Second language users commonly acknowledge that taboo terms and emotion-laden phrases can be uttered with less self-consciousness in their second language (L2) than in their first (L1). The last decade has seen an explosion of research using psychophysiological measures (electrodermal activity, heart rate) to quantify emotional reactivity in diverse domains, concomitant with the interest of cognitive neuroscience in emotional aspects of cognitive processing. However, little psychophysiological work has been done on bilingual language processing, and none exists examining reactivity to emotional and taboo words.
Thirty native speakers of Turkish, residents of Boston, read and heard a variety of word types in Turkish (L1) and English (L2) while skin conductance response was monitored via fingertip electrodes. Taboo words elicited the strongest response, showing an amplitude that was almost double that of neutral words, especially in the first language. Our finding of greater reactivity to first language childhood phrases and taboo words is consistent with the view that first language acquisition may involve earlier-developing subcortical limbic areas (i.e., emotional processing areas), while acquisition of a second language may depend more on later-developing cortical areas. One implication is that words and phrases acquired later are represented in a more abstract fashion, in contrast to first-language words and phrases which during childhood become strongly associated with emotional representations.