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The role of emotion

ASU linguist explores the emotional side of language learning

A man talks while seated at a table in an office.

March 02, 2016

Language is complicated. Anyone who has tried to use high school French to navigate the Champs-Élysées can tell you that.

It’s also intensely emotional, according to Arizona State University assistant professor Matthew Prior. Just take a look at the ecstatic faces of parents whose child has just uttered his first word.

Prior, who teaches applied linguistics and TESOLTeachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages in the Department of EnglishThe Department of English is an academic unit of ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Prior is a 2015 recipient of the college’s Zebulon Pearce Distinguished Teaching Award., is interested in exploring the emotional side of language learning, use, teaching and research. He does so extensively in his most recent book, “Emotion and Discourse in L2 Narrative Research.”

book cover
The topic is a personal one for Prior. Growing up with a father who served in the military and later as a minister, being on the move was second nature.

“I probably lived in 30 different places growing up, all over the U.S. and Canada. And I lived overseas as well,” he said.

During that time, he was exposed to several different cultures and languages — including the French and German his parents sometimes spoke at home — sparking his interest in the subject at an early age.

The interest carried on into adulthood, and Prior spent several years teaching English as a second language in both the U.S. and Japan, eventually earning master’s and doctoral degrees in applied linguistics and second-language acquisition before making his way to ASU in 2011.

His specific interest in how emotion relates to language learning evolved from listening to people’s stories about their experiences of learning a second language and how it affected them over the course of their life. What Prior began to realize as he listened was that emotionality wasn’t just present in the content of their stories — it was present in the very process of telling their stories.

“In other words,” he explained, “emotionality is a lens by which people make sense of their experiences, as well as a means by which they communicate their experiences and their meanings to others.”

Why is that important? Because emotion is central to all human interaction, and studying its role in those interactions helps us better understand human emotional life. In the case of emotion’s role in language interactions, it helps us understand how people manage and regulate emotion and well-being in and through talking with others — something we all do, every day.

But this research is still fairly new.

“In anthropology, sociology, psychology and, of course, linguistics, applied linguistics and second-language acquisition, scholars have explored the connections among emotion and language, but we have just begun to scratch the surface,” Prior said. “Until recently, much emotion research has been dominated by cognitive perspectives, but now we are seeing a shift toward investigating emotions not as things inside people’s heads but as part of relating to others. This is where my work comes in. I look at emotion as interaction, as part of language, discourse and relationships.”

In his book, Prior looked specifically at the relationship between emotion and language learning among immigrant men who have lived in the U.S. and Canada for nearly 20 years. Because of the length of time they have spent in the countries, it is generally assumed that they should be acculturated and assimilated by now. However, because many are still struggling with emotions associated with memories of war and loss — often their reason for having immigrated — they are also still struggling with language. And not just second language.

“These are people who have lost parts of their first language,” said Prior. “These are things that we don’t often think about. We assume that once somebody [has mastered] their first language, they don’t lose it. And in fact, they do. And in fact, sometimes they’re forced to give up their first language in order to take on the second language, which is kind of sad.”

Many immigrants also struggle with the fact that they still have an accent, about which Prior says they often feel “an overwhelming amount of shame.” He continued, “These are people that have overcome amazing odds and carved out these amazing lives, but the fact that they still have an accent [brings about shame and anger].”

In acknowledgement of that, Prior takes time in his book to call for researchers to stop focusing on second-language speakers in terms of deficit but rather, in terms of competence.

Yet, perhaps the most important call to action Prior makes in his book is to appeal to second-language researchers to look at the research process itself because, as he put it, “these stories aren’t produced in a vacuum.”

It’s something that only a handful of scholars are looking at right now, and it’s called “social studies of interview studies” — unpacking the whole second-language interviewing research process and laying out “all the mess that went into putting all that together.” It's something Prior asserts is especially useful for novice researchers who otherwise would only see the polished end result.

“We need to start interrogating our research practices,” he urged, “because until we actually see what we are doing, we can’t improve our research practices.”

Top photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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