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Bilingual Minds, Bilingual Bodies

Do we smile and frown differently in a second language?

Post written by Aneta Pavlenko.

Bilinguals are sometimes described as people with two minds in one body, a metaphor we enjoy despite our awareness that human beings have a single mind/brain. Today, I want to question the second part of this description—if our minds adjust to linguistic and conceptual demands of different languages, don’t our bodies adjust to different cultural norms?

Many bilinguals answer this question in the affirmative. Poet and novelist Julia Alvarez, for instance, writes in English but still sees Spanish, the language of her childhood in the Dominican Republic, as the language of her body and her senses: “When someone addresses me as 'Hoolia' (Spanish pronunciation of Julia), I feel my emotional self come to the fore. I answer 'Sí', and lean forward to kiss a cheek rather than answer 'Yes' and extend my hand for a handshake. Some deeper or first Julia is being summoned”. Another bilingual writer, Rosario Ferré, confesses: “I love to make love in Spanish; I’ve never been able to make love in English. In English, I get puritanical.”

Their insights are personal and undoubtedly idiosyncratic yet they remind us that the process of second language (L2) learning that leads to bilingualism involves not only our minds but also our bodies. Our mouths are busy accommodating new sounds, our vocal tracts adjust to the new pitch, our hands adapt to new gestures, and our bodies learn new ways to respond to greetings (one kiss? two? three?) and to maintain appropriate interpersonal distances. Yet there is more to the way in which a language inhabits the body than sounds, gestures, and distances. In an earlier post, I have discussed studies of affective processing, which suggest that a foreign language learned in adulthood elicits a significantly weaker response than the language of the childhood and may even allow us to make more rational decisions (see here).

Recently, this research has expanded to another aspect of embodiment (see here), the degree to which our sensorimotor systems are engaged in mental simulation of physical actions when we speak, read or write. Researchers found that the processes of language production and comprehension (lexico-semantic processing) make use of the same parts of the brain that are dedicated to interacting with the world (affective and motor processing). The verbs ‘running’, ‘grabbing’ or ‘throwing’, for instance, may activate the same part of the brain as direct physical actions they refer to.

These findings inspired Francesco Foroni, researcher at the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) in Trieste, to examine how bilinguals engage the relevant facial muscles in the process of mental simulation. He presented twenty-six participants, all of them Dutch-speaking university students who learned English after the age of 12, with sentences such as ‘I am smiling’ or ‘I am frowning’, in L1 Dutch and L2 English, and measured activation of their facial muscles. The findings revealed that when participants read the sentence ‘I am smiling’ in L1 Dutch, the smiling muscles contracted and when they read the sentence ‘I am frowning’ the muscles relaxed. When they read the ‘smiling’ sentence in L2 English the smiling muscles also contracted but to a lesser degree. However, there was no relaxation in reaction to ‘frowning’ sentences. These findings led Francesco Foroni to conclude that the embodied simulation in the L2 may be only partial in comparison to the L1. The reasons for this discrepancy may lie in differences between language learning ‘in the wild’ where words are linked directly to motor codes and language learning in the classroom where words are linked to other words (see here).

Another question asked in recent research is whether we can use facial expressions and body language to interpret emotions expressed in the L2. Pernelle Lorette and Jean-Marc Dewaele, researchers at Birkbeck College, University of London, conducted an online study where 920 participants watched six video clips. Each of the clips portrayed an improvised short sketch performed by a professional English-speaking actress asked to convey, respectively, happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise and disgust. Participants were asked to identify the emotion in each clip. A comparison between L1 and L2 English speakers revealed no significant differences: both groups identified four emotions on average. These results have two alternative interpretations. On the one hand, it is possible that facial and body language involved in expression of basic emotions are similar across cultures. If this were the case, however, both L1 and L2 speakers should have identified all six emotions. Alternatively, it is possible that the participants involved in the study—a self-selected sample, dominated by women with high L2 proficiency—were particularly sensitive to body language and learned to interpret emotions in L2 English as well as L1 speakers did.

Together, the two studies suggest that even if we do not embody L1 and L2 the same way, we can learn to ‘read’ body language in the new culture. Undoubtedly, these findings are limited to a single group and a single set of stimuli and await replication by other researchers, with other participants and other types of clips and sentences. What matters most are the new questions they raise and the new possibilities they open for future research on embodiment: Could participants watching a series of videoclips without a soundtrack determine what languages are being spoken? Do we use facial expressions and body language as a clue in deciding whether the speaker is using the L1 or the L2? Do we change body language when we shift from one language to another? In short, do our faces and bodies betray not only our emotions but also the languages we speak? Affirmative answers to these questions could change the way we think about bicultural bilinguals, suggesting that they have not only two minds and two selves, but also two bodies.

For a full list of "Life as a bilingual" blog posts by content area, see here.

Photo of a close up portrait of a woman smiling from Shutterstock.


Foroni, F. (2015). Do we embody second language? Evidence for ‘partial’ simulation during processing of a second language. Brain and Cognition, 99, pp. 8-16.

Lorette, P. & J.-M. Dewaele (2015). Emotion recognition ability in English among L1 and LX users of English. International Journal of Language and Culture, 2, 1, 62-86.

Pavlenko, A. (2006) Bilingual selves. In Pavlenko, A. (ed.) Bilingual minds: Emotional experience, expression, and representation. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters, pp. 1-33.

Aneta Pavlenko's website.

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