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Bilingual children learn to switch languages to express emotion

Study shows children’s development affected by parents' language choices

Posted: 6 August 2012
by Nicola Pearson

It’s known as ‘code-switching’, and multilingual families do it all the time, apparently. It’s the habit of switching back and forth between languages to suit the emotional situation and what they want to express at any given time.

Now, a new study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science carried out at the University of California is looking at how a multilingual parents’ choice of different languages to express certain emotions affect the way their children understand and regulate their own emotions.

According to ScienceDaily, language plays a key role in emotion because it allows the speaker to articulate, conceal or discuss feelings. Now it seems that bilingual parents choose a specific language to convey emotion because they feel that language is culturally better equipped to express the particular emotion.

For example, a native Finnish speaker may use English to tell her children she loves them because Finnish is not typically an emotional language.

This means that children learn to associate certain emotional states with a particular language and, in turn,  the choice of language then influences how they experience emotion.

For example, children may switch to a less emotional language in order to decrease negative arousal.

The researchers hope the implications of emotion-related language switching can be used to explore marital interactions, therapy and work with immigrant families.

CILT (the National Centre for Languages) estimates that 850,000 children in the UK – more than one in 8 – speak a language other than English at home. Their recently-issued report shows that bilingual pupils in the UK achieve better exam results overall than monolingual students.

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