How do we feel the L2?

Languages are highly emotional products. Their embodied nature is consistent with the emotional sieve that all words carry. Is it the same for all the languages we speak? Current studies indicate that sequential bilinguals, those who learn an L2 after an L1, feel one language less than the other. In this article, we will look at some of the implications of this statement, as well as recent results on “how we feel” when we communicate in a second language.

Natividad Hernández and Ana Blanco Canales
Key words
Second language, emotion, research, factors of variation
Recommended reading
Pavlenko, A. (2012). Affective processing in bilingual speakers: Disembodied cognition? International Journal of Psychology 47, 6, 405-428.
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In today’s world it is more common to be bilingual than monolingual, the term bilingual being understood in the broad sense of a person who uses two or more languages in their daily life -each of them more or less effectively, depending on the context- and with different degrees of development of skills or abilities -depending on their needs- (Grosjean 1999: 28). This brings us to a wide range of types of bilinguals: some acquire two languages simultaneously at home, while others learn them at school; we may have learnt them as adults in social, academic or work contexts… or as children, in a family environment; we may be equally competent in the languages we speak or more skilled in some than in others; some bilinguals shape their cultural identity under the influence of two social value systems while others remain unaware of the cultural practices of their second language.

“All this diversity of contexts and processes will be decisive in the functional, affective and expressive relationship of the speaker with their second language”.

We feel the words

The complexity of language, its importance in the construction of identity, its close relationship with perception, memory and cognition, its dependence on experience and the environment and its corporeal nature necessarily lead us to understand it as linked to emotion.

As we learn our mother tongue, words are incorporated with experiential, perceptual and emotional meaning, which are responsible for anchoring them in lexical networks and in memory. Afterwards, when we understand a word or a sentence, visual, auditory, motor or emotional processes are activated to represent the referents, hence we can affirm that comprehension implies a mental simulation of the experience (De Vega 2005).

Without a doubt, we feel languages.

Like any emotion, this response can be analysed according to the five components involved (Scherer 2005): cognitive (evaluation), neurophysiological (bodily symptoms), motivational (action tendencies), motor-expressive (facial and vocal expression), and subjective feeling (emotional experience). This is what researchers at the Swiss Center for Affective Sciences have carried out on 24 emotional terms in 23 languages. The various studies published so far show, among other aspects, that the semantic space of these words is constructed on the basis of the componential features of emotional experience (Soriano et al. 2015).

The words of a language carry an emotional charge which generates a psychophysiological response in speakers when they are spoken or heard.

Emotion words and laden-emotion words

Not all words have the same emotional intensity. There are so-called emotion words, such as joy, fear or hate, whose emotional content is in the meaning itself, while there are others that carry or imply emotional activation but do not refer to the emotion itself (laden-emotion words), such as holiday, accident, party or illness (Pavlenko 2008). In both cases, the emotional charge affects how our minds and brains process words, although it occurs differently in one type and the other (Kazanas and Altarriba 2016).

When a study states that our second or third language makes us less emotional, two highly relevant consequences are being proposed: on the one hand, it is suggested that our communication will be more indifferent to the content transmitted, and, therefore, our involvement will also be poorer; and, on the other hand, it is claimed that certain language processing tasks, such as recognising, reading or retrieving a certain word from memory, will be affected or influenced by the reduced emotional charge of the words in the L2 (Ferré et al. 2010; Opitz and Degner 2012).

Researching the emotional value of languages

Propositional analysis tries to establish the syntactic principles that allow us to identify the emotional words of a language, such as that proposed by Wallace and Carson (1973; emotional words are those that fit the syntactic contexts “He has a feeling of X” and “He feels X”) or that of Clore, Ortony and Foss (1987; they are emotional words if they express emotions in two contexts, “feeling X” and “being X”).

The study of the emotional value of languages can be carried out from two approaches: propositional analysis and componential analysis.

The componential approach starts from the response that every emotion entails and its manifestation in the affected systems or components. This response is synthesised in three or four dimensions (depending on the authors), which have been given different names: evaluation (from good to bad), activity (from active to passive) and power (from strong to weak) (Wurm and Vakoch 1996); arousal, evaluation and dominance (Fontaine, Poortinga, Setiadi and Markam 2002); arousal, liking and dominance (Church et al. 1998); valence, intensity and duration (Niedenthal et al. 2004).

The advantage of component approaches over propositional analyses is that they are relatively neutral with regard to language and culture specific features. (Pavlenko 2008: 157)

One of the usual instruments in psycholinguistics to identify the emotional charge of words is usually the subjective measures questionnaire in which speakers are asked to rate on a scale the dimensions mentioned above, i.e. whether a word is positive or negative for them (valence), the level of emotional excitement it causes them (arousal) or what degree or intensity of emotion a word arouses in them. Recent studies (i. e. Dewaele 2010; Garrido and Prada 2018) show that these dimensions may be perceived differently in L1 and L2, especially for some specific types of terms such as taboo words or swear words.

What factors affect the emotional charge of words in L2?

Studies that have carried out correlations between emotional charge and external variables agree that age, the context of language acquisition and the level of L2 proficiency influence language emotionality. They highlight that L2 learners who experienced secondary affective socialisation perceive L2 emotionality to a greater extent (Harris 2004; Pavlenko 2004; Dewaele 2006). Later ages and more formal contexts seem to enhance emotionally deep experiential information to a lesser extent, leading to vocabulary acquiring fewer associations with its emotional context (Dewaele 2006).

Variation in the emotional charge of words will depend mainly on individual bilingual variables: age of acquisition or learning, learning context, habitual language use (Caldwell-Harris 2014, 2015).

How do these characteristics affect learning? If the word joy, for example, in a second language does not elicit the same cognitive and physiological effect on a learner as in their L1, could this affect the process of learning word meaning, grammar or communicative skills? Hence, the enrichment of emotional contexts in teaching-learning processes is crucial for the development of language learners’ communicative abilities.

This set of learning characteristics has been called the emotional context of learning (Harris et al. 2006) as they are conditioning aspects of learning.


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