Bilinguals' autonomic arousal to language mirrors their subjective emotional experience

Tabitha Pancharatnam and Catherine L. Harris

Second-language speakers commonly acknowledge that taboo terms and emotionally-charged phrases elicit a stronger emotional response in their first language. This was confirmed using electrodermal recording in three groups who learned English and one other language (Turkish, Mandarin or Spanish). Autonomic arousal was monitored via fingertip electrodes while bilinguals read or heard words and phrases in their first or second language. A question of particular interest was whether participants' reports of their subjective emotional experience in each language were consistent with skin conductance amplitudes. Participants were interviewed about their language learning history, patterns of language maintenance, and subjective experience. Interviews included speakers' feelings when using/hearing intimate expressions (I love you), curse words, sexual terms, insults and other expressions. Additionally, participants introspected on their emotional reaction when learning their second language (e.g., was it primarily the language of school/work, or a language learned in the home), and whether they felt like two different people when using their two languages. Some broad trends emerged which were independent of subjective experience: Skin conductance patterns primarily depended on self-reported proficiency and age of acquisition. Subjective reports of emotionality for taboo words and childhood reprimands explained additional variability in the electrodermal data. An intriguing trend emerged among participants who felt like two different people when using their two languages. These participants showed high reactivity to one emotion-category in their first language, and low reactivity to that category in their second language.