Emotions in More than One Language

This post originally appeared on Psychology Today on August 18, 2011, and it is republished with permission.

The language(s) of emotions in bilinguals

There is a myth that bilinguals express their emotions in their first language (when they haven’t acquired both languages simultaneously), usually the language of their parents. Like all myths, there are instances when it is true. Thus, a Portuguese-English bilingual who acquired English at age fourteen wrote to me that if something makes him angry and he allows his anger to come out, there is no doubt that he will use Portuguese to express himself. And it makes sense that bilinguals who have lived in the same place all their lives, who use their first language with family and friends and their other language(s) mainly at work, will express affect in their first language.

However, as Temple University researcher Aneta Pavlenko, herself multilingual, writes, things are much more complex than that. In her book on the topic, she dismantles this myth and shows that the relationship between emotions and bilingualism plays out differently for different individuals and distinct language areas. Basically, it is too simplistic to suggest that late bilinguals have emotional ties only with their first language and no ties with their other language(s).

When a childhood in one language lacked affection or was marked by distressing events, then bilinguals may prefer to express emotion in their second language. For example, an adult English-French bilingual who moved to France in early adulthood once wrote to me that she found it easier to speak of anything connected with emotions in French, her second language, whereas in English she was rather tongue-tied. She then explained that it was in French that she had discovered what love meant. She ended by stating, “Perhaps one day I’ll even manage to say, ‘I love you’ in English”.

The Canadian and French novelist, Nancy Huston, gives a similar testimony. Nine years after having moved to Paris from North America, her daughter Léa was born. She had married a Bulgarian-French bilingual with whom she spoke French. Huston tried to use English baby talk with her daughter but couldn’t continue. She explains that the memories and feelings stirred up were simply too strong (her English-speaking mother had abandoned the family home when she was six).

On a less poignant level, many late bilinguals state that they can swear more easily in their second language. Both the English-French bilingual above and Nancy Huston have said the same thing. The former stated that she has a wider range of vulgar vocabulary in French and Nancy Huston wrote her master’s thesis on linguistic taboo and swear words in French. As she wrote, “The French language in general…. was to me less emotion-fraught, and therefore less dangerous, than my mother tongue. It was cold, and I approached it coldly.” (p. 49).

When bilinguals are angry, excited, tired or stressed, their accent in a language can reappear or increase in strength. In addition, they often revert to the language(s) in which they express their emotions, be it their first or their second language, or both. I was once bitten by a stingray in California and I recall clearly switching back and forth between English and French. I used English to ask the English-speaking friends I was with to take me to see a doctor and I cursed in French to help me ease the pain.

The language used in therapy is also quite informative. Paul Preston who has written a book on the sign language / spoken language bilingualism of the hearing children of Deaf parents, interviewed several of them who said they felt blocked when in a therapy session. They wanted to use sign language but couldn’t do so (the session was taking place in English). And Nancy Huston claims that she could not finish her own psychoanalysis because it was conducted in French, the language in which her neuroses were under control.

In sum, expressing emotions in more than one language follows no set rules; some bilinguals prefer to use one language, some the other, and some both. It is fitting to finish with an extract from Aneta Pavlenko’s book about her own habits:

‘”I love you,” I whisper to my English-speaking partner. “Babulechka, ia tak skuchaiu po tebe [Grandma, I miss you so much],” I tenderly say on the phone to my Russian-speaking grandmother”‘.

As the author states prior to this: “I have no choice but to use both English and Russian when talking about emotions.” (p. 22-23).


Pavlenko, A. (2005). Emotions and Multilingualism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Huston, N. (2002). Losing North: Musings on Land, Tongue and Self. Toronto: McArthur.
Grosjean, F. Personality, thinking and dreaming, and emotions in bilinguals. Chapter 11 of Grosjean, F. (2010). Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

“Life as a bilingual” posts by content area: http://www.francoisgrosjean.ch/blog_en.html

François Grosjean’s highly successful blog with more than 2.3 million visitors can now be found as a book, Life as a Bilingual (Cambridge University Press, 2021).

