Emotion plays a pivotal role in language acquisition and language acquisition plays a pivotal role in emotional intelligence.
Since “words that denote emotional states, moods or feelings […] provide crucial examples of how a word may refer to an entity that is not observable but resides within the organism”, acquisition of emotion words is a crucial stepping-stone in the development of abstract semantic representations (Kousta et al., 2011).
So, children begin by mapping real world, observable objects with their corresponding words. However, learning emotional vocabulary allows them to understand that it is possible to name things that are not tangible, yet these things are just as real.
Typically developing children learn the words for concrete entities before learning the abstract ones because the latter are significantly more difficult to pinpoint. Nevertheless, their ability to understand and map words to abstract concepts catches up pretty quickly: it starts to develop at around 20 months of age, with a rapid increase in the 3rd year of life (Kousta et al., 2011).
Mapping a world of words
Other benefits of learning emotion-related words actually go beyond the acquisition of abstract vocabulary. Feelings and emotions are a spectrum which exists independently of the labels we give them. Although we have the words “sad” and “angry”, any feeling or emotion between the two is just as real and just as significant, yet we do not have a word for it.
They are much like colour: we conceptualize feelings and emotions according to the finite number of words our language gives us, but in reality, there are infinite number of feelings or emotions in between labels. This is called the ’emotion paradox’: emotion categories are nominal kinds (man-made impositions not created by nature or by a divine force) whose conceptual content constrains the perceptual choices we make (Barrett, Lindquist, Gendron 2007). In other words, just like there could be a million different shades of blue, which we call “blue”, there could be a million shades of “happiness” that we still call so.
If we have more terms that acknowledge the finer distinctions between emotions, we can categorize them into narrower, more precise categories, thus giving us a better emotional awareness and understanding. This is why aiding children with language proficiency and exposing them to emotion words plays a role in helping children develop an understanding of mental states and attributing emotion to other people (Barrett, Lindquist, Gendron 2007).
The more vocabulary children have, the more umbrella terms they have, the better they can become at discerning the different emotions they feel. For example, a study conducted by Pons, Lawson, Harris & Rosnay found that individual differences in emotional understanding were independent of the age of the participating children, but were closely related to their language ability (2003). In fact, their language ability alone was responsible for 27% to 28% of the variance of emotional understanding. This difference is difficult to ignore.
Take a chill pill
Another key benefit of learning emotion words is that linguistic processing of feelings and emotions has calming down effects, which allow us to process our emotions more efficiently. Although this was previously hypothesised, (after all, who does not feel better after venting with a friend), it was was recently proven true by neuroimaging studies.
Emotional processing involves a complex communication circuit connecting various areas of our brains, but relies heavily on the amygdala, the centre of emotion, decision-making and emotional behaviour. This almond-shaped area of the brain, located on the sides of the head, close to where our ears are, has been essential to our survival as a species, since it is responsible for the most basic, impulsive and raw actions we take – famous for dealing with the age old “fight or flight” ultimatum.
In an fMRI study by Lieberman, Eisenberger, Crockett, Tom, Pfeifer & Way, it was found that perceiving and silently processing an emotional image produced significantly more amygdala activity than if they were asked to linguistically encode what it made them feel (2007). In other words, this study showed that verbalising emotional experience calmed the amygdala and in turn regulated their most basic impulses and explosive feelings.
Barrett, L.F., Lindquist, K., Gendron, M. (2007). ‘Language as context for the perception of emotion’. Trends in Cognitive Science, 11(8), 327-332.
Kousta, S.T., Vigliocco, G., Vinson, D., Andrews, M., Del Campo, E. (2011). ‘The Representation of Abstract Words: Why Emotion Matters.’ Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 140(1), 14-34.
Lieberman, M., Eisenberger, N., Crockett, M., Tom, S., Pfeifer, J., Way, B. (2007). ‘Putting Feelings into Words: Affect Labeling Disrupts Amygdala Activity in Response to Affective Stimuli.’ Psychological Science, 18(5), 421-428.
Pons, F., Lawson, J., Harris, P. L. & de Rosnay, M. (2003). ‘Individual differences in children’s emotion understanding: Effects of age and language.’ Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 44, 347–353.