A recent study by researchers in Poland has examined differences in how bilingual people respond to emotionally charged words in different languages.
The study, carried out by a team led by Marcin Naranowicz from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland was published in the journal Scientific Reports and found evidence that “emotional words” induce a smaller physiological response in bilinguals’ second language than those in their mother tongue.
The team worked with 47 female participants and analyzed their physiological responses to emotionally charged words. All participants were students from their institution, native Polish speakers and proficient in English as a second language.
The participants were shown film clips in Polish and English that would classically evoke positive and negative moods. Electrodes were placed on the skin to measure conductivity, mapping a level of physiological stimulus in response to thoughts or emotions.
Results suggested that the Polish film clips likely to evoke a negative mood also produced significant increases in ‘skin conductance’ suggesting a more intense level of stimulation. The same clips played in English appeared to not alter skin conductance, which the team deduced may be because foreign language processing in the brain involves a degree of emotional detachment.
Overall, the English film clips did produce a higher average level of skin conductance than those in Polish, regardless of the mood. This finding could reflect a greater general cognitive effort required to process a second language.
Consistent with previous studies, this evidence supports the notion that reading in one’s native language provides a stronger emotional experience than reading in a second or additional language.
Despite the findings leaning strongly towards a clear conclusion, there are certain variables which could alter the results, such as the environment in which the participants learned English. Those who learned in a school environment —typically non-emotional with a rigid framework, might have a less emotional relationship to the language than participants who learned in an immersive or familial setting.
The decision to use only female participants was based on the team’s earlier findings “pointing to a more robust role of mood in language processing in women than men.” Using male participants could also see different results.
Despite leaving room for variables, Naranowicz and his colleagues attest that their latest findings could lead to important progress in so-called “bilingual therapy.” Their hypothesis: If processing a foreign language does truly involve some level of emotional detachment, using a patient’s second language during therapy may help them distance themselves from a traumatic event.