Once more, with feeling: life as bilingual

Whilhelmiina Toivo 150.jpgWilhelmiina Toivo, an ESRC-funded PhD student from the University of Glasgow, was joint winner of Making Sense of Society, the ESRC’s writing competition 2017 in partnership with SAGE Publishing. This is her winning essay.

 

My dad had a rather liberal philosophy of bringing up children, but he would always tell us off for swearing. As a result, I grew up feeling very uncomfortable using swearwords.

Or, at least, so I thought – when I first moved to Scotland, I noticed that it was actually very easy to swear in English. Interestingly enough, I also found it easy to talk to my flatmates about topics that felt too intimate to discuss in my native tongue. In a flat of seven girls from all over Europe, we discussed the full magnitude of emotions and topics; the fears of living abroad, falling in and out of love, death, sex – everything. Swearing and talking about these emotions was not easy just because of the inherent rowdiness of the student community, or because we felt liberated being away from home for the first time. The effect I was observing is something that goes deeper and touches a huge number of people who live in multilingual settings.

Many bilinguals report ‘feeling less’ in their second language; it does not bear the same emotional weight as your native language. Feeling less emotionally connected to your second language might make it easier to use highly emotional vocabulary, which is precisely what I was experiencing with my ease of swearing and talking about sensitive topics in English.

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The scientific term for this is ‘reduced emotional resonance of language’. It is a fairly well-established phenomenon, but many specific questions still remain unanswered. For example, what exactly makes one’s second language less emotional? How does this affect different immigrant communities? My research project aims to address these questions by looking into the reasons and implications of reduced emotional resonance in bilinguals’ second language.

It is still unclear what exactly shapes emotional resonance of a language and in what way – results thus far have been inconclusive. In the first part of my project we are exploring which factors in a person’s language background contribute to reduced emotional resonance. For example, is it influenced by the age at which you have learnt your second language? Does it matter how frequently and in which context you use the language? Or is your emotional experience of a language predictable from whether you dream or can do maths in it?

To investigate these questions, my project uses eye-tracker technology to measure bilinguals’ pupil responses to emotional words in English. Typically, when shown highly emotional words or pictures, people’s pupils dilate as an uncontrollable, emotional reaction. Previous research has shown the effect is smaller in bilinguals’ second language, which suggests reduced emotional resonance. Understanding the reasons why this happens can, in turn, help us explain how you experience a foreign language community, and how this could be taken into account in acculturation and adaptation.

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Wittgenstein said: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” This is particularly true for your second language. For fluent bilinguals living in a community where their native language is not spoken, reduced emotional resonance sets ‘the limits of the world’. While your language skills can be more than adequate, not being able to fully structure your surroundings through language might leave you feeling alienated; not a part of the society you live in. Or perhaps you are perceived as rude or socially awkward for using the wrong words in the wrong emotional context.

However, not all the implications of reduced emotional resonance are negative – bilinguals can actually benefit from being able to approach things in a less emotionally involved way. For example, bilinguals have been shown to be able to make more rational decisions in their second language. Also, switching languages can be used as a tool in therapy when working through emotionally difficult or traumatising experiences. Imagine how it would be if it were easier to talk about your emotions with your partner – maybe bilingual couples have a communicative advantage? Ultimately, understanding the full scale of implications of reduced emotional resonance is a way to understand how bilinguals experience the world.

In the increasingly globalising world where studying abroad, immigration and sojourning are more and more common, as well as pervasive issues in international politics, understanding the realities of bi- and multilingual people is crucial. Being bilingual no longer means just being exposed to two languages from birth – it can refer to a person who uses two languages in their everyday life, regardless of their level of fluency. As the number of people with versatile language backgrounds grows, understanding all aspects of language and how these mediate our lives become important. Language is so much more than just a communication device; it is a way to understand the world around us, defining our reality and what it actually means to be human.


Read more about the winning essays and catch up on news from the writing competition on Twitter using #esrcwriting

One thought on “Once more, with feeling: life as bilingual

  1. A recent academic paper (http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0081225) has shown that the relative ease of swearing in a second language (L2) is not due to emotional distancing, but the fact that switching into another language releases the speaker from the political correctness and social norms imposed by her/his native language (L1) and culture – while they are often well aware of the strength of offensiveness of the swearwords at their disposal. The validity of this explanation (termed the ‘social normativity hypothesis’) has been validated by a spate of subsequent studies.
    The emotional resonance is indeed influenced by the age of language acquisition in that bilinguals who have acquired both their languages before age 7 have been shown not to display differing emotionality in using either – simply because in their case one can effectively talk not so much of L1 and L2, but of two L1s.

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