Author bio

François Grosjean received his degrees up to the Doctorat d’Etat from the University of Paris, France. He started his academic career at the University of Paris 8 and then left for the United-States in 1974 where he taught and did research in psycholinguistics at Northeastern University, Boston. While at Northeastern he was also a Research Affiliate at the Speech Communication Laboratory at MIT. In 1987, he was appointed professor at Neuchâtel University, Switzerland, where he founded the Language and Speech Processing Laboratory. He has lectured occasionally at the Universities of Basel, Zurich and Oxford. In 1998, he cofounded Bilingualism: Language and Cognition (Cambridge University Press).

His domains of interest are the perception, comprehension and production of speech, bilingualism and biculturalism, sign language and the bilingualism of the Deaf, the evaluation of speech comprehension in aphasic patients, as well as the modeling of language processing. François Grosjean’s website: www.francoisgrosjean.ch

Bilingualism – Part III

In this third and final part of the series about Bilingualism, Eta Trabing discusses what it really means to be a “professional”, some of the rewards of the language-related professions, and even gives us suggestions of less-known paths for bilingual individuals.

By M. Eta Trabing, Berkana Language LLC – www.eberkana.uscomments-151907_640

Professionalism Means…

  • Being totally accountable for your work. You are solely responsible for doing your job well and carefully. And you are totally and solely liable for its quality.
  • Doing the absolute, best job each and every time. Sometimes, we get a little careless and sloppy because we’re in a hurry, but we can’t afford to do that. Millions of dollars or a person’s life and livelihood may be at stake!
  • Making sense and asking the right questions and providing cultural comments, when appropriate. You are the only bridge between two languages and two cultures, so you must be a strong and reliable bridge.
  • Going beyond the bare essentials. Go out of your way to be helpful, when the situation allows, but generally provide more of a service than someone else – that’ll endear you to people who will call you again! And repeat customers is what you want.
  • Understanding your clients’ needs and meeting them honestly. If you cannot do a job, pass it on to someone else who will then owe you a favor and who will look after your client well. If you cannot meet a client’s needs, say so, don’t misrepresent your capabilities! The client will be grateful and know that you will do a good job when you say you can.
  • Don’t say “it’s good enough” about a job done. If that’s all you can say about it, then it’s already probably NOT good enough. If you think “it’ll pass, they won’t notice this or that,” you are making a grievous mistake! People notice a lot more than you think and it will count against you.
  • Proudly sign your name to each job (if only figuratively!). Imagine if you had to sign your work and then the client posted it on the internet. Would you be proud of what you did, or not so much?
  • Having earned your money. It’s a good feeling to know you have done a good job and ethically earned your money.

 Some Rewards Are…

  • We get to transmit vital or important information. Sometimes, it’s really dumb stuff, but so it goes – not everything in life is vital or important, some things are useless and inane, but get said anyway.
  • We act as cultural and language bridges.
  • We help people.
  • We learn new things all the time.
  • We make friends all over the world.
  • Our minds are constantly stimulated and forced to expand. And, as you get older, it’ll keep you from having dementia!!

Other Language-Related Specialties

  • Précis writers for the United Nations – summaries of committee meetings prior to the verbatim record being translated; must know how to pull out what’s important, like abstract writing.
  • Interpreter, translators for the United Nations, must use British English and British spelling (not the American version)
  • Terminologists – conduct research to itemize terms connected with a certain field, define them and find equivalents in another language; they prepare glossaries for use by T/Is
  • Typesetters / Desktop publishing – DTP – typists who specialize in various languages and who set up and prepare brochures and advertising materials in other languages, inserting graphics, maps, tables, etc. They need to know how to write the foreign language, without spelling mistakes and how to hyphenate correctly, although a lot of cut and paste is done by English-only speakers.
  • Proof-readers / Editors – proofreaders ensure that no translator has missed parts of an original in the translation, that there are no typos or other mistakes. Editors tend to rewrite a translation to where it still reflects the original, but have a little more leeway in how the translation can be made to sound more native.
  • Anything else you can think of! Truly!

