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Affect-Language Interactions in Native and Non-Native English Speakers

A Neuropragmatic Perspective


Rafal Jonczyk


The Bilingual Mind and Brain Book Series

Heidelberg : Springer, 2016

Hardcover. xvii+196 pages. ISBN 978-3319476346. €81


Reviewed by Claire Tardieu

Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris3




Jonczyk’s book tackles the issue of the highly reciprocal relationship between affect and language in human communication. Starting from Grosjean’s 1984 estimation that half of the world speaks more than one language, the author decides to give his study a dual dimension – taking into consideration the first (L1) and the second (L2) language(s) of the interlocutors.

Indeed, it has been reported by clinical and introspective studies that multilingual subjects make different uses of the languages they know in terms of affect manifestation, the L1 being often construed as “the language of the heart” as opposed to the L2 being “affectively disembodied” (Pavlenko, 2005, 2006). However, no significant differences have been noticed by cognitive and neurocognitive studies. Jonczyk argues that this is due to their degree of abstraction, in which contextual information has been marginalized. In other words, only the type of research, more or less idiosyncratic, can justify such a difference.

The purpose of the book is to foster a pragmatic approach to the investigation of affect-language interactions referring to both monolingual and multilingual research. In particular, Jonczyk relies on the concept of affective pragmatics (Caffi & Janney, 1994, Janney, 1996; Kopytko, 2002). Its methodology borrows from monolingual and bilingual research in cognitive and neurocognitive sciences (Chwilla, Brown, & Hagoort, 1995; Kutas & Federmeier, 2011; Wu & Thierry, 2012) and neuropragmatics (Van Berkum, 2008, 2010; Van Berkum, Holleman, Nieuwland, Otten & Murre, 2009).

By combining conceptual understanding and methodological expertise from many disciplines, the current manuscript aims to provide a comprehensive picture of the dynamic interactions between contextual and affective information in the language domain. [viii]

The book itself comprises 196 pages divided into seven main chapters plus two appendices and a very useful index, the bibliographical references being listed at the end of each chapter.

The first chapter “Affect : Theory and Research” presents the theoretical views on affect and emotion discussing historical and empirical aspects. Jonczyk explains that the understanding of what emotion really is remains unclear. His discussion encompasses the standard view developed by Ekman (1992, 1993) and Izard (1993, 1994, 2009) in particular, stating the universality of basic emotions such as “happiness, fear, disgust, anger, surprise and sadness”. Yet he argues that no strict consensus on this list has ever been reached by the basic emotions theorists. Furthermore, the flaws, he says, also concerned their methodology and experimental design preferring forced-choice tasks to free-labelling ones, thus resulting in response bias. Jonczyk then quotes recent studies in neurosciences that define seven circuits in the human brain: seeking, rage, fear, lust, care, panic, and play (Panksepp, 1998, 2005, 2011). However those circuits do not seem to connect easily with Ekman’s basic emotions, adding to the confusion.

A second model can be found in the appraisal theory pioneered by Magda Arnold (1960) and Richard Lazarus (1966) that postulates that “emotions are immediate and automatic responses to evaluations (or appraisals) and interpretations of the environment” [6]. A first strand of appraisal theories states that “appraisals cause emotions”, whereas others consider that “appraisals do not cause but constitute emotions as psychological phenomena that arise from non-emotional ingredients” (Barrell, 2011; Clore & Ortony, 2008; Moors, 2014; Moors et al., 2013) [7]. Jonczyk’s theoretical framework eventually sides with a third model, the psychological construction analysis of emotional phenomena. For his research, he also needs to refer to the notion of affective valence (more or less positive or negative) as developed by the German-American psychologist Kurt Lewin (1935). Finally, because of the difficulty to use the word emotions, he decides to rely on the concept, of “core affect” as the “most elementary consciously accessible affective substrate” (Russell, 1980, 2003, 2009, 2012, 2015; Russell & Barrett, 1999).

Chapter 1 also reports about multiple studies that have shown evidence of the affective primacy hypothesis: “While feeling and thinking should not be seen as inseparable from each other, according to Zajonc (1980), affect is always a faithful companion of thought, but the reverse is not always the case” [15]. Although criticized by Lazarus, the proponent of cognitive primacy hypothesis (Lazarus, 1984, 2006), Zajonc demonstrated that affect could function on an unconscious level and that unconscious affect may have “a direct impact on human behavior” [18]. Neuroscientists who try to trace affect in the brain have recently found that the brain is much less specialized than was commonly thought. In other words, the brain “does not respect categories constructed by the human mind, such as emotion, cognition, or perception” (Lindquist et al. 2012) [19], which would corroborate the view of the brain responding to more basic processes. A more holistic view is now taken into consideration, knowing that the cognitive and affective neural networks largely overlap. This first chapter is undoubtedly the best possible introduction to the subject of emotions and affect in general and everyone who ever intends to work on topics related to the field should absolutely read it.

Chapter 2, entitled “Affect-Language Interface : A Reductionist Approach” reports about processing facilitation experiments that present participants with words that convey positive or negative feelings such as “puppy, love”; “fear, hate”. Some studies have found facilitation for either positive or negative words as opposed to neutral ones (“chair, avenue”). Still Jonczyk considers that the collective evidence is not reliable because of the unnatural, laboratory context in which the experiments were conducted. One of the main qualities of Jonczyk’s book is to always offer a critical perspective to what may seem sound findings.

