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Poetry and the Language of the Heart

Affective processing in bilingual speakers

Post written by Aneta Pavlenko.

In my previous post, I wrote about Vladimir Nabokov, a native speaker of Russian, best known as an English-language writer (see here). A superb stylist, brilliant lecturer and sparkling conversationalist, Nabokov did not feel the same emotional connection to his English as he did to Russian and complained once in a letter to a friend: “I envy so bitterly your intimacy with English words”. This lack of intimacy did not affect the sophistication and richness of his English-language prose, where he displayed a superior ability to depict and express emotions, but it did influence his language choice for poetry: while Nabokov did try his hand at poetry in English and French, his unambiguous preference was for Russian, and upon finishing a book in English, he usually rewarded himself with a ‘tryst’ with his “ruddy robust Russian muse.”

Nabokov’s choice highlights an interesting dissociation in the relationship between our languages and emotions: we can express emotions in all of our languages (see here) but we do not experience language emotionality in the same way in all of them. The difference is particularly noticeable in our use of taboo and swearwords: research by Jean-Marc Dewaele at the University of London shows that swearwords in the mother tongue affect us more strongly than those in the languages learned later in life. Such intimate connection between language and emotions is a must for contemporary poetry where everything is designed to act directly upon you: a poet’s word choices aim to trigger your memories, associations, and images, their tone, meter, and rhythm reach for your body, while their rhymes, repetition, and alliteration land on your tongue to be tasted and savored. To get this unmediated access to the readers’ senses, the poet has to be physically connected to the language and this connection appears to be tighter in languages learned early in life. But what does an intimate or ‘tight’ connection between a language and emotions actually mean?

For an answer, we turn to studies of language emotionality, examined by psychologists under the umbrella of affective processing. In lay terms, affective processing is what happens when you walk into a crowded room and realize that the object of your dreams and desires is right there by the window: you see this person before you see anyone else, your heart starts beating faster, you have butterflies in your stomach, you may even start sweating and become tongue-tied. The strength and range of responses undoubtedly depend on the stimuli (I, for one, dislike mice but am indifferent to spiders) and on our contexts and trajectories (the person who triggered an array of feelings in us just a year ago today may elicit nothing but indifference). Yet one thing remains constant: some stimuli are detected faster and earlier than others (a phenomenon termed perceptual prioritization) and elicit stronger physical reactions (termed increased arousal).

The key question in research with bilinguals is whether we process emotional words similarly or differently in our respective languages. To answer this question, Catherine Caldwell-Harris and her coauthors at Boston University presented Turkish-English bilinguals with an array of words and examined electrical conductivity of the skin. Our skin is particularly sensitive to threatening and relevant stimuli – these stimuli increase the level of adrenaline in the blood and lead to sweating, which increases electrical conductivity of the skin, measured via fingertip electrodes. The analysis of conductivity revealed that these bilinguals displayed stronger physical responses to Turkish words and especially to taboo words and childhood reprimands. Some mentioned that they could hear, in their mind, Turkish family members addressing reprimands to them. These findings, corroborated by other studies, suggest that affective processing in the first language may be deeper than in the languages learned later in life.

The implications of this difference were examined at the University of Chicago, where Boaz Keysar and associates offered bilinguals an array of decision-making tasks in their respective languages. In one task, for instance, participants were given the same choices in a gain frame (if you choose medicine A, X people will be saved) and in a loss frame (if you choose medicine A, X people will die). The findings demonstrated that in their native language participants were more prone to display a bias towards positive framing, while in their second language they were less affected by negative framing and loss aversion. These findings were linked to the greater emotional distance provided by the second language.

Now, what do these findings mean for our everyday lives? To begin with, they remind us that language is situated not only in the mind but also in the body, and languages learned at different points in our lives may inhabit our body in different ways. The findings also suggest that even when the levels of proficiency are comparable, languages learned earlier and later in life offer different processing advantages. The increased emotionality and sensitivity to threat in the first language makes it perfect for poetry and arguments, while languages learned later in life make it easier to lie, to recall traumatic events, and to resist framing effects and advertising pressures.

This difference seems almost intuitive until we try to determine the precise point of transition to “later in life” or start thinking about the fact that Nabokov, who had an English nanny, was actually exposed to English from early childhood. And how can we explain the mysterious case of Marc Chagall, who wrote poetry in Russian, the language he started learning at age thirteen? I will return to this question in my next post, where I will discuss Chagall’s poetry and ‘age effects’ in second language learning.

Dr. Aneta Pavlenko is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Temple University.

Photo of Autumn love from Shutterstock.


Harris, C., Ayçiçegi, A. & J. Gleason (2003) Taboo words and reprimands elicit greater autonomic reactivity in a first language than in a second language. Applied Psycholinguistics, 24, 4, 561-571.

Keysar, B., Hayakawa, S., & S. G. An (2012) The foreign-language effect: Thinking in a foreign tongue reduces decision biases. Psychological Science, 23, 661-668.

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