Making Sense of Society: Wilhelmiina Toivo


Big data. Climate change. Class. Immigration. Inequality. And, of course, beekeeping. These were some of the topics that early career social scientists wrote about when asked to respond to theme “Making Sense of Society.”

For the last two years the United Kingdom’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has held a writing competition to encourage and recognize the writing skills of ESRC-funded students. Winners for the 2016 round were honored March 21 at a ceremony in London.

This year, explains Alan Gillespie, the chair of the ESRC, the competition asked for writers to detail, in 800 words or less, how their research is helping to make sense of society, and why it matters. (SAGE Publishing, the parent of Social Science Space, is a partner in the competition.)

“Perhaps unsurprisingly,” notes Gillespie, “many essays offered theories and insights on Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. The collection of essays may well prove to be a valuable resource for future research and act as a ‘snapshot’ of world issues in the second half of 2016.” Social Science Space will publish the winning essays, runners-up and eight shortlisted pieces in the next few weeks, starting with “Once more, with feeling: life as bilingual,” an essay from psychologist Wilhelmiina Toivo at the University of Glasgow.


Swearing ‘like s**t’ and other stories of feeling less in your second language

by Wilhelmiina Toivo

Wilhelmiina Toivo
Wilhelmiina Toivo

My dad had a rather liberal philosophy of bringing up children, but he would always tell us off for swearing. As a result, I grew up feeling very uncomfortable using swearwords. Or, at least, so I thought – when I first moved to Scotland, I noticed that it was actually very easy to swear in English. Interestingly enough, I also found it easy to talk to my flatmates about topics that felt too intimate to discuss in my native tongue. In a flat of seven girls from all over Europe, we discussed the full magnitude of emotions and topics; the fears of living abroad, falling in and out of love, death, sex – everything. Swearing and talking about these emotions was not easy just because of the inherent rowdiness of the student community, or because we felt liberated being away from home for the first time. The effect I was observing is something that goes deeper and touches a huge amount of people who live in multilingual settings.Many bilinguals report ‘feeling less’ in their second language; it does not bear the same emotional weight as your native language. Feeling less emotionally connected to your second language might make it easier to use highly emotional vocabulary, which is precisely what I was experiencing with my ease of swearing and talking about sensitive topics in English. The scientific term for this is reduced emotional resonance of language. It is a fairly well-established phenomenon, but many specific questions still remain unanswered. For example, what exactly makes one’s second language less emotional? How does this affect different immigrant communities? My research project aims to address these questions by looking into the reasons and implications of reduced emotional resonance in bilinguals’ second language.

It is still unclear what exactly shapes emotional resonance of a language and in what way – results thus far have been inconclusive. In the first part of my project, we are exploring which factors in a person’s language background contribute to reduced emotional resonance. For example, is it influenced by the age at which you have learnt your second language? Does it matter how frequently and in which context you use the language? Or is your emotional experience of a language predictable from whether you dream or can do maths in it? To investigate these questions, my project uses eye-tracker technology in order to measure bilinguals’ pupil responses to emotional words in English. Typically, when shown highly emotional words or pictures, people’s pupils dilate as a non-controllable, emotional reaction. Previous research has shown the effect is smaller in bilinguals’ second language, which suggests reduced emotional resonance. Understanding the reasons for why this happens can, in turn, help us explain how you experience a foreign language community, and how this could be taken into account in acculturation and adaptation.

Wittgenstein said: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” This is particularly true for your second language. For fluent bilinguals living in a community where their native language is not spoken, reduced emotional resonance sets ‘the limits of the world’. While your language skills can be more than adequate, not being able to fully structure your surroundings through language might leave you feeling alienated; not a part of the society you live in. Or perhaps you are perceived as rude or socially awkward for using the wrong words in the wrong emotional context.

However, not all the implications of reduced emotional resonance are negative – bilinguals can actually benefit from being able to approach things in a less emotionally involved way. For example, bilinguals have been shown to be able to make more rational decisions in their second language. Also, switching languages can be used as a tool in therapy when working through emotionally difficult or traumatising experiences. Imagine how it would be if it were easier to talk about your emotions with your partner – maybe bilingual couples have a communicative advantage? Ultimately, understanding the full scale of implications of reduced emotional resonance is a way to understand how bilinguals experience the world.

In the increasingly globalising world where study abroad, immigration and sojourning are more and more common, as well as pervasive issues in international politics, understanding the realities of bi- and multilingual people is crucial. Being a bilingual no longer means just being exposed to two languages from birth – it can refer to a person who uses two languages in their everyday life, regardless of their level of fluency. As the number of people with versatile language backgrounds grows, understanding all aspects of language and how these mediate our lives become important. Language is so much more than just a communication device; it is a way to understand the world around us, defining our reality and what it actually means to be human.


Winners

“Once more, with feeling: life as bilingual” |Wilhelmiina Toivo, University of Glasgow

“Living and looking for lavatories” | Lauren White, University of Sheffield

Runners-up

“Marginal money, mainstream economy”| Max Gallien, London School of Economics and Political Science

“Biotechnology and the world of tomorrow” | Elo Luik, University of Oxford

Shortlisted

“Better healthcare with deep data” | Alison Harper, University of Exeter

“Child labour: making childhood work” |Sophie Hedges, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

“What future while living in uncertainty?” | Vanessa Hughes, Goldsmiths, University of London

“Ensuring a sweeter future” | Siobhan Maderson, Aberystwyth University

“Understanding the forgotten decade” | David Pollard, University of Birmingham

“Schools, funding and donor power” | Ruth Puttick, Newcastle University

“Fostering inclusion in the face of division” | Caoimhe Ryan, University of St Andrews

“Listen to the local” | Ruben Schneider, University of Aberdeen

Essays were judged by four science-oriented individuals from the publishing and journalism arenas:

  • Martin Ince, president of the Association of British Science Writers, is a freelance journalist specializing in research and higher education, and was previously deputy editor of Times Higher Education.  He chairs the QS World University Rankings.
  • Miranda Nunhofer is executive director for SAGE Publishing’s Humanities and Social Science journals program and has worked in journals publishing for nearly 20 years.
  • Tash Reith-Banks is the production editor for the Guardian’s science desk, and has been a freelance scriptwriter, subeditor and copywriter. She worked as a writer and editor for the publishing arm of healthcare company Dr Foster, before moving to Guardian Books as a researcher and contributing writer.
  • Martin Rosenbaum is a member of ESRC Council and an executive producer in the BBC Political Programmes department, overseeing a range of radio programming including Radio 4’s The Week in Westminster. He specializes in freedom of information and data journalism.

The ESRC, established by royal charter in 1965, is the UK’s largest funder of research on economic and social issues, supporting career growth for future social scientists and funding major studies that provide the infrastructure for research.


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