Getting emotional – interference in bilinguals

A Zen teacher would say that we need to get rid of emotions, that they are an unwelcome baggage that hinders us on our pathway to enlightenment. Driven by emotions we tend to commit smaller and bigger blunders, I bet any of us could recall a few painful memories that better remain unmentioned.

How do emotions affect bilingual speech?

Emotions influence our actions and our speech, mostly because we first speak then think. Hence the true maxim: Speech is silver, silence is golden. Language performance, being a linear time-sensitive process, is hard to control, and we may end up saying something we would rather hold back. For bilinguals it may be the case of using wrong language – such cases are called interference and are defined by Grosjean as: “the involuntary influence of one language on the other” (Life with two languages: an introduction to bilingualism, 1982), which may be caused by situational and emotional factors such as stress, fatigue, last language spoken, etc.

Gestures and exclamations

Emotional interjections and exclamations are especially susceptible to interference. After almost a year in Italy, even when I talked to a Polish person I couldn’t help but react spontaneously with Italian phrases such as ‘ma dai!?’ for disbelief, ‘boh…’ for feeling undecided or ‘ahia!!!’ when hurt. Not to mention the very expressive style of Italian gesticulation, so familiar to anyone who has ever watched “The Godfather” or “The Sopranos”.

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When does interference occur?

Interference in bilinguals may occur at various levels of language performance, such as phonology, causing an agitated Spanish-English bilingual to shout ‘Be careful!’ with a heavily rolled alveolar /R/; or syntax: ‘To nie robi sensu!’ – a very ungrammatical form in Polish, but in all likelihood an effect of interference from English ‘It doesn’t make sense!’ and German ‘Das macht kein Sinn!’

Lexical interference can easily lead to misunderstanding, especially when you talk to monolinguals. After spending a few months in the States I used to insert ‘whatever’ at the end of almost every utterance. Having returned back home, I tried to overcome it, which I found extremely hard, as there is no such expression in Polish. That led me to producing such forms in Polish as ‘cokolwiek’, ‘coś tam’, and after applying some effort I managed to change it to ‘nieważne’, which could be probably the closest counterpart of ‘whatever’, although it still does not cater for all its meanings and uses. Also, my American friend with whom I spent three months in Italy has become painfully aware of lack of such expression in Italian, so we ended up inventing our very own word ‘cosamai’, which continued to baffle our Italian friends.

Last but not least -bad language

Talking about expressing our emotions, especially the negative ones, we should not forget about bad language. I guess all of you would have something to say in that matter. Even monolinguals use foreign language swear words, often not being aware of their actual force of expression, which may lead to even more stressful situations in multicultural groups of people. Oddly though, swear words tend to be one and only element of a foreign language that are acquired with seemingly no effort at all, and they stick the longest, too…

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