Do bilinguals express different emotions in different languages?

By October 18, 2016Multilingualism
Does this delicious Libyan Herb Bread taste even yummier in English?

Does this delicious Libyan Herb Bread taste even yummier in English?

Is it the case that bilinguals have dual identities or divided loyalties where they associate each aspect of their identity with a specific language or a national group? In this post, I will explain why things are a bit more fluid when it comes to language and identity in bilinguals. To do so, I am going to share some findings from my current research project about how a group of Arabic-English bilingual sojourners in the UK manage their use of two languages in their everyday interactions.

Let me begin by explaining ‘code-switching’. Code-switching is the practice of going back and forth between two or more languages or dialects, and using them in the same sentence or conversation. This is something my bilingual friends and I do a lot amongst ourselves, and anyone who is bilingual will know what I mean. Mostly we couldn’t explain exactly why we switch languages: it’s like making subtle social moves and certainly not a way of ‘showing off’ around monolinguals.

My research participants are a group of six adult female Arabic speakers in their 20s and 30s. Five of them came to the UK from Libya as international students about seven years ago and are currently living in the city of Manchester. In addition to these five ‘late’ bilinguals, who learnt English later in life, the sixth participant is an ‘early’ bilingual and grew up speaking Arabic and English in the UK. The participants form a small social circle and have known each other for a considerable amount of time.

In my research I record natural conversations of this group of bilingual friends in order to explore the link between the different ways speakers code-switch and the ways they ‘do’ identity work, i.e. perform inter-personal aspects of their identities and achieve interactional/communicative effects through code-switching. A lot of code-switching is for practical reasons to fill a linguistic gap for a word or concept but I am particularly interested in instances of code-switching where speakers are expressing emotions, making evaluations or achieving in-group bonding. To demonstrate this, I am going to discuss three examples.

In the first example, Fadia, a late bilingual is switching from Arabic to English, then back to Arabic again. She first switches to English to make a positive judgement about the Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef, then switching back to Arabic to express an almost diametrically opposed view about (some of) his performances.

excerpt1The first code-switching instance from Arabic into English marks the transition the speaker makes from stating a fact (’I watch Bassem Youssef’) to making an evaluative judgement (‘I think he’s funny.’). The next instance of code-switching from English back into Arabic provides a second judgement restricting the scope of the first one (‘but I don’t find all things he says funny’).

In the example, the speaker is using both languages to convey her message but she is clearly not assigning a particular function to one language or another. In this example, as in much of my data, there is not much of a difference between the functional role of Arabic and English.

Having said that, there seems to be a general pattern that is emerging in the data that English – or rather switches from Arabic into English – is used to take up ‘expressive’ stances, particularly positive ones. This pattern is particularly marked when it comes to compliments, positive evaluations, shows of appreciation and the expression of excitement. Although Arabic can, of course, be used for all of these, utilising English repeatedly for achieving the same purpose stands out, especially when considering that English is the L2 for these speakers. The next example aims to illustrate this.

excerpt2Here, Fadia repeatedly shows her appreciation of the bread that Narjis made – all of them in English in a conversation that is otherwise conducted in Arabic.  However, switching into English is not only used for positive emotions but also to express negative emotions, as in the next example.

excerpt3Notice at how many points Kamila and Fadia switch to English to express their emotions? When comparing the communicative function of Arabic and English here, one cannot fail to notice that Arabic is mostly used for recounting the factual aspects of the story while English is used to express evaluative stance towards that story.

A possible explanation for the code-switching patterns observed here might be that it is driven by certain attitudes and social meanings that these speakers share and assign to the English language. In one-to-one semi-structured interviews with my participants, each of them talked about her positive experience in the UK and the positive light in which they perceive British people, whom they generally describe as ‘nice’ and ‘polite’. Given these positive attitudes it is maybe not surprising that they adopt the expressive language of the target community. Adopting English styles of emotional expression must also be understood against the cultural norms of the Arab world in general and Libya in particular, where a preference exists for expressing emotions in a more subtle way. In (Libyan) Arabic, things tend to be left unsaid, emotions are mostly implied and expressed non-verbally.

In sum, the code-switching utilised by this group of friends is not as arbitrary as it may seem at first blush: it can best be understood in relation to the evaluative positions speakers take. Through their use of Arabic and English these bilinguals move between different zones and carve out their own “third” space as an expression of the new and complex reality they are experiencing as bilingual immigrants.