Bilingual Jobs

  • Each and every job done anywhere in the world can become bilingual, and will make the job better.
  • There are as many jobs and specialties as there are human endeavors, so your scope is endless.
  • A bilingual job does not mean you should be required to translate or interpret, but simply to do your job in two languages equally well. You now know that being bilingual doesn’t automatically make you a translator or interpreter, so no one should be demanding that you be one or the other!
  • Different bilingual jobs will require different levels of language proficiency. If you are a psychiatrist, you will really have to know the right terminology in your second language; if you are an office clerk or store clerk, your language level need not be as high; if you are an electrical engineer, you would need a higher level; if you are a bilingual receptionist, you don’t need as high a level, but you need people smarts and a pleasant personality; and so on and so on.
  • Every one of us has a niche or can make one somewhere! You’ll never know until you start looking. Sometimes a little something falls in your lap and that suddenly gives you an idea to branch out into something. The world is full of surprises! Be open to them!
  • Not everyone who is bilingual must or should aspire to be an interpreter or translator. Your life would mean a lot if you were a superb bilingual nanny for children whose life you will have impacted for generations to come! Or anything else that strikes your fancy!
  • Each and every job can be made better by adding a language, increasing your boss’ profits and providing you with a higher income!

We hope you have enjoyed this series, and we look forward to continuing to hear stories from our readers. Send us your story!


Check out Part I and Part II of this series.


Bilingualism – Part II

Today we continue with Part II of this fascinating journey through bilingualism. In this issue, our guest author, Eta Trabing, provides some tips to put that second language to good use, whether it is polishing your skills to be more effective in your job, or becoming a translator or interpreter.

By M. Eta Trabing, Berkana Language LLC – www.eberkana.us

Are you a Bilingual Specialist?flat-27394_1280

Do you already have a career, but also know another language? Maybe you didn’t know that a second language might be a great asset to you at work. Maybe you spoke it as a child but never kept it up into adulthood.

With some extra study, you could do your job or career or profession in both your languages equally well – which would give you a tremendous advantage over monolinguals in your same job or career or profession, and open many new doors! Not to mention a higher salary commensurate with your additional knowledge. And additional profit for your employer!

You could update your second language and learn the terminology of the job, career or profession you already have so as to make yourself twice as good and twice as needed!

To be a bilingual specialist, you will need:

  • To have a job, career or profession that you like and wish to continue in. You will be good at whatever you like to do.
  • To speak, read and write English and one other language at a working adult level.
  •  To dedicate some time and effort to studying your job, career or profession in your second language. You can study on your own, or take classes – how you get your knowledge is immaterial, just get it!
  • To keep your two languages as separate as possible, so you don’t fall into a two-language mixture, understandable only to you and a few others. Dialects work only in specific places, where, if you use it, you will fit in better; but it won’t help you at all if foreigners come from totally different countries that speak the same/similar language. Try to get a feel for the demographics of your region and adapt to them in your work.
  • To make an effort to learn your second language properly, if you’re not quite where you need to be. Again, community or junior colleges are great places to take continuing education courses in speaking, reading and writing a foreign language.
  • To be able to talk about and do your job, career or profession in both languages equally well. Whatever work you do can be learned in both languages. It’s a question of learning new terminology – the job you already know.
  • To be prepared to travel, if necessary. This is a huge perk, and loads of fun. You get to do what you do best, explaining it to others in two languages, and your travel is paid for.

A Few More Things…

Now that you know the basics of what to expect from each bilingual opportunity, think of which one you would be most comfortable with, which one you might enjoy the most, which one your temperament and personality are best suited for.

  • Are you a perfectionist? Like to work alone? Translating is good.
  • Do you prefer to be with people? Or be where the action is? Interpreting is good.
  • You should enjoy what you do, every day!
  • Decide what you like and what you do best and make that into a marketable skill in two languages. Now that you know how to go about it – have fun doing it!
  • Learn the geography and history of your area. So many foreigners mispronounce names in a language new to them. And you will need to understand where they live or want to get to; i.e., Brownsville, a major point of entry between Mexico and the U.S., is actually referred to as “Bronbil” by Spanish speakers.
  • What regionalisms or unique words are used in your area? Why? Find out and learn. All local versions of two-language combinations, have a fascinating history.
  • What other peculiarities are there in your region or in your second language? Ask people from other countries that speak your language. Start your own glossaries of things you didn’t know, but now do.
  • Get to know this country. It’s quite amazing and fascinating! That way you can tell foreigners and tourists where to go and what to see in your geographic area! Foreigners want to know about us, too! And they will want to learn our customs and cultures if they intent to live here.
  •  Do not fall into the use of false cognates.

What was your journey, Dear Reader? Did you stumble into the T&I profession? Or are you looking at switching careers? We would love to hear your story!


