Living Abroad: In What Language Do You Feel Emotions ?

A bilingual French-Dutch traffic sign in Brussels

A bilingual French-Dutch traffic sign in Brussels (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I came across this interesting article about some studies on languages used by multilingual third culture kids (TCKs) to express various emotions in different situations.

Language is strongly tied to identity and when we speak more than one language the one we chose to speak  is often very specific to certain contexts and the sociocultural environment.  When I was based in Japan, I have been intrigued to see French siblings speaking Japanese while playing together at home even if there were in a French school with Japanese students but with French parents 

As far as emotions is concerned I have not observed any specific language pattern in my son to express emotions and feelings. My son will often speak to me in English when it is about a story he is reading or a movie he is watching or to tell what happened at school but Interestingly he has certain movies that he watches exclusively in French and others exclusively in English without apparent specific rules except the obvious ones like watching “Harry Potter” in English because the story is based in England and because he reads the books in English. Also movies that mock the French accent like in the Pink Panther series. 

When he is with French adults he uses sophisticated vocabulary with few grammar errors and with younger French children he will show a lot of non-verbal empathy. With English speakers he will use exclusively English both for facts or expressing emotions. At home with us, when arguing or upset he often switches to English but not always.

Since he has been in a bilingual environment from birth to now, 10 years later,  his brain has probably been developed differently than mine who acquired bilingualism later as a young adult. Some researches in neuroscience have shown that when learning two languages almost simultaneously there is one unique zone in the brain that is activated for language perception and interpretation while when the second language is acquired later as adults there are two distinct parts that are activated for each language.

In my case, I think in English for work and I prefer to write in English too. I read business or self-help books in English but read novels, thrillers and other form of non-professional literature exclusively in French. However interestingly I write in my personal Facebook profile mainly in English unless there are specific jokes I can’t translate from French to English that I will share with my circle of fiends who speak French. I use Twitter and Linkedin exclusively in English because for me they are  professional tools and I can’t share emotions on those platforms.

According to François Grosjean, Ph.D.,  Emeritus Professor of psycholinguistics at the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland. 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). In his article Emotions in More than One Language” he mentioned many cases of people who don’t use the first language or mother tongue to express emotions but may use one language or another based on  their emotional experiences in various languages.

 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-Francois Grosjean

What about your experience as bilingual or raising bilingual children ?


About Anne Egros, Executive, Career and Expat Life Coach

Zest and Zen is a blog about Expat Life Challenges, Global Leadership, Intercultural Communication, Health and Wellness, Nutrition, Change Psychology, Life Transitions
This entry was posted in bilingual, brain, communication, Cross cultural, Executive Coaching, Global Executives, TCKs and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Living Abroad: In What Language Do You Feel Emotions ?

  1. Justsomeguy says:

    I would say that the langage in which one feels and the language used to convey feelings are two separate areas of discussion.

  2. Veronique says:

    Hello Anne, very interesting. I have also noticed that all the non-fiction books (guide, self-help, how to books, memoirs) I read are in English but when it comes to fiction it is in French and only in French.
    I can get very upset both in French and English. I have noticed that when I can get upset in another language than French it means that I have reached a very good level in this language. For instance, the third year of my stay in Norway I was able to argue in Norwegian as well as in French … It is a good sign of your ability in a foreign language!

    • Thanks Veronique, I also think that feeling emotions in a foreign language requires a higher level of language acquisition than just understanding facts. Conversely when you don’t understand the emotional part of an argument you are more objective and you may make better rational decisions.

  3. buildingthelifeyouwant says:

    Thanks for sharing, Anne!
    It is interesting and I found many parallels. I’m German, married to a Spaniard, currently living in the USA. I mainly read English for work and only use German when Skypeing with clients, family and friends. Movies in their original are mainly English, so are music lyrics, and blogs, so it’s easy to be immersed. And for me, lots of emotion is attached to books, music, and movies. 😉
    Spanish is the fourth language I learned, and depending on context, it’s the Spanish expression that may come to my mind first.
    In fact, having left Germany in 1997, I sometimes struggle finding the right word in my mother-tongue. Annoying, to be sure.

  4. Nina Sichel says:

    For an in-depth analysis along these lines, you might want to read “Memory, Language, and Identity: The Search for Self” by Liliana Meneses, which appears in the collection WRITING OUT OF LIMBO: INTERNATIONAL CHILDHOODS, GLOBAL NOMADS AND THIRD CULTURE KIDS (available at and, and also via the publisher, Meneses looks at how we form our cultural identities around language, memory and the emotional connection language evokes to the stories of our past, and uses examples from her own bicultural childhood to illustrate how she can “be” one person in Portuguese, and another in English.

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