Author Hanan Ben Nafa

Hanan Ben Nafa is a PhD student in Sociolinguistics at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). Hanan has been in the UK since 2009, when she moved there to pursue her studies. She is currently working in the areas of Bilingualism, Applied Linguistics and Language Variation & Identity. The title of her PhD project is: ‘Code-Switching & social identity construction among Arabic-English bilinguals’. Alongside academia, Hanan is starting a part-time career in translation and interpreting. Find her on Twitter @HananBenNafa

More posts by Hanan Ben Nafa
  • Tricia

    This is a fascinating finding. I have always thought of analyzing my friends’ conversations, too. Aside from the ease of authentic data gathering, I think being part of the social circle makes the analysis also relevant to and interesting for me. Thanks for inspiring me to do a similar investigation. Happy researching, Hanan! 😀

  • Hi Hanan, that’s quiete interesting indeed. Maybe the factual expression is just something from much more within.. The deeper “home” a person finds itself in. Keep up the good work!

  • Amal Ibrahim

    I’m really interested in code switching. I consider myself bilingual with Arabic being my second language. My Arabic speaking colleagues all noticed that when I’m upset, I switch to Arabic which I’m still trying to understand. I’m not sure if it’s because I find Arabic more expressive or what. I don’t use it with my family of course, but my conversations with them are dotted with Arabic words and expressions.

  • Ha Pham

    I myself often use code-witching when speaking to people because sometimes, i get lost for words. clearly, bilingual people express their different emotions in different languages. this might be explained by the fact that people will be affected linguistically when trying to adopt a new language. for example, people in Vietnam rarely express their compliment to other people in words, however, they will do so when coming to England because they are influenced by English people’s values: politeness and genorosity.

  • Jay Mi Tan

    A very interesting topic on code-switching! I do code-switch a lot when I am with close friends and family, and it is a very natural occurrence. I tend to code-switch between English and Cantonese with my dad, English and Hokkien with my mom, English, Malay and Hokkien with my friends. I have always found it really fascinating to know how our brain sends signals, to enable us to know what language to code-switch with whom. Your findings on these patterns being driven by attitudes and social meanings make perfect sense. As I try to recollect my code-switching moments, I tend to code-switch to other languages/dialects when i am saying something that I don’t want someone else to know (gossiping basically, haha), asking a person’s wellbeing or opinions, and to perhaps create a sense of belonging. But one thing that I am certain about is that when I am upset, and trying to describe the situation, I would always use my first language.

  • vy ha

    I do code switching a lot, especially when I talk to people who I know are capable of understanding both languages. That’s why I would never do that to my Mom who only speaks Vietnamese. Also, I notice, whenever I try to explain myself, sometimes I have a hard time coming up with a word that perfectly capture the meaning I intend to convey in one language, so I switch to another. That way, it won’t be so time-consuming looking for a perfect word. Another thing is, for some reason, the more I do code-switching, the worse my first language becomes. Sometimes, I feel like I’m totally incapable of expressing my thoughts fluently in my native language. As a result of this realization, I intentionally try not to code switch but finish thoughts in one language, sometimes not successfully though but I try.

  • rehan

    Being a bilingual, I often code-switch. And I think there is more to code-switching than the difference between factual vs evaluative aspects of the conversation. For example, the immediate context (with whom you are interacting), the setting (where it is happening), personal history, relationship with the person you are talking to and the topic of conversation also matter. For example, when talking to an Australian in the school, I try to mainly use English, but if there is a word that I have trouble translating, I try to change the topic of the conversation to prevent embarrassment of having weak English vocabulary. But if this situation arises while I am talking to another migrant, I might code-switch and seek help in the translation into English, thus, the situation and listener’s profile also matter.

  • VinN

    I learn English as a second language, but sometimes I would code-switch. Like it is described in this blog, me code-switch often happens when I am trying to describe a feeling. When I chat with Chinese friends and Korean friends, I sometimes use English, Chinese. For instance, When I swear or express some strong feelings. I code-switch when I swear because I don’t know how to do that in a language other than my mother tongue. And in my mother tongue we don’t have much words that express a strong feeling directly. We use idioms or phrases that will make a conversation texturized so I naturally switch to English when I mention those words.