Biligualism & Us

by Stacey Medvedeva

Regardless of the number of languages spoken in the world, there is always one that is easily understood by everyone – the language of emotion. The research of numerous scholars has proven that no matter which country we are born in, how we are brought up or what drives us through our lives – we still experience similar emotions in similar ways. This article examines a multilingual study of the ten basic human emotions in which the goal was to discover whether languages influence the mental representation of emotions. As it turns out, languages have different “shading” of certain emotions, and that not all languages share the same connotation of shame.

Emotions are specific psychological phenomena bound with needs, interests and the process of their fulfillment. They can be negative or positive depending on the result achieved and the possibility of the goal’s materialization. Emotions can be prolonged or barely noticeable, regular or nonrecurring at all, and the characteristics of an emotional experience are defined by needs and interests of a living being at a particular moment.

Emotion manifestation is influenced by culture and varies depending on what is accepted or not within a certain society, according to the research of Paul Ekman. Ekman also suggested that emotions are universal categories. He claimed that expressions of fear, anger, disgust, happiness, sadness and surprise were universal, though his findings on contempt were less clear. Still, some evidence suggests this emotion is also universally recognized. In the 1990s, Ekman expanded the list of basic emotions, widening the range of both positive and negative emotions. He also added those that are not encoded in facial muscles e.g. contempt, contentment, excitement, guilt, shame, etc. Another researcher, Carroll Izard conducted a series of experiments observing babies from different cultures around the world to distinguish a set of 10 basic emotions (anger, contempt, distress, fear, interest, surprise, shame, guilt, joy, and disgust), which are involved in the mechanisms of biological – and not cultural – adaptation. These ten emotions are common and universal across all cultures.

In this context, the people of Malta are a fascinating case study, as its people have an outstanding feature: from early childhood, they are naturally and equally exposed to three languages: Maltese, English and Italian. This study polled several participants, who filled in a few questionnaires, rating the ten basic emotions in English, Italian and Maltese by the means of a sixteen-scale semantic differential (light – heavy, good – evil, clean – dirty, hot – cold, hard – soft, old – young, stupid – smart, loud – quiet, fast – slow, full – hungry, nasty – nice, active – passive, bitter – sweet, bold – cowardly, strong – weak, happy – unhappy).

Stacey graph 1

This study found that languages give emotions a certain “shading”. For example, in English, emotions are to some extent reserved or neutral, whereas in Maltese, they become somewhat common and unrefined. Also, people express emotions more lively and intensively in Italian.

This research intended to prove the existence of a universal system of semantic primes, unaffected by the language of presentation or connections these notions have. The failure to support this statement would mean that the language structure has a sizable impact on mental perception and is based on ‘the natural categories of emotions,’ according to Ekman. Still, the main hypothesis lies in the assumption that the language contributes to an emotion’s mental representation.

Stacey graph

Fig. 2. Psychosemantic space containing data of English, Italian and Maltese languages across two factors: Sign of Emotions and Expressiveness of Emotions

The data was analyzed in two steps: first, we mapped the individual semantic profiles for every emotion in each of the three languages. Figure 1 depicts the semantic profile for shame in Italian, Maltese and English. This emotion showed the most inter-lingual differences. Shame has varied connotations in 13 out of 16 chosen scales. In rating this emotion, the profiles of Maltese and Italian languages are the less alike, whereas English falls in between the other two ratings. After analyzing the data, it shows that shame bears a slightly more positive meaning in Maltese, and, as locals explained, there is nothing wrong is feeling shame – it means you have reevaluated your mistake and that should make you a better person.

In the case of the other nine emotions, English and Italian show somewhat similar results. This could indicate that the Maltese language – the domestic language for the majority of country’s population – makes up a separate mental structure from the other two, which are mostly used outside of family. It remains unclear whether the reason for this is strictly “domestic usage” or the fact that Maltese belongs to another semantic lingual group.

In many ways, Italian is shown to portray most emotions in a slightly more positive way; Maltese gave a slightly negative connotation, and English remained “neutral” between the other two languages. Even though the study provides evidence of different mental structures for English, Italian and Maltese, one cannot completely rule out the possibility of the existence of a universal conceptual field, as the differences are not dramatic enough to prove the opposite.

The second stage of the research created a single map of emotional perception for every language. One of the most intriguing results is that the structure of emotional perception is different for each of the three analyzed languages. One of the main criteria – factor distribution – was individual in all three cases. When the whole scope of data was analyzed, only two factors were revealed (sign of the emotion, expressiveness of emotions); on analyzing English and Italian – three factors (sign of the emotion, emotional control, expressiveness of emotions); and Maltese showed four factors (sign of the emotion, emotional control, expressiveness of emotions, and speed of emotion expression).

According to the data, it is possible to conclude that the structures of mental representations in English, Maltese, and Italian are similar, as these languages have a unified conceptual field. Thus, the exterior form of the word, the way it sounds or the way it is written, has only slightly affects the intensity and perception of emotions.

Differences were found in English, Maltese and Italian results when comparing languages using basic scales. Emotions in Italian are slightly more intense. Positive emotions are perceived as more positive, while the negative – as more negative (compared to their equivalents). Anger and shame are most active when named in Italian, while disgust, distress and joy, on the contrary, are more passive in English. Semantic spaces in Maltese were slightly different from the ones in other languages, which we found correlative with the fact that Maltese is the mother tongue for our respondents and that it derives from Arabic, unlike English and Italian. Models of mental representations of emotions, built separately for English and Italian notions, both had three factors. Maltese had four: the two last factors were both part of a single factor, found in English and Italian.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter which language we speak, we will always be able to find the right words to at least describe our emotions.

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