A study reveals that fear does not speak English

A study reveals that fear does not speak English

A study jointly led by Albert Costa, ICREA researcher of the Center for Brain and Cognition, concludes that the mental and physical response to fear varies depending on whether the acquisition of this fear is framed in a context of a mother tongue or of a foreign language. The research was published on 18 January in the journal Scientific Reports and opens the doors to using foreign languages in psychological therapies.


The acquisition of fear has been studied for years, given its importance in the field of cognitive science and clinical psychology. A study carried out by researchers at Jaume I University, Pompeu Fabra University and Nebrija University published on