'Am I sincere about my feelings?': the gains and losses of expressing emotions in a foreign language

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Insights from 468 migrants revealed the emotional attachment to the first language as intensifying their feelings of difference when using the local language in emotional conversations. Participants' self-perceptions varied from a sense of detachment to liberation depending on the emotion being expressed, emphasising how language choice aligns to contextual needs.

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Multilinguals often unveil different self-perceptions when speaking different languages (Dewaele, 2016) and this phenomenon seems to amplify when emotions are involved (Panicacci & Dewaele, 2018; Pavlenko, 2006). In particular, considering the first (L1) and the local (LX) language, research showed that migrants generally report feeling less authentic when using the LX (Panicacci, in progress).

The present paper specifically focuses on migrants' self-perceptions when talking about emotional matters in the LX and investigates whether their affective socialisation and perceived emotional resonance of their languages can explain these feelings of difference. Data from 468 migrants living in English-speaking countries revealed that participants' sense of feeling different when discussing emotional matters in the LX was not related to their levels of affective socialisation in the LX, nor to the perceived emotional resonance of the language. Conversely, participants' degree of L1 affective socialisation and their emotional attachment to it predicted stronger feelings of difference when using the LX in emotional circumstances.

Regression analysis, paired with qualitative data from 5 interviews and 303 responses to an open question, indicated the emotional resonance of the L1 as the key factor explaining variance on participants' perceived self-concept changes when using the LX in emotional conversations. Migrants' insights ranged from frustration to a sense of detachment or emotional liberation when voicing intimate feelings in the LX. These perceptions also varied according to the type of emotion being expressed, emphasising how individuals' language use in affective circumstances can be a deliberate choice linked to contextual emotional needs.

Dewaele, J.-M. (2016). Why do so many bi- and multilinguals feel different when switching languages? International Journal of Multilingualism, 13(1), 92-105. 

Panicacci, A. (in progress – exp. 2021). Exploring identity across language and culture: The Psychological, emotional, linguistic, and cultural changes following migration, Routledge.

Panicacci, A., & Dewaele, J.-M. (2018). Do interlocutors or conversation topics affect migrants' sense of feeling different when switching languages?, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 39(3), 240–255. 

Pavlenko, A. (2006). Bilingual selves. In A. Pavlenko (Ed.), Bilingual minds: Emotional experience, expression, and representation, 1-33. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

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British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow
Queen Mary University of London & University of Washington

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Dr. Yo-An Lee
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