It’s not something we all think about very often, but the languages we use day in and day out serve to color and shape our lives.
A language, whether that be English, Spanish, German, or Chinese, allows us to express our emotions, feelings, and thoughts. But, do the languages we use actually influence those experiences as well?
That was the general question researchers at the University of Miami set out to answer for a new study, and their findings were illuminating, to say the least.
While this study only focused on sensations of physical pain, it was discovered that bi-lingual speakers experience more pain while speaking the language they culturally identify with the most.
So, a native of Paris who is also fluent in Spanish will feel more pain if he or she stubs their toe and cries out in French. If nothing else, these findings should inspire us all to learn a second language; it may help relieve some serious pain in the future!
To reach these conclusions the study’s authors gathered together 80 local, bilingual (English & Spanish) participants from either the University of Miami itself or the surrounding Miami-Dade county area. Each of those subjects took part in two “pain-induction” procedures, with one taking place in English and the other in Spanish.
During these sessions, a researcher applied a “painful heat” to participants’ forearms. Everything about each session was exactly the same, except the first time subjects were told to describe their pain in English, and then the second time they used Spanish. Physiological responses to the pain (heart rate, palm-sweating) were also recorded.
“All of our participants identified as bicultural,” explains Morgan Gianola, University of Miami psychology graduate student, in a release. “After each experimental session, we had them fill out surveys about things like how often they use each language [English and Spanish] and how strongly they relate to and identify with both the Hispanic and U.S.-American sides of their cultural identity. The interesting thing we found was, rather than participants always showing higher pain ratings in Spanish, for example, they tended to report more intense pain and show larger physiological responses to pain when they spoke the language of their stronger cultural identity.”
The general idea that different languages foster varying life experiences isn’t a new one. In fact, the research team says their work was inspired by the field of “linguistic relativity.”
Prior research on that topic had already identified differences between English and Spanish speakers regarding memory processes and object identification/categorization. Even among bilingual speakers fluent in both languages, these cognitive fluctuations were apparent when switching between languages.
Jumping into these new findings a bit further, participants who identified strongly with Hispanic culture reported and physiologically felt more pain while speaking in Spanish. Conversely, subjects more in tune with American culture showed higher levels of pain while conversing in English.
Of course, the US has always been a melting pot and many citizens don’t just identify with one culture. So quite a few study subjects said they identified equally with both American and Hispanic cultures. In those cases, participants reported the same amount of pain regardless of what language they spoke.
“This study highlights, first, that Hispanic/Latino communities are not monolithic, and that the factors affecting bilinguals’ psychological and physiological responses to pain can differ across individuals,” Gianola concludes. “We also see that language can influence such a seemingly basic perception as pain, but that the cultural associations people carry with them may dictate to what extent the language context makes a difference.”
With these findings regarding pain in mind, it’s logical to theorize that language impacts far more areas of our lives. From love and romance to expressing profound thoughts and ideas, the words we use may each have a strict, literal definition, but they also define our very lives.
The full study can be found here, published in Affective Science.