So Emotional! How your emotions are working for you

Today I'm pleased to feature a guest post, written by Ariadne Weinberg, an actress, English teacher, and writer for Listen & Learn.

Take it away Ariadne…

ariadne weinberg listen and learn

Imagine that a beautiful person—one who has just passionately kissed you—is speaking to you in French.

Your knowledge of the French language is high-school equivalent—that is, a few stray sentences buried in your brain.

¨Je ne parle pas français,¨ you inform your newfound lover.

¨Si, tu parles,¨ they say.

And all of a sudden you do.

With this person in front of you, you have an incredible desire to communicate. So you dredge up every last bit of the French swirling around in your brain and manage to talk.

This is a true story. This happened to me.

I am an expat living in Argentina, and I have been speaking only Spanish and English for years (although I’ve heard many other languages here in Capital Federal, Buenos Aires). This experience, among others, made me realise the powerful connection between language learning and strong emotions. It made me ask myself why it worked.

Language and emotion

There are many theories. One, offered by Barbara Frederickson, is the broaden and build theory.

¨The broaden and build theory states that certain positive discrete emotions, including joy, interest, contentment, pride, and love, though phenomenologically distinct, all share the ability to broaden people’s thought-action repertoires and build their enduring personal resources, ranging from physical and intellectual resources to social and psychological resources.¨

This may be why people often say the best way to learn a language is to find a lover who speaks that language natively.

A friend of mine, in her standup routine, said that if you couldn’t afford to take an official language class in Argentina, there was still a cheap, alternative program.

¨Yeah, it’s called date-an-Argentine!¨

Although what she actually said was slightly more vulgar, it proves accurate in my case, and for many others. I am firmly of the opinion that deep emotional bonds are the real underlying hook to memory.

Meeting your needs

This is a topic that has been studied psychologically from many angles. It probably boils down to getting our needs met, and reacting to positive stimuli.

In a study by Peter MacIntyre and Tammy Gregersen, they theorise that adults broaden their abilities with positive emotions.

¨Positive emotion tends to broaden a person’s perspective, opening the individual to absorb the language. In contrast, negative emotion produces the opposite tendency, a narrowing of focus and a restriction of the range of potential language input.¨

As babies, we use language based on need. If we need something, we must use words to get it. As infants, we crave basic things—food, water, sleep, cuddles, protection. As adults we crave these things, too. But we add a couple of things to that list — money (to fulfill the basic needs met above, except cuddles), emotional intimacy and so on.

I believe that emotional intimacy, the desire that originally binds us to our parents, and later to others, is a potent force.

Nelson Mandela said, ¨If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.¨ While it is sometimes possible to talk to a person in their second or third language, to establish a real intimate connection, it is necessary to speak at least partially to them in their own language. It adds an understanding that you get where they’re coming from.

My ex-coworker is now swing-dancing in Brazil with her boyfriend. She mentioned that when she had an argument with him, she wrote him a letter in Portuguese. Her Portuguese probably wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t matter. Her motivation was to keep the bond, and he responded to it well. He later told her that the fact that it had been written in his own language made a real difference.

While she had learned some Portuguese grammar, she commented that, ¨I never really remember things unless I have a specific conversation with someone.¨In other words, she learns grammar in class, but it doesn’t stick until she’s interacted with another human.

Harnessing the power of relationships

There are people who love to sit in class and learn language scientifically, as an object in and of itself. Language nerds and linguists thrive on this.

I am one of those people, but the truth is that I probably don’t represent the majority.

Most people need a little more motivation to solidify a language in their brains. Although I was naturally good at learning languages, it wasn’t until I moved to Argentina and formed relationships with those around me, that I really improved my Spanish.

I learned that language was a means to a most beautiful end, and the more languages I learn, the more freedom I’ll have.

Personally, the next time someone seduces me in French, I will be more prepared. Even though, in the end, my newfound lover turned out to be Colombian.

So, I have to learn the national language and the language of love? Okay, simply all the more reason to be multilingual!

[Note: much of the research for this article can be found in this study]

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