Emotional, Physical Responses to Harsh Words Get Lost in Translation, Says BU Psychologist

in College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, News Releases, Science & Technology
December 9th, 2003

Contact: Ann Marie Menting, 617/353-2240 | amenting@bu.edu

(Boston, Mass.) — “Shame on you!”

Say that to a colleague and you may see a brief widening of the eyes or a sharp turn of the head. If so, there may be more than just the element of surprise at work. It is quite likely, according to research reported by Catherine Harris, an associate professor of psychology at Boston University, your colleague is a native English speaker and you have struck a chord that resonates with early language memories.

In the latest issue of Applied Psycholinguistics, Harris and co-investigators Ayşe Ayçiçeği, an assistant professor of psychology at Istanbul University in Turkey, and Jean Berko Gleason, a BU psychology professor, break new ground with data showing that among bilingual speakers psychophysiological responses are greater when harsh utterances — such as reprimands and taboo words — are made in their native, or first, language.

The findings mark a stride in the direction of better understanding the intricacies of cross-cultural communications in business, social, and educational settings.

“Research on language has ignored the emotional dimension,” says Harris. “With these findings, we’re reminding researchers and educators that possessing native-speaker language skills is not as simple as having certain vocabulary and grammar. Having a visceral, emotional reaction to the language is also a hallmark of native-like abilities.”

“The implications of this research for the classroom and bilingual education are tremendous,” she adds. “In the past decade, research has shown emotion to be central to memory, decision making, and learning. If you can’t learn well if the material hasn’t engaged you on an emotional level, consider what it means when the material is being delivered in a second language. Lessons that would normally serve as bridges to learning will seem boring, irrelevant, and disconnected from other knowledge.”

Anecdotes from bilingual speakers indicate that such individuals find it easier to say emotionally charged words or expressions in a non-native language. Previous research supports this evidence to some degree with findings that socially stigmatized (“taboo”) words cause an individual less anxiety when spoken in a foreign language. Similarly, research has indicated that bilingual speakers feel freer using their second language to discuss embarrassing topics.

The research team set out to test the validity of these observations and anecdotes by actually determining emotional response through measures of physiological response. They did this by measuring skin conductance responses to taboo words and childhood reprimands among 32 individuals for whom Turkish was their native language and English their second language. Skin conductance response — changes in the skin’s ability to conduct electricity in response to stimuli such as stress or anxiety — was measured using fingertip electrodes.

The researchers hypothesized that emotional expressions such as “No!”, “Go to your room!”, or “Shame on you!” — expressions likely heard by individuals at an early age in their native language — would evoke a physiological and psychological response, even though the individual might not be aware of this response. The team theorized that this response would be greater than that measured for expressions in the second language. They also postulated that taboo words such as “breast,” “whore,” or “oral sex” expressed in the individual’s native language would elicit stronger skin conductance responses than similar words expressed in a language learned later in life.

To ensure they gathered data free of interfering influences, the researchers carefully defined their test parameters. First, they chose a study group whose native and second languages were dissimilar, thus decreasing the likelihood that words or expressions would sound alike because of their similar roots. The Turkish–English bilingual participants had lived in the Boston area for some time, a situation that immersed them in English-language environs, and each had arrived in the United States as either a graduate student or a young professional, circumstances that demand proficiency in English. All participants had acquired English after age 12, and each tested fluent in the language.

Because one’s first language is acquired in spoken form before written form, the researchers tested for differences in emotional response using both auditory and visual presentations. Participants also heard and read words deemed to be neutral (“door”), positive (“bride”), or aversive (“kill”).

The researchers found the greatest difference in languages occurred for reprimands, with Turkish reprimands eliciting skin conductance responses that were significantly greater than the participants’ responses to like reprimands in English. The difference was strong for auditory and visual presentations. For taboo words, language made a difference in response but only when the words were spoken.

The researchers say their findings provide a psychophysiological basis to bilingual speakers’ reports of being more comfortable using taboo words in their second language. By showing that childhood reprimands in one’s native language spur emotion-laden responses similar to those elicited by spoken taboo words, the researchers also bring a new dimension to studies of how language influences psychological development.

The Department of Psychology at Boston University offers programs of research in three general areas: brain, behavior, and cognition; clinical psychology; or human development. Boston University, the fourth-largest independent university in the nation, has an enrollment of more than 29,000 in its 17
schools and colleges.

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