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Bilinguals are less sensitive to mood changes in their second language

It may be an advantage in some contexts.
Credit: Annelisa Leinbach / Big Think; Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • A recent study examined differences in how bilingual people respond to emotionally charged words in different languages. 
  •  The results show that emotional words evoke a smaller physiological response in bilinguals’ second language than their native tongue.
  • The results imply that bilingual therapy may use a patient’s second language to help them distance themselves from a traumatic event due to the emotional detachment involved in processing a foreign language.

Does the language we speak shape how we see and experience the world? According to linguistic determinism, differences between languages influence how we think, and new research suggests that these differences also influence what we feel.

The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, shows that emotional words evoke a smaller physiological response in bilinguals’ second language than those in their native tongue.

Interpreting language emotionally

Marcin Naranowicz of Adam Mickiewicz University and his colleagues examined physiological responses to emotionally charged words in 47 female students from their institution, all native Polish speakers and proficient in English as a second language.

They showed the participants Polish and English language film clips that evoked positive and negative moods, while using electrodes to measure skin conductivity, which reflects the level of physiological arousal in response to thoughts or emotions.

The Polish film clips that evoked a negative mood also evoked large increases in skin conductance, suggesting higher arousal levels. The same clips played in English did not alter skin conductance, perhaps because processing a foreign language involves emotional detachment.

The English film clips did, however, evoke a higher average skin conductance level than the Polish clips, regardless of the mood they evoked, perhaps reflecting the greater cognitive effort needed to process a second language.

This appears to be consistent with earlier studies showing that reading in one’s native language provides a stronger emotional experience than reading in one’s second language, and that bilinguals turn a blind eye to negative statements in their second language.

The context of learning language

But the results are not so straightforward. One complicating factor is the context in which the participants learned English. All of them acquired the language at school or in other formal settings, which typically teach language in a non-emotional context. By contrast, language learned by immersion in real social interactions is far more naturalistic.

Furthermore, the study involved only 47 participants, and the researchers recruited women only, a decision based on their earlier findings “pointing to a more robust role of mood in language processing in women than men.”

Even so, Naranowicz and his colleagues assert that their latest results could have important implications for so-called bilingual therapy: If processing a foreign language does indeed involve some level of emotional detachment, then using a patient’s second language during therapy may help them distance themselves from a traumatic event.