Emotion and identity in second language learning

by Ana Canales (Volume editor) Susana Leralta (Volume editor)
©2023 Edited Collection XXVI, 580 Pages


This book brings together 18 theoretical and empirical chapters that analyse the role of emotion (expression, perception, processing) and identity (notions and representations, construction, conflict) in the process of learning a second language. Studies on the differences in emotionality between L1 and L2 suggest that in L2 there is an alteration that, in many cases, manifests itself as a decrease in the affective load, which can lead to a certain indifference to the emotional content transmitted and to a lesser involvement in communication. It is also known that emotion plays a fundamental role in the construction of identity in a second language in the shaping of the self that feels and communicates and in the ability to cope with the learning process.
Most of the studies have focused on the understanding of these issues in balanced bilingual speakers, but there is little evidence on their functioning in speakers with other degrees of proficiency (the case of second language learners) and on their role in the learning process. Better understanding this question is fundamental for the improvement of everything related to second language acquisition. We need new and innovative approaches that lead to more effective programs, increased interest in language learning and the consolidation of multilingual societies.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • List of figures and tables
  • Foreword
  • Introduction
  • Processing of emotionality in languages
  • The effects of emotionality on syntactic processing: Neural and behavioural evidence
  • Acquisition, assessment and processing of emotional words in children
  • Words and emotions in healthy and pathological aging
  • The impact of language proficiency, cultural contact and attitudes on valence and arousal in Spanish as a second language
  • The effect of language status, immersion and cultural integration level on the emotionality of emotion words in Spanish
  • Processing accented speech in foreign language learning: Support for exemplar-based memory models in spoken language processing
  • Unconscious attention and facial expressions in the retrieval of L2 lexical memory
  • Emotional communication in second languages
  • Writing about positive and negative topics in Spanish as a heritage or second language
  • Emotions and identities in linguistic autobiographies: Uncovering Spanish heritage speakers’ critical language awareness
  • Expressing the cause of emotions in Spanish L1/L2: Forms and meanings
  • Gamification as a methodological strategy for the development of emotional competence in Spanish as a foreign language: Academic self-efficacy, achievement emotions and language learning
  • Emotionality and identity construction in L2 learning
  • The perception of identity and emotionality in Spanish L2
  • Self-evaluation, self-assessment and self-concept in a native or foreign language
  • ‘When I speak in Spanish, I’m not myself’: The development of linguistic identity in learners of Spanish in non-immersion contexts
  • Linguistic identities and emotions in the construction and development of the language learner interself
  • A performative language teaching approach in connection with emotion and identity
  • Notes on contributors
  • Index

Catherine Caldwell-Harris, Ph.D.

Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Boston University, Boston, MA, USA


“Are you carrying a weapon?”

Charles De Gaulle airport. The airline employee had dismissed my attempts to use French and asked me the required standard questions in what he knew to be my native language, English.

By appearance, my interrogator was a North African immigrant to France, probably near my own young age. My French was a tourist’s brave attempt; he had the precision of many years of immersion.

Me: “No.”

“In France, we say every woman carries a weapon.” [long pause] “Her cunt.”

Bulls-eye. He had succeeded in turning the tables on my white American power. Did the blood drain from my face? Did I stammer? I somehow managed to walk to my gate to board my plane for home, too hurt and confused to think of complaining to a manager.

It was the 1990s. Researchers were not yet studying how using a proficient vs. non-proficient language intersected with ethnicity, country-of-residence, identity and one’s position in a social caste system. The book you are about to read brings a suite of accomplished authors to ask and answer these questions. Here I provide some background in the form of my experience with, and excitement for, this topic.

A decade after the airport encounter I was studying a piece of this complex phenomenon in my psycholinguistics laboratory: insults and taboo words hit us the hardest when we encounter them in our native language. The French airport worker could use language for some crude fun, to alleviate the stress of a repetitive job and pushback against the privilege of a young white woman who had the resources and passport for international travel. His native English-speaking victim would feel the full weight of those words. Because English was probably his third or even fourth language, he could treat those taboo phrases like play money.

My research on emotion and language arose from running a laboratory at a university with a multilingual, multicultural study body. While hanging out in the lab, a graduate student produced a double-entendre with a smirk, anticipating the puzzled expression of our Turkish post-doctoral student, Ayse Ayçiçeği. But on this occasion, she laughed heartily. The grad student shook his head, impressed. “You’re English is getting too good, Ayse.” Ayse responded with a flourish in her Turkish-accented English, “I can tell a sex joke in English, but I cannot tell a sex joke in Turkish.”

Click! We stared at each other – we had a research idea. We dove into the small but growing literature on how emotions are experienced differently when encountered in a first language (L1) compared to a second language (L2); see reviews in Pavlenko (2005, 2012) and (Dewaele, 2010). Bilingual novelists had long commented on the different emotional resonances they experienced in their two languages (Kinginger, 2004). Bond and Lai (1986) reported that their bilingual participants felt freer to discuss embarrassing topics in their L2. Gonzalez-Reigosa (1976) conducted one of the earliest laboratory studies on this topic, drawing on the finding that emotional words are normally remembered better than neutral words.

To measure emotionality, my lab used both ratings and skin conductance. In our 2003 study, Turkish immigrants to the U.S. (meaning, late learners of English) reported feeling less strongly the emotions associated with English taboo phrases and childhood reprimands, compared to translation equivalents in Turkish (Harris, Ayçiçeği & Gleason, 2003). But was there something special about the first acquired language that gave it unique emotional resonance? One reason to suspect this is that early acquired language could entwine more tightly with neural structures mediating emotional response, given that in childhood, a first language develops simultaneously with the brain’s emotion regulation systems. Our team (and research findings) argued no. Consistent with an embodiment perspective, what matters isn’t an early acquisition, but proficiency. A later learned language can come to be more emotional than the first acquired language when it becomes the dominant language. Indeed, the native language can then suffer emotional attrition. After decades of living in North America, my German colleague reported that during phone calls to her parents, using German felt like “wearing mittens.” We coined our proposal the emotional contexts of learning hypothesis: Emotional resonances accrue to words and phrases when they are learned and used in emotional environments (Harris, Gleason & Acyicegi, 2006; Caldwell-Harris, 2015).

