Do you realise what happens when we read in a second language learnt in adulthood? We actually “embody” less than in our mother tongue, researchers report.
When we process emotional information, our body “mimics” the specific emotion by enacting those physiological states that are typical of the emotion.
“This means that when we read about a happy person we smile, whereas if the character is angry we frown (in most cases, these expressions are imperceptible and we are not necessarily aware of them),” explained Francesco Foroni, Research Scientist at the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) in Trieste, Italy.
In a new study, published in Brain and Cognition, Foroni now shows what happens when we read in a second language learnt in adulthood.
“The phenomenon is very intense when we read in our native language but if we read in a second language learnt after our mother tongue, then this physiological response, while not disappearing completely, is drastically lessened,” he noticed.
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Foroni measured the facial expressions of 26 participants reading texts in English.
The subjects were Dutch native speakers who had learnt English at school after the age of 12.
Unlike what was observed in their mother tongue, the facial expressions recorded in response to emotional content were much blander.
“The association between the word representing the emotion and the experience of the emotion itself was looser,” the authors noted.
The finding has several implications.
“Think, for example, of situations in which individuals have to make decisions,” Foroni said.
The use of a second language may affect the types of decisions we make by limiting the potential negative impact of emotions, the authors concluded.