For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been furiously engaged in what my friend Olga describes as “die Vortäuschung von nicht vorhandenen Kenntnissen” — the affectation of nonexistent proficiency–as I work on my master’s thesis proposal. Originally I wrote here, “I won’t go into all the gory details, but here’s a summary” and then went on to write two pages. So I took that sentence out. Consider yourself warned.

If you want the reader’s digest version, start at the bolded text.

We’re going to be talking about how we acquire concepts. For our example, we’ll use the  concept of [CHAIR]. We all have an idea of what [CHAIR] means. Some semantic theories would basically posit that we have built-in categories in our mind, and we know what [CHAIR] is because we know which categories it belongs to–so for example, +flat low surface, +perpendicular back, +legs, +hard material. I’m probably explaining this badly because I haven’t ever studied semantics by itself, and especially not this theory.

OK. What I have been studying is grounded cognition, which stands in opposition to the above theory, essentially saying that no, we don’t have inborn semantic categories, and we learn concepts through sensorimotor input (i.e. that language is grounded in the motor system). So yes, a chair is a chair because it looks a certain way, but also because we have the memory of shoving them back under the table after dinner, and our butts remember sitting in them, and maybe we have emotional associations from, for example, that one time that Cary Beth’s band teacher got angry and threw a chair in class.

So when I say [CHAIR], according to this theory, your mind simulates a chair and the way that your  body would interact with it (what’s cool about this is that it means that “chair” means slightly different things to each person. For example, of all the people reading this, only Cary Beth’s brain is going to hear “chair” and go “OHMIGOD DUCK”). There’s lots of evidence for this view (and some against it), but a lot of the pro-evidence (much of which comes out of my thesis advisor’s lab) relies on neuroimaging studies that demonstrate that when you say a word, a widely-distributed network of neurons involving not only language-processing brain areas, but also the motor cortex and more is activated. And if you block, for example, a single neuron or set of neurons that you know control the hands, a person will take longer to name a picture of, say, a hammer. Or a dog (if they have petted dogs before). But there will be no impact on their ability to name a picture of a shark or a house.

So that’s all well and good for concrete objects. My thesis comes in at the intersection of two questions:

a) In learning and using a second language, are the same neural pathways used for both languages (which would essentially mean that all of your experience in L2 (the second language) is translated and filtered through L1 (native language)). There’s evidence for both sides.

b) Can abstract language, and especially internal states (i.e. emotions), be learned through sensorimotor input, as well? If so, how? 

So I’ll be looking at emotion (or emotionally provocative) language, essentially trying to build on the research that shows that bilinguals are less emotional in an L2. There’s evidence from a reading study (done, incidentally, at my university in the Dahlem Institute for Neuroimaging of Emotion, which I didn’t know existed but is my new best friend) called “Can Harry Potter still cast a spell on us in an L2?” that is awesome not only because it contained the in-text citation “(Rowling 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2007)”, but also because it showed that bilinguals had less activity in brain areas associated with emotion processing when reading in L2 and, when asked to rank the emotionality of certain text excerpts on a scale of 0 to 5, consistently gave higher emotionality scores to native-language excerpts over L2 excerpts.

I may choose to focus on swear/taboo words (Nathan has been encouraging me in this direction for months now, arguing that “that’s the kind of eye-catching topic that gets you on talk shows,” as if (a) anyone’s ever been invited to a talk show because of their master’s thesis, and (b) I would ever, ever in a million years even dream of wanting that. In the end, though, it does wind up being a practical perspective from which  which to work on the aforementioned questions), which have all kinds of cool effects in the native speaker brain: they grab your attention and hold it longer than non-taboo words, and they are obligatorily processed (i.e. you can’t ignore them even if you try–although this is less true if you’re bilingual. That’s a story for another time). Generally speaking, we wouldn’t expect this to hold in the L2. So some of the questions I’m mulling over are “Can the sensitivity to taboo words increase with time spent in the L2 environment” and, the corollary, “Does sensitivity to taboo words in the L1 decrease if you spend many years outside that language environment?” and, the most fun, “Does the analgesic effect of swear words hold true when swearing in a highly proficient L2?” (Translation: If I tell my classmates to hold their hands in a bowl of ice water for as long as they can stand it, will they torture themselves longer if I let them say “f—” while they’re doing it, or if they say “блядь”? Or (c) none of the above, in which case my thesis will be super boring.)

When he got to that part of my proposal, my advisor (His name, by the way, is Friedemann Pulvermüller, so have fun with that) laughed out loud at the article I cited, which is entitled “Swearing as a response to pain – Effect of daily swearing frequency.” I waited uncomfortably while he spun around in his chair, giggling to himself and saying, “Shit! Shit! Shit! SHIT! Ah, I feel better now.” 

In addition, when I came into his office (bear in mind he didn’t know why we were meeting and had no idea of my topic before I arrived), he had a book sitting out, published this year, entitled Perceptual and Emotional Embodiment: Foundations of Embodied Cognition, that he’d been reading in preparation for a conference. So that can’t possibly be a bad sign, can it?

Postscript: A long long time ago (back when I was still trying to get a residency permit), I wrote about how German bureaucrats sometimes had wildly inappropriate posters on their walls. Well, when I was at the examination office (for lack of a better term) of my department the other day, I saw that the registrar has a poster of a kitten clinging to a tiny branch, about to fall off, and it says “OH SHIT.” Later, I was visiting the secretary of one of my former professors, and she had some poster hung on her wall that dropped the f-bomb (look, I did that out of courtesy to you, to circumvent the obligatory processing of the actual word :D) several times. I thought this was a cultural quirk (Germans being certified weirdos and all), but perhaps it’s actually the result of differences between L1 and L2 processing. Cool, huh?

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Made you look.

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