Check out Part I and Part III of this series.

Bilingualism – Part I

letters-66953_1920Today we will begin with Part I of a series of three articles about Bilingualism. Our guest author, Ms. M. Eta Trabing, walks us through a truly fascinating description of what being bilingual means, and how to apply this knowledge in the working world. She offers help with the most daunting question we all language people face at some point: “Translator or Interpreter?”, as well as practical aspects of being a language professional. In short, she covers all the basics any Savvy Newcomer should be looking for.

By M. Eta Trabing, Berkana Language LLC – www.eberkana.us

Being bilingual …

  • Is just the first step to becoming a bilingual adult in the working world.
  • Does not mean that you must know every single word in English or in your foreign language (about half a million words in each of the world’s major languages).
  • Does mean that you can communicate in two languages – but at different levels of language proficiency.
  • Think of it this way – you may have two hands, but that does not mean that you are automatically an accomplished pianist. It takes years of training and experience to become a good professional interpreter or translator or pianist.
  • Means you will need to know both your languages at the college graduate level, for most kinds of work. Probably one language will always be stronger/better than the other.
  • There are few truly bilingual people – depends on your home life and education growing up (if you lived in a bilingual household and went to a bilingual school from kindergarten through high school or college – you can be truly bilingual). That doesn’t mean you don’t have a lot more to learn!

How does one know a language?

You may know a language as well as…

  •  A tourist (“Dos cervezas, por favor.”)
  • A 2nd grade school child – who knows about 2,000 words and is learning grammar, reading and writing.
  • A migrant field laborer – who knows about 5,000 words in his language and is trying to learn English so as to fit in better wherever he is living. He probably went to work at 8 or 9 years of age to help his family survive, he barely learned to write, he has no problem with giving change in two currencies, and at 20, has little non-working time to learn words for abstract concepts in either language.
  • A high-school graduate – will know about 80,000 words, if she studied well and came from a home where education is valued – possibly half of that if schooling was sporadic or not emphasized in the home. Sadly, businesses in the U.S. are and have been having trouble hiring employees straight from high school, because a high percentage of them cannot read or spell properly.
  • A college graduate – will have not just four years more living experience, but words for a particular chosen career – around 150,000 words in one language. Although he/she may know another language quite well also. Some colleges are giving up the foreign language requirement – it is deemed unnecessary. What a shame!
  • A college professor – has much experience in his particular field, but not necessarily in fields other than his own, but many more years of living experience – over 200,000 words in one language; unless teaching another language – then probably equal in both.
  • A writer – about the same as a college professor or lawyer or doctor, again in special fields and in one language, although a number of writers can and do write in more than one language.
  • At each level, the vocabulary and the knowledge grows, and it doesn’t matter how or where you obtain that knowledge, as long as you get it.
  • But at whatever level you are (except the tourist example), you still know the language. You just might not know it well enough to be able to work in it. Working in a language requires adult language proficiency.
  • Professional interpreters need and are expected to know two languages at the university postgraduate level, and must learn many subjects superficially, and 3 or 4 in great depth – their specialties.

Translator or Interpreter?

Translators work with the written language, but usually translate only into their dominant language. This means: books, documents, brochures, letters, instruction books, and anything else written that someone needs in another language. Must be able to write correctly in the target language.

Interpreters work with the spoken language so must be able to speak well in both languages at the level of an educated monolingual speaker. This means: in court, in depositions and hearings, in hospitals and clinics, for Child Protective Services, for state/federal/local agencies and in any situation in which two people cannot communicate and need help.

Interpreters and translators must also know local dialects and regionalisms, and the latest terminology in all their chosen fields. People who only speak a local dialect may also need an interpreter occasionally. People who speak the local version of “Spanglish” may also need help reading a book or speaking to someone who does not speak that version of Spanglish.

Few people are both translators and interpreters – most prefer one or the other, and it depends on their skills and their personalities. Interpreters prefer to speak fast and think fast and move fast and be where the action is, and interpreting by its very nature is never absolutely perfect; translators prefer to think more in depth, have the time to do more research, and prefer to be perfectionists; and they don’t mind sitting in front of a computer all day! Many more specifics for translators and interpreters are available on this blog and in the ATA Chronicle.


Check out Part II and Part III of this series.