Is it more difficult for us to express emotions when we speak in another language? Are we more talkative when we tell an unpleasant fact or when we are overwhelmed by a positive emotion? What resources do we use to transmit intensity in our emotions? Do we use these resources according to our level of proficiency in a language that we learn?
The usual experience when learning foreign languages, even when reaching high levels of proficiency, is the self-perception of a lack of adequate words and expressions when it comes to expressing an emotion spontaneously and naturally.
We do not feel as “authentic” as when we speak in our language, nor with the security of communicating what we really intend:
“We are not taught in class to express our emotions, and we feel them every day of our lives.”
“If when I talk to my Spanish-speaking friends I can’t express my emotions well, they’ll think I don’t have feelings.”
These are responses from two Chinese participants in our forthcoming research on how these learners express joy and sadness in Spanish and how they feel doing so.
Emotions and details
We interviewed a total of 81 Sino-speakers who use Spanish in three different contexts:
- University students in China (non-language immersion context).
- Students during an academic stay in Madrid (linguistic immersion).
- Workers settled in Madrid (migration context).
To get them to produce emotional oral narratives, we projected film sequences that elicited the intended emotions (sadness and joy). We measured these emotions with a questionnaire validated by previous researchers, and we asked them to immediately tell us in Spanish about a personal experience that was sad, in the first case, and happy, in the second.
As a control measure, we projected between them a sequence without emotional charge that gave rise to the description of their routine on any given day and served as a transition between the two activated emotional states.
Sadness, easier to explain?
The analysis of the 243 oral narratives collected revealed that they used more words and expressed themselves in greater detail in the accounts of a sad recent situation than in the happy ones and in those of their daily routine (the most concise by far).
Sadness, we could say, provoked a more extensive oral production rich in linguistic resources.
These resources served, mainly, to express nuances of intensity, as was the case with appreciative suffixes (I feel a little sad, super sad or I felt very sad); the quantifiers and intensifiers (too much, a lot, a little) and the repetitions of the same term three or four times (very, very, very sad).
Also the metaphorical expressions collected were very numerous (I have felt an emptiness in my heart, his sadness has infected me or he transmitted emotion to me through his eyes).
The effects of immersion
When comparing the narratives according to the context of learning and use of the language (non-immersion, academic immersion and labor immigration), it was observed that academic immersion did not entail a greater use of any of the resources analyzed.
Differences were observed, as expected, according to the level of linguistic proficiency, since those with a higher level of Spanish produced more words and used a greater number of descriptive, expressive and figurative resources than those with lower levels.
The abundance of metaphorical resources in all contexts and levels of command of Spanish was one of the most outstanding and interesting features.
Ever since Lakoff and Johnson ‘s Metaphors of Everyday Life was published in the 1980s , we know that it is not possible to express ourselves verbally without using metaphors, unconscious to the speaker due to their familiarity.
This impossibility is exacerbated when communicating emotions, since they are abstract, intangible constructs. As our corpus of oral narratives reveals, this same phenomenon of recourse to figurative language occurs when expressing emotions in an additional language in which we have an intermediate domain.
Research on the relationship between language and emotion, currently on the rise, is being carried out from enriching interdisciplinary perspectives that already shed light on factors related to the processes of learning and use of languages by bilingual and multilingual people.
These results gradually permeate the design of teaching materials and teaching practices, a development that we hope will continue to contribute to the development of multicultural speakers from a comprehensive conception that encompasses the emotional and identity dimensions of language use.
Author Bios: Susana Martin Leralta is Dean of the Faculty of Languages and Education and Teresa Simon Cabodevilla is an Undergraduate and postgraduate professor at Nebrija University both at Nebrija University