Researchers at University of California Berkeley and Bard College have recently taken a deeper look at how language impacts psychological development in children. In the July issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, Stephen Chen and Qing Zhou from Berkeley and Morgan Kennedy from Bard draw on psychology and linguistics to understand how using different languages to express emotions can impact children’s emotional development.
In particular, the research argues that which particular language parents use to express emotions and ideas can impact a child’s emotional understanding, experience, and regulation. Chen claims that the research was motivated by an increasing interest in emotion-related language shifts within the family and how people understand the interactions.
Language is a vehicle with which speakers discuss or conceal their thoughts and feelings. The interactions that parents have with their children about their emotions contribute to a child’s emotional development by demonstrating a model of how emotions should be articulated. Parental discussion of emotion shows children how they should regulate and classify their own emotions in different contexts.
The linguistic research suggests that bilingual individuals experience emotions differently depending on which language they use to describe them. For instance, a native Finnish speaker may choose to tell their children that they love them in English because it’s rare to explicitly express emotions in Finnish. As a result, language choice provides a cue to children about what emotional state their parents are in. Parents can elicit a greater emotional response from children by shifting to a different language, just as children can infer a particular emotional state just based on language choice.
The research draws the conclusion that a child’s emotional competence is largely determined by what words are spoken around them and, by extension, in what language. Multilingual families ought to be aware of how language selection within particular contexts will impact their children’s emotional growth.
This field of research is likely to receive a lot of attention. Multilingual families are becoming more common and family counselors will be forced to deal with the new and changing dynamics. One area where attention might be shown is that of family intervention by external sources. By understanding how language impacts the emotional responses made by different family members, counselors and social workers can better adapt settings (and even their language choice) to promote responses that they feel are positive.
Children ultimately learn from their parents and providing a consistent, positive linguistic environment will be key to their development.