our words make worlds

The challenges of communicating emotions in a foreign language

Jean-Marc Dewaele

Birkbeck, University of London


When Eva Hoffman left Poland in 1959 as a young teenager, to settle down with her family in Canada, she had not anticipated that using English would be so hard and that it would shatter her sense of self.  She recalls the following poignant episode in her autobiography Lost in translation: A life in a new language (1989):

It takes all my will to impose any control on the sounds that emerge from me. I have to form entire sentences before uttering them; otherwise, I too easily get lost in the middle. My speech, I sense, sounds monotonous, deliberate, heavy – an aural mask that doesn’t become or express me at all. ( ...) I don’t try to tell jokes too often, I don’t know the slang, I have no cool repartee. I love language too much to maul its beats, and my pride is too quick to risk the incomprehension that greets such forays. I become a very serious young person ( ...). I am enraged at the false persona I’m being stuffed into, as into some clumsy and overblown astronaut suit. I’m enraged at my adolescent friends because they can’t see through the guise, can’t recognize the light-footed dancer I really am. (pp. 118–119)


Eva Hoffman did quickly socialise in English society, obtaining a PhD in the United States, becoming an editor for The New York Times, before moving to Hampstead in the UK. Eva’s experience of linguistic shock on arrival in Canada is not unique.  Since we present ourselves through language, it can be unsettling, delegitimising and disempowering to be suddenly be reduced to do so in a partially mastered foreign language (LX) that does not allow us to project an accurate representation of our sophisticated thoughts and emotions.  Even at high level of proficiency in the LX, a feeling of detachment and inauthenticity can persist when using the LX (Dewaele, 2013; Pavlenko, 2005) and some uncertainty can linger about the exact emotional weight of certain words and expressions.  It has been argued that first and foreign languages are embodied differently (Pavlenko, 2012). People who have been socialised in their L1(s) have gone through intense affective socialization during which they developed rich multi-modal semantic and conceptual representations.  In contrast, socialisation in the LX, often in classrooms, might not be as rich and intense, leading to reduced emotionality of LX words and expressions.  Awareness of these phenomena is crucial to people who live or work in multilingual and multicultural contexts.  As emotions are expressed differently in different cultures, it is crucial to develop the ability to recognise the emotional state of an L1 or LX user and to express one’s own emotions appropriately.

Multilinguals run particular risks in underestimating the offensive power taboo words in the LX.  What sounds like an innocent funny LX word might cause serious offense among L1 users (Dewaele 2013, 2018a). Even a perfect understanding of an LX swearword does not guarantee success, as swearing is a typical “in-group” activity that marks identity and belonging and because LX users do not belong to that in-group, their foreign accent might betray them for example, their swearing in the LX might be perceived as illegitimate.

Investigating whether using an LX with a romantic partner presented linguistic and psychological challenges, Dewaele and Salomidou (2017) and Dewaele (2018b) found that a minority of their participants in intercultural relationships claimed not to have experienced any difficulty while half mentioned lexical and conceptual limitations in the LX which had hampered their communication of emotion. However, most participants reported that these difficulties had faded rapidly.  Most also reported that intercultural relationships led to mutual affective socialisation in the language and culture of the partner.

The communication difficulties that can arise in intercultural couples can also arise when clients have to communicate in an LX with their therapist (Costa & Dewaele, 2012; Dewaele & Costa, 2013).  The phenomenon of code-switching when the emotional tone was raised is something therapists need to recognise and interpret correctly. Clients used code-switching strategically when discussing traumatic episodes, creating proximity or distance and it allowed them to add depth and nuance to their story (Rolland, Dewaele & Costa, 2017).

Eva Hoffman’s quote gave a good illustration of the link between language and with identity and group membership.  It is thus not surprising that most multilinguals feel different when switching language. Dewaele’s (2016) study of the feedback of multilinguals found that feelings of difference were unrelated to age of onset of acquisition LX proficiency or frequency of use of the LX and were instead linked to plethora of unique factors.

Panicacci and Dewaele’s (2017) study of Italian migrants living in English-speaking countries revealed that personality traits were also linked with feelings of difference when switching language: lower levels of Social Initiative and Emotional Stability were related to an increased feeling of alienation when speaking English LX.

To conclude, multilinguals generally feel that LXs that they learnt later, explicitly, through formal instruction, remain imperfect tools to communicate emotions.  It takes time to explore the meanings of emotion words and the sociopragmatic rules that govern their use. Multilinguals face both cultural and pragmatic challenges.  They have to learn what can be said using the appropriate tone of voice and body language.  Inevitably, when using LXs, multilinguals may not feel their “usual selves”.  That said, the LXs of multilinguals who have been through a process of intensive acculturation and affective socialisation in the LX may feel that the LX has actually surpassed the L1(s), that it has become their language of the heart.


Costa, B. & Dewaele, J.-M. 2012. Psychotherapy across languages: beliefs, attitudes and practices of monolingual and multilingual therapists with their multilingual patients. Language and Psychoanalysis 1. 18-40.

Dewaele, J.-M. 2013. Emotions in Multiple Languages. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan (2nd ed.).

Dewaele, J.-M. 2016. Why do so many bi-and multilinguals feel different when switching languages? International Journal of Multilingualism 13(1). 92–105.

Dewaele, J.-M. 2018a. “Cunt”: On the perception and handling of verbal dynamite by L1 and LX users of English. Multilingua: Journal of Cross-Cultural and Interlanguage Communication 37(1). 53-81.

Dewaele, J.-M. 2018b. Pragmatic challenges in the communication of emotions in intercultural couples. Intercultural Pragmatics 15(1). 29–55.

Dewaele, J.-M. & Costa, B. 2013. Multilingual clients’ experience of psychotherapy. Language and Psychoanalysis 2(2). 31-50.

Dewaele, J.-M. & Salomidou, L. 2017. Loving a partner in a foreign language. Journal of Pragmatics 108. 116-130.

Panicacci, A. & Dewaele, J.-M. 2017. “A voice from elsewhere”: acculturation, personality and migrants’ self-perceptions across languages and cultures. International Journal of Multilingualism 14(4). 419-436.

Pavlenko, A. 2005.

Jean-Marc Dewaele

Birkbeck, University of London