In chapter 3 – “Affect-Language Interface : A Pragmatic Perspective” – the reader is confronted with the very notion of affective pragmatics. Indeed communication cannot be reduced to single-word processing. Jonczyk defines pragmatics as “the science of communication” building on the various aspects of language such as phonetics, syntax, morphology or semantics and highlighting the importance of the context. Not surprisingly, he reminds us of the significance of the notion of inference. Affective pragmatics implies that “affect pervades communication” [59]. Thus, personal as well as sociopolitical contexts have to be taken into account as they are “dynamically and individually responded to” in communication. This chapter also advocates the importance of designing experiments that provide meaningful contexts.

Chapter 4 focuses on “Affect-Language Interactions In Nonnative Speakers”. The issue reads as follows: “Do individuals process affective information differently in their native or non-native languages?” [76]. Jonczyk calls a bilingual “a person who speaks two or more languages on a regular basis” [76]. He keeps making a distinction between native speakers and nonnative speakers or early bilinguals and late bilinguals and between naturalistic versus instructed contexts of acquisition. This seems very interesting at a time when the very notion of “native speaker” has been abandoned by a number of researchers drawing on the multilingual paradigm.

In this chapter the author draws on data from the Bilingual and Emotions Questionnaire (BEQ), accessible on line at the Birkbeck College (University of London, UK) website, comprising 34 5 point Likert based closed questions in English and gathering responses from 1579 bilinguals. The data show that the difference in affective charge between L1 and L2 is largely dependent on the context the L2 has been acquired: the more naturalistic, the more affectively loaded [82]. Another question concerned the preference of bilinguals for one language or another when it comes to expressing affect in general or anger in particular. Although the subjective perception of respondents seems to favour the L1, a more precise qualitative analysis of bilinguals’ affective repertoires shows a more complex picture.

Chapter 5, entitled “Affective Word Processing in Native and Nonnative English Speakers : A Neuropragmatic Perspective”, reports experiments whose aim is to provide context manipulation that might “modulate behavioral and electrophysiological responses to affective language in a native and nonnative language of Polish-English bilinguals” [98]. It is the most empirical part of the book, introducing a neuropragmatic perspective. The first experiment consisted in looking into “the behavioral and neurocognitive processing of affective adjectives embedded in a meaningful, but minimal, linguistic context in native and nonnative English speakers”; whereas the second one provided “a broadly defined context” in terms of social, personal, communicative or linguistic characteristics. The first experiment showed evidence that bilinguals process affective adjectives in a similar manner whatever the language (Polish or English). However, the second experiment revealed a deeper processing in L1 that might be boosted by affective content, thus showing differences in bilinguals’ using their L1 or their L2.

Chapter 6, “Processing of Affective Meaning in Native and Nonnative Language : Why context Matters”, discusses the empirical findings of the two previous electrophysiological studies, i.e., that “people’s affective experiences are boosted in real communicative interactions whose nature is orchestrated by the broadly construed context” [133]. Jonczyk concedes some limitations to the studies owing to the conditions of the experiments and to the specific profile of the participants. He then outlines how further research should be conducted if one is to obtain a clearer picture of how bilinguals process affective meaning in L1 and L2.

Finally, chapter 7 – “Affective (Dis)Embodiment in Nonnative Language” – discusses the way concepts are represented in our brain. Two theories can be conjured up: in the disembodied view, “concepts are abstract entities”, whereas in the embodied view they are “dynamically modulated as a result of our experiences and interactions in the world”. According to Pavlenko, affective experiences may be disembodied in the second language. Drawing on the Language and Situated Simulation hypothesis (Barsalou et al. 2008), Jonczyk argues that the simulation system can play a crucial role in the acquisition of affective meaning, its activation remaining minimal in the context of Instructed SLA:

It is possible that when bilinguals process affective language, the linguistic system is fully up and running, making it possible to comprehend the semantic meaning of affective words and phrases. At the same time, however, the simulation system is activated only to an extent, inhibiting a full-blown affective experience in the second language. [154]

This seminal study by Jonczyk opens a rich reflection on the brain processes in relation with affect and the pragmatical use of languages by bilinguals in meaningful contexts. Although a clear distinction is made between natural and artificial (formal) contexts, some conclusions tend to meet recent recommendations for language teaching and learning at school. In a way, the task-based approach enables teachers to create a more meaningful environment in which students can experience the L2 “affectively”. For instance, they may be invited to share tasks with partners outside the school, either students from other countries or professionals in their immediate environment. To what extent can teachers build on affect in the French education system? The Republican ideal aiming to eradicate differences between pupils and appeal to reasoning only is becoming more and more obsolete. That is why even though the purpose of Jonczyk’s book is not straightforwardly directed towards instructed SLA, it gives highly relevant clues for that field. One may also assume that more and more natural contexts are made accessible to young people through the Internet at least for English: watching series or playing online games undeniably constitute strong affective experiences. If our students improve their skills significantly in the next few years, Jonczyk’s work will have proved pioneering research.


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