Emotionality differences between a first (or more proficient language) and a second (or less proficient language) have now been widely documented using diverse techniques (see review in Pavlenko, 2012). Indeed, an entire paper has been written about the taboo word hurled at me in the 1990s airport exchange (Dewaele, 2018, calls this verbal dynamite). A strong L1 emotionality advantage has been found using the attentional blink paradigm (Colbeck & Bowers, 2012). Event-related potentials have also been used to investigate the time course of activation of emotional words in L1 vs. L2. Opitz and Degner (2012) examined components of the ERP signal that are believed to be modulated by emotional valence. One of these is the early posterior negativity (EPN) which occurs more strongly for emotional words compared to neutral words. Those authors found that positive; and negative words elicited larger EPNs than neutral words for German bilinguals, but with a time lag in the L2 compared to L1. The implication is that emotional words are not activated as quickly in a second language as in a first. This could potentially be related to the subjective feeling of decreased emotionality.

The importance of culture

By now, you, reader of this forward, are exclaiming, But culture matters also. Indeed. German expressions of love are usually restricted to romantic partners, while Americans can love a hamburger or a T-shirt (Gareis & Wilkins, 2011). Consequently, German journalists have worried about the loss of the emotional intensity of Ich Lieber dict if lieber goes in the promiscuous direction of American usage patterns. Cultural usage and verbal display rules are big factors to consider when evaluating bilinguals’ reports of how phrases feel in their two languages (Caldwell-Harris, Kronrod, & Yang, 2013).

In my laboratory studies using skin conductance, we typically interviewed the bilingual and multilingual participants after the experiment to ask how they experienced emotion. I was startled to hear international students from China assure me that the English phrase I love you (and a few other expressions we called endearments) felt stronger than did Mandarin Wo ai ni. Their comments suggested that, because of East Asian cultural display rules, English was the language in which they felt free to express, and in some cases also free to activate and feel, the emotion associated with I love you. (Caldwell-Harris, Tong, Lung, & Poo, 2011).

Historical connections: The non-autonomy of grammar

The handful of studies I’ve discussed constituted early, foundational research. These only scratch the surface of how emotion, culture and identity intersect in language learning and use. This volume brings to bear the full diversity of recent approaches. One of these approaches is radical contextualization. Chomsky proclaimed language to be an autonomous module, distinct from general cognition (Chomsky, 1965). Since cognition was also supposed to be independent of emotion, before the 1990s (Caldwell-Harris, 2015), and language was a mental algebra, then what language was used couldn’t alter meaning. We now accept that which language one uses does alter meaning. But more interconnections are waiting to be untangled. For example, could emotional content affect how the grammar of sentences is processed? The founder of Cognitive Grammar, Ronald Langacker, gave an early demonstration of the non-autonomy of syntax by showing how the naturalness of passivization varies by changing semantic content, as in the following example.

  • John left the room --> The room was left by John (ungrammatical or odd)
  • John left the room unguarded --> The room was left unguarded by John (acceptable)

In this comparison, passivization is acceptable when an object (the room) ceases being merely a location but becomes an entity affected by the agent’s action.

The chapter by Fraga, Padrón and Acuña-Fariña, goes one step further by showing how a word’s emotional connections change comprehension of sentences’ syntax.

Decision making

Research on the intersection of emotion and language took a huge leap in a new direction when theorists documented that bilinguals make different decisions about dilemmas depending on whether they have been assigned to read the dilemma in their more proficient vs. less proficient language. Although many theorists claimed that decision-making is more rational in a foreign language (Costa et al., 2014), I felt that reasoning should most often be superior in the language of higher proficiency. I’ve argued that the ‘more rational’ effect is an artifact of researchers choosing classic vignettes that engage biased reasoning (Caldwell-Harris & Ayçiçeği-Dinn, 2021). When rapidly using your intuitions leads to a less optimal answer, then the more proficient language can be more vulnerable due to being so thoroughly tied up with speedy, automatic, and intuitive processing. The chapter by Kyriakou and Mavrou has intriguing and novel findings which help illuminate this further.


XXVI, 580
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2023 (June)
Emotion Identity Second language
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2023. XXVI, 580 pp., 15 fig. col., 53 fig. b/w, 53 tables.

Biographical notes

Ana Canales (Volume editor) Susana Leralta (Volume editor)

Ana Blanco Canales, Ph. D, is Associate Professor of Spanish Language at the University of Alcalá. Her research work focuses on the acquisition and learning of Spanish language (mother tongue or second language), and, more specifically, on the acquisition of phonological competence, metacognitive reflection and learning strategies, the construction of linguistic identity and the emotional resonance of languages. She is the head of the phonetics research network Fono. ELE and coordinator of the LEIDE research group (https://grupoleide.com/). Susana Martín Leralta, PhD from the University of Bielefeld, is currently Dean of the Faculty of Languages and Education at the University of Nebrija (Madrid), and lecturer at postgraduate level. Her research interests focus on the learning of Spanish as an additional language for migrants, the expression of emotions and the acquisition of communicative skills. She is a research member of the LAELE Group at Nebrija University (https://www.nebrija.com/investigacionuniversidad/grupo-laele/) and of the INMIGRA research network of the Community of Madrid.


Title: Emotion and identity in second language learning
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