In a melting pot of cultures, many parents raise their children in a multilingual environment.
While children generally benefit from the cross-cultural exposure and linguistic experience, researchers are discovering that parents often switch between languages during emotional situations.
A new research study reviews this linguistic phenomenon to better understand how using different languages to discuss and express emotions in a multilingual family might play an important role in children’s emotional development.
Psychological scientists Stephen Chen and Qing Zhou of the University of California, Berkeley and Morgan Kennedy of Bard College say the findings suggest the particular language parents choose to use when discussing and expressing emotion can have significant impacts on children’s emotional understanding, experience, and regulation.
“Over the past few years, there’s been a steadily growing interest in the languages multilingual individuals use to express emotions,” said Chen.
“We were interested in the potential clinical and developmental implications of emotion-related language shifts, particularly within the context of the family.”
Existing research from psychological science underscores the fact that language plays a key role in emotion because it allows the speakers to articulate, conceal, or discuss feelings.
When parents verbally express their emotions, they contribute to their children’s emotional development by providing them a model of how emotions can be articulated and regulated.
When parents discuss emotion, they help their children to accurately label and consequently understand their own emotions. This explicit instruction can further help children to better regulate their emotions.
Research from the linguistic field suggests that when bilingual individuals switch languages, the way they experience emotions changes as well.
Bilingual parents may use a specific language to express an emotional concept because they feel that language provides a better cultural context for expressing the emotion.
For example, a native Finnish speaker may be more likely to use English to tell her children that she loves them because it is uncommon to explicitly express emotions in Finnish.
Thus, the language that a parent chooses to express a particular concept can help to provide cues that reveal his or her emotional state.
Researchers say that language choice may also influence how children experience emotion — such expressions can potentially elicit a greater emotional response when spoken in the child’s native language.
Researchers are unsure if shifting from one language to another may help children to regulate their emotional response by using a less emotional, non-native language as a way to decrease negative arousal.
Further, the ability to shift languages may help a child model culture specific emotional regulation.
Researchers believe evidence supports the premise that a child’s emotional competence is fundamentally shaped by a multilingual environment.
These findings may be particularly useful in the development of intervention programs for immigrant families, helping intervention staff to be aware of how the use of different languages in various contexts can have an emotional impact.
“Our aim in writing this review was to highlight what we see as a rich new area of cross-disciplinary research,” said Chen.
“We’re especially excited to see how the implications of emotion-related language switching can be explored beyond the parent-child dyad – for example, in marital interactions, or in the context of therapy and other interventions.”
The study findings are published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.