Heightened emotion in a first language: Evidence for contextdependent
storage of words and phrases

Catherine L. Harris, Boston University

Conceptual Structure, Discourse and Language
University of Alberta
October 8-10 2004

Language has long been celebrated for being an abstract rule system, the natural algebra of
the mind. Traditional theories propose that extralinguistic context is stripped away during
learning, leaving core meanings and context-independent grammatical rules. In contrast, the
"radical contextualization view" proposes that language forms (words, phrases, grammatical
constructions), are frequently stored with their contexts of use. On this view, contextindependence
is the exception, not the norm.

While these are not new ideas, this paper applies them to the question of the the emotional
context of language learning and use. An implication of radical contextualization is that the
emotional context of words and phrases mentally are stored as part of their long-term memory
representation. It follows then that encountering emotional phrases will not just activate their
meaning, but will lead to emotional arousal. Emotional arousal can be quantified using
psychophysiological techniques, such as monitoring electrodermal response. Indeed, heightened
skin conductance response to emotional phrases has been found by many researchers. Of course,
the abstract meaning of the phrase can activate the amygdala, the brain area responsable for
increased skin conductance. A more interesting prediction is that skin conductance will be
greater for emotional phrases heard in a first language compared to phrases heard in a second
language. A second prediction is that this will hold regardless of cultural beliefs about which
language is more emotional. For example, Spanish-English bilinguals usually claim that
Spanish is more emotional than English, while Mandarin-English bilinguals often claim that
Engish is more emotional than Mandarin. It was hypothesized that Mandarin speakers' perceive
North American culture to be permissive about expressing emotions verbally.

These hypothesis were tested by studying Mandarin-English and Spanish-English speakers
who had learned their second language (English) in early childhood or after age 12. Speakers
listened to a variety of emotional expressions and neutral phrases while their skin conductance
was monitored. As predicted, skin conductance amplitudes were larger for phrases in the
language of learned in childhood. Amplitudes were relatively unaffected by adult views about
permissability of emotional expression.

These results extend prior work suggesting that a first and a second language have separate
mental repressentation. It contributes to the radical contextualization hypothesis because
emotional arousal was specific to language form, not abstract meaning. This is consistent with
the proposal that the the emotional context of utterances is stored with language forms in long
term memory.
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