Study: Bilingual Mandarin Speakers Repress Negative Words in English

A new research study revealed that a bilingual study group did not respond to negative words in English charged with potentially disturbing emotions.

According to the study conducted with bilingual Mandarin-English speakers,  words such as “anger” in the non-native language were not assimilated in the same way as words with no emotions attached to them, such as the word “position.” This may mean that our brain can unconsciously process meaning of words, while consciously eliminating some information.

Study researcher Yanjing Wu, a psychologist at Bangor University in the United Kingdom, stated:

“We devised this experiment to unravel the unconscious interactions between the processing of emotional content and access to the native language system. We think we’ve identified, for the first time, the mechanism by which emotion controls fundamental thought processes outside consciousness. Perhaps this is a process that resembles the mental repression mechanism that people have theorized about but never previously located.”

The findings include the fact that when using their second language, bilinguals have a much less emotional response. And that was the case of swear words and usually awkward topics in English for the Mandarin speakers.

Wu and his colleague, Guillaume Thierry, recruited 15 native English speakers, 15 native Chinese speakers, and 15 native Chinese speakers who were also fluent in English, all of them with English knowledge sinc 12 years of age. Study subjects saw word pairs on a screen, being one of the words neutral, while the other variable between positive, negative, or neutral. The first syllable of each word at each pair of words was chosen with the intention to sound the same in Mandarin compared to its counterpart. Negative words, such as failure, war, discomfort and unfortunate, were chosen for the pairs. Every time the words had some connection meaning-wise (and in fact, some of them were), participants were requested to press a button. Electrodes were attached to the scalps of study subjects to measure the electrical response in the brain when they were confronted with the pairs.

Findings were that the bilingual subjects, without knowing, were translating the positive and neutral words into Mandarin, but they did not show the same response when reading negative words. Thierry stated that he was extremely surprised by their finding and that they expected to find a heightened reaction to the emotional word but what they found was the complete opposite — “a cancellation of the response to the negative words.”

The reason why the brain acts this way is not yet clear, but the researchers suspect it is a protective mechanism. Thierry adds:

“We know that in trauma, for example, people behave very differently. Surface conscious processes are modulated by a deeper emotional system in the brain. Perhaps this brain mechanism spontaneously minimizes negative impact of disturbing emotional content on our thinking, to prevent causing anxiety or mental discomfort.”


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I admit that I don’t really understand this article, but I think it says that English words that carry negative emotional connotations don’t cause an emotional response in Chinese native speakers who learnt English as a second language.

Most Chinese learn English by rote repetition rather than in a real world setting, so perhaps these English words don’t carry the same emotional response because they weren’t acquired while the body was undergoing said emotional response. E.g. learning the word DANGER while being scared after almost hurting yourself.