction to taboo words was high in both Turkish and English, the greatest difference in responding was found for reprimands. The authors suggest the greater emotional responsivity to reprimands in L1 may be the result of the emotional environment in which these phrases were initially learned. Research suggests conversational aspects of autobiographical memory may be encoded in a specific language, and memories of being reprimanded may therefore be encoded pairing specific words with their emotional contexts. The authors also point out that language acquisition occurs in the same years as the development of emotion regulation. Reprimands by parents may elicit highly emotionally-charged responses from the child, as maintaining attachment relationships with the parent (i.e. not jeopardizing this relationship through wrongdoing) is a paramount motivational goal. Memories of reprimands, therefore, are encoded as highly emotionally salient events. Following research on emotion and memory, it is likely that specific words are paired as emotionally relevant auditory stimuli that become associated and encoded as emotionally salient. In support of this, greater responses in this study were elicited when participants were presented with reprimands in L1 (Turkish) as auditory stimuli than as visual stimuli. As these reprimands are generally heard first before being read, and reading reprimands may not occur within as emotionally-charged a situation as hearing them, the visual stimuli of written reprimands may not have been encoded in memory with the same degree of emotionally salience.
In a second study, Spanish-English bilinguals were included and categorized according to age of acquisition: early learners (born to immigrant parents and learned English around age 5); balanced bilinguals (arrived in America around age 6 or 7); and late learners (learned English around age 12). The early learners endorsed English as their most proficient language, balanced bilinguals endorsed both, and late learners endorsed Spanish. Similar to the first study, the greatest difference in L1 relative to L2 responses was found to reprimands, but only for the late learners. Further, the emotional arousal of L2 was weaker than L1 only for those who acquired L2 past the age of 7. This suggest a decline in the emotional significance of L2 as a function of both age of acquisition and degree of proficiency in L2.
To investigate whether one language in these studies was inherently more emotional than the other, a third study investigated ratings of emotional intensity of phrases in Spanish versus English through a questionnaire study involving both American and Colombian students. This study found items rated similarly. However, another study conducted by the authors found native Turkish speakers rated Turkish phrases higher than English speakers rated the English counterparts. The authors suggest cultural differences may exist in the approach to these ratings, wherein baseline ratings are higher or lower dependent upon culture. This is an important observation, however the article does not tie this finding back to earlier investigations of American and Colombian students, so it is unclear if similar effects exist between Spanish and English speakers in these cultures.
The article goes on to explore possible reasons why a first language might be more emotionally forceful than a second language. A few psycholinguistic theories are reviewed, such as Johnson and Newport’s theory of a maturational mechanism in which genes for acquiring language are expressed more strongly in early childhood. This would suggest the affective primacy of L1 is related to a general language acquisition mechanism that is present in early in life. Birdsong came to different conclusions, pointing to motivational factors. It is interesting to note, however, that both of these lines of research are investigating grammatical knowledge, and are investigating very different L1 languages. Johnson and Newport investigated Korean- and Chinese-English speakers, whereas Birdsong investigated Spanish-English speakers. As will be explored in a review of Hernandez and Li (2007; see separate post), the differences found in between these investigations may have more to do with the lexical difference between L1 and L2 than differences in affective or semantic significance. In other words, if two languages are more grammatically similar, differences in grammatical knowledge as a function of age of acquisition might be less distinct as differences accounted for by levels of motivation or length of time speaking. In contrast, languages that are grammatically very different might evidence greater AoA effects if, as Hernandez and Li suggest, an AoA effect exists for acquisition of syntax in L2 (such that acquiring L2 syntax is easier as a function of age). This point will be explored further in a separate post.
Returning to the present article, another suggestion as to why L1 may be more emotionally salient is the fact that because early language development occurs in tandem with the development of emotion regulation, and therefore early words and phrases may have more connections with the amygdala, whereas later learned words may have more connections with cortical areas. However, recall the results of the studies above found greatest differences in emotional salience for reprimands. Perhaps the greater emotional intensity of early learned phrases have more to do with the more highly charged emotional context, whereas the same phrases learned later are less emotionally charged??
In line with this, Harris and Gleason propose a “context of learning theory” in which language has a distinctive emotional feel because it is learned and/or habitually used in a distinctive emotional context. Words and phrases become stored in memory in a context-dependent manner. They go on to present anecdotal evidence that L1 is not always the most emotional language. They point to stories of colleagues who have come to the U.S. to study and subsequently have remained in the U.S., getting married and starting families. These individuals report their second language (English) as feeling more emotional. The authors suggest that experiencing highly emotional events, such as having children in the context of L2 may result in L2 becoming more emotional. It would be interesting to test this hypothesis – using the same method in the studies above, it would be interesting to see if the presentation of specific words or phrases related to caring for children (such as “crib” “bottle” or “the baby is crying”) would be more emotional for these individuals in L1 or L2. In other words, would specific words or phrases accompanying these highly emotionally-charged experiences be encoded with more emotional significance much in the same way reprimands in childhood were found to be?
Harris and Gleason’s context of learning theory fits nicely with the Hernandez and Li article concerning age of acquisition. Harris and Gleason pose the question as to whether a maturational mechanism may be at play in the results reported above, such that first-acquired languages are always more emotional. However, they point out that the early contexts in which language is first acquired are also generally more emotional (for example, naturalistic settings tend to be more emotionally charged than classroom settings), which may play more of a causal role. In addition, if differences in the emotional force between languages are a function of maturational mechanisms, how would this account for the anecdotal evidence presented above, in which individuals who acquired a second language later in life nevertheless report L2 as feeling more emotional? An important consideration, however, is what specific factors of language are affected by age of acquisition (AoA), a point explored by Hernandez and Li (2007). AoA effects may be present only for syntax, and not for semantics, such that a “critical period” for processing syntactical information may occur early in life, whereas the processing of semantic information can occur throughout the lifespan. If this were to be the case, this would lend further support to Harris and Gleason’s argument that the greater emotional force of a first language has more to do with the emotional context in which the language was acquired and less to do with maturational mechanisms, because the syntax in the phrases presented in the studies above does not vary, only the semantic content. This would also lend support for why L2 might still be more emotional when learned late, if L2 is frequently used in highly emotional contexts. It seems more plausible that specific words and phrases become highly associated with specific emotional contexts and are encoded in memory as such. Again, to test this theory, it would be interesting to replicate the studies above using words or phrases congruent with highly charged emotional contexts experienced later in life, to see whether similar effects arise.
(n.b. - Further discussion of the Hernandez and Li article appears as a separate post.)