Processing Gefühle in your second language

Melissa Vo

Currently the EU is officially working and speaking in 24 different languages: Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish and Swedish. Growing up in such an environment by necessity leads to a great number of people speaking more than just their mother tongue.

As a daughter of two immigrants who came to Germany from the U.S. and Vietnam, I have experienced the difficulties of trying to communicate in a foreign language myself. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for my parents to communicate in German, a language that neither of them grew up with, especially when trying to talk about serious issues like politics (the Vietnam War back then) or one’s emotions (that is “Gefühle” in German).

Similarly, the US as a melting pot of cultures is home to many people whose parents came to the US from a foreign country and who grew up speaking one language at home and another at school, with friends etc. We posted on this issue of speaking different languages at home and outside the home recently, and reported on research that found that one’s “heritage” language—spoken at home—is used and retained better the more different people one speaks to in that language at home.

In light of the increasing globalization and growing multiculturalism in many societies, it is unsurprising that research on bilingualism has been on the rise. (We have recently posted on bilingualism research here and here.)

One hotly debated issue involves the question whether learning a second language would impede learning or retention of the first. Many linguists feel that knowing a second language actually benefits a child’s cognitive development.

Oscar Wilde famously says in Dorian Gray: “I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them.” But that requires a very nuanced grasp of one’s language—there is an old saying that you have only really mastered speaking another language once you are able to be funny (on purpose!) in that language and understand its humor.

Relatedly, you might have had the experience that expressing your emotions or understanding others’ can be frustratingly difficult in a language that is not your main language. One’s first language is therefore often considered the “language of the heart”. A recent study by Jończyk, Boutonnet, Musiał, Hoemann, and Thierry published in the Psychonomic Society’s journal Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, tried to get at the core of affective processing in a second language by investigated the processing of words in emotional contexts.

In particular, the authors tested late fluent Polish–English bilinguals living in the UK in their first- and second-language (L2). On average, the bilingual subjects had arrived in the UK at age 13—that is, relatively late in childhood in linguistic terms—and had resided there for 8 years on average. They reported using both Polish and English on a daily basis.

So how can one experimentally test how the emotional content of a word influences its comprehension? Jończyk and colleagues recorded evoked brain potentials (EEG) to get at this question. We know from previous language studies that a word that does not fit the meaning of a sentence leads to a “semantic integration cost.” For example, we recently posted here on the effects of such perplexing sentences—for example, if a cat barks or a guitar is played with a bow.

When recording EEG while people read such sentences, one will find that the “N400” ERP component is increased in its amplitude for semantically inconsistent as compared to consistent words. Kutas and Federmeier wrote an extensive review on the N400, its use and interpretation. If you don’t want to read an entire review on this issue, you can start with this recent post.

Jończyk and colleagues compared native English speakers with Polish–English bilinguals while reading sentences. Thirty-five positive and 35 negative adjectives were embedded at the final position of sentences that themselves could either be neutral, negative or positive. These sentences were further divided into four categories: (a) positive sentences ending in a congruent or incongruent word, both from a semantic and affective point of view (e.g., Their honeymoon in the gorgeous scenery of Paris was so romantic / burnt*); (b) negative sentences ending in a congruent or incongruent word (e.g., Gloria accidentally poured boiling water over herself and was burnt / romantic*); (c) neutral sentences ending in a congruent positive or incongruent negative word (e.g., Women find him interesting, because Harry is very romantic / burnt*); and (d) neutral sentences ending in a congruent negative or incongruent positive word (e.g., Jerry spent a whole day in the sun and now his skin is burnt / romantic*). Critically for the use of the N400 ERP component, positive and negative sentence endings were equally predictable.

The participants’ task was to read the sentences to the end, and then decide whether or not each one made sense by pressing buttons on a response box. English monolinguals completed two blocks of trials in English and bilinguals completed two blocks of trials in English and two in Polish. At the end, everyone rated the adjectives regarding their emotional valence.

The idea was that (a) one would observe greater semantic integration difficulties in the second language indexed by greater N400 amplitudes, and (b) differential N400 modulation by affective valence with negative sentences eliciting reduced N400 amplitudes relative to positive sentences.

The authors found increased N400 for sentences in Polish as a first language (L1), possibly driven by “greater affective salience of sentences in the native language”. Importantly, language interacted with affective valence in that the N400 amplitudes were reduced for English sentences (the second language, L2, of the bilingual subjects) ending in a negative fashion as compared to all other conditions.

These findings suggest that semantic access to negative words presented in the second language of bilinguals may be incomplete and suppressed at an early stage of processing. The authors interpreted this as “a sign that bilinguals suppress L2 content embedded in naturalistic L2 sentences when it has negative valence.”

In other words, you might be less prone to comprehend that someone calls you a “Dummkopf” (“dumb head”) in German, while perfectly well understanding that you are someone’s “Schatz” (“treasure”). Sounds like a perfect reason to learn another language to me!

Article focused on in this post:

Jończyk, R., Boutonnet, B., Musiał, K., Hoemann, K. & Thierry, G. (2016). The bilingual brain turns a blind eye to negative statements in the second language.Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 16, 527-540. DOI:10.3758/s13415-016-0411-x

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