Emotion Research in Multilingual Contexts: Why it Interests Me and What my Research Shows

We recently published Multilinguals’ Verbalisation and Perception of Emotions by Pia Resnik. In this post Pia explains how she came to be interested in researching emotion in multilingual contexts.

My interest in research into multilingualism was sparked during a research visit at Newcastle University, where Vivian Cook familiarised me with his idea of linguistic multi-competence. The languages known by a speaker mutually influence each other and interact with other mental processes, leading to a unique way of language use? Seemed reasonable. The complexity and dynamics of linguistic multi-competence have fascinated me ever since, especially as at the time I was investigating Chinese, Japanese and Thai users of English which required thinking outside the box and familiarising myself with, among other things, new concepts of self and other.

It was then that I also experienced what multi-competence means regarding the communication of emotions: be it my participants not sharing my sense of humour, or me not being able to ‘translate’ jokes from my L1 (German) into English, or a friend from Austria uttering the f-word a million times when walking down a street in Newcastle, nearly giving an elderly British woman a heart attack. I also noticed that British tend to use “I love you” quite differently from Austrians and how easily you can get it wrong in a language other than your first (the consequences of which can be quite severe). All these experiences made me want to explore the cross-cultural and cross-linguistic verbalisation and perception of emotions more closely.  A few years later, I collected my data during a research visit at Birkbeck College, University of London. Little did I know back then it would turn into this book.

In this book, I try to provide an exhaustive, up-to-date review of previous work in this field and also present the findings of two studies in which I investigated the topic on a meta-level of self-reflexivity and on the level of performance. Not only did my data show that emotions often do not go as deep in a foreign language (LX) as in one’s first but also that differences in emotionality (besides many other influential variables) have an effect on the frequency of verbalising emotions in an LX. This effect can be twofold: it can prevent us from expressing them in the LX, but it can also encourage us to express them more openly and frequently in the LX. Especially in the context of swearing, for instance, LX users often have difficulty judging the emotional force of swear words, which often leads to them using them differently from L1 users and also to conveying the intended meaning more or less drastically in the LX than in the L1. When comparing LX users from the Eastern world with those from the West, it was frequently shown that verbalising emotions in English (their LX) also allows the former to escape social constraints experienced in L1 contexts and it also seems to be the case that cross-linguistic and cross-cultural differences are greater in their case.

In a nutshell, the book not only shows that multilinguals tend to verbalise and perceive emotions differently in the L1 and LX but also that many variables simultaneously play a role in the verbal expression and understanding of emotions. Even though there is great individual variation, I believe that only taking a ‘Western’ perspective does not suffice and that insights into Eastern backgrounds are much needed too to ensure mutual understanding – also in typical ELF (English as a Lingua Franca) contexts, for instance.

Even though a vibrant field of study, much is still to be discovered due to the topic’s complexity. I hope that my contribution will generate ideas for future study designs and research directions and that researchers as well as anyone teaching or learning multiple languages finds it useful. After all, globalisation and, along with it, migration frequently require expressing emotions in an LX. Emotions are also the driving force underlying successful or unsuccessful LX acquisition and, besides language, they are what makes us fundamentally human – something worth investigating!

Pia Resnik, Department of English and American Studies, University of Vienna


For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Emerging Self-Identities and Emotion in Foreign Language Learning by Masuko Miyahara.

New app to encourage multilingualism

MM author Kelleen Toohey, along with her colleagues, have developed ScribJab to encourage multilingualism among 9-13 year- olds. Here, Kelleen tells us a bit more detail about the project.

ScribJab (www.scribjab.com) is a website and free iPad application that tries to encourage multilingualism and appreciation for multilingual resources in Canada and throughout the world. ScribJab allows writers to write, illustrate, narrate and publish stories in at least two languages. It also provides space for authors to comment on other people’s stories. Developed initially for 9-13 year old children, the site and app are seeing the creation of stories by older and younger authors. While ScribJab does not correct or edit authors’ stories (wishing to encourage writers at all stages of proficiency), a teacher moderates the site for appropriateness. Authors can contribute stories individually or there are provisions for teachers to enrol classes.

Like most educational researchers today, we believe that children learn second languages faster and better if they have a strong foundation in their first language. We also believe that valuing languages is important for the development of children who grow up in multilingual homes, whether they know their heritage languages or not.

Children who are not multilingual are encouraged to contribute to the site as well, if they can find some help in translating their stories into other languages. Developing positive attitudes to multilingualism is important for all citizens, and through this website and app, we hope to provide a positive experience for all.

The first books on the website were developed by a group of 9 and 10-year old children whose teacher asked them to write books for younger children which might be read (in their first languages) by grandparents visiting their school for “noisy reading” time. Children gathered the stories from their grandparents, stories about when the grandparents were children. The stories differ in length, complexity and accuracy. We see this as entirely appropriate, and children discussed the fact that some books might be appropriate for younger children and their grandparents and others suitable for older children. These books are published on the site as “hand drawn samples”.

We hope that writers and readers internationally will find ScribJab a helpful resource, and that it fosters an appreciation for multilingualism and promotes discussions about multilingualism.

For further information about ScribJab please see the website www.scribjab.com or contact Kelleen Toohey at toohey@sfu.ca