Vicariously experiencing the emotions of a character in a book brings readers closer to the storyline, but the way readers react to fictional emotions depends on the language they read it in. Research conducted at the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) in Italy examined the empathetic power of reading in a native language. The findings, published in the journal Brain and Cognition, not only revealed how mother tongues evoked readers’ emotions, but also the limitations of a second language.

"[These findings are] accounted for by the theory of embodiment — when we process emotional information, our body 'mimics' the specific emotion by enacting those physiological states that are typical of the emotion," said the study’s lead author Francesco Foroni, a research scientist at SISSA, in a press release.

For his study, Foroni used electromyography on 26 participants to measure muscle movement in their faces as they read. First, the participants read short stories in their native Dutch language; they were found to smile when fictional characters smiled and also mimicked other emotions. However, when the participants read the stories in English — a second language they learned after the age of 12 — they weren’t able to respond with as much emotion.

"The phenomenon is very intense when we read in our native language," Foroni said. "But if we read in a second language learned after our mother tongue, then this physiological response, while not disappearing completely, is drastically lessened."

The reason this occurs, Foroni said, is because the second language barrier creates a weaker link between words representing the emotions and actually experiencing the emotions, despite the participants being completely fluent in both English and Dutch.

One theory that might explain this difference between emotional interpretations looks at how they were learned. When a person learns their first language, it’s often taught by their parents. For example, a smiling mother who asks her baby to smile at her might receive a smile back — the emotion becomes associated with the language. Meanwhile, second languages are normally taught in formal, emotionally devoid environments like a classroom.

With a second language filtering out emotions, Foroni believes his findings can help people make decisions without letting emotions get the best of them. Perhaps making a decision in a second language can provide clarity and result in a less-biased decision.

“When we are influenced by emotions, we tend to be less rational and make decisions that are not based on an accurate assessment of the problem,” Foroni said. “It's possible that finding oneself in a context implying the use of a second language may affect the types of decisions we make, by limiting the potential negative impact of emotions.”

Source: Foroni F. Do we embody second language? Evidence for ‘partial’ simulation during processing of a second language. Brain and Cognition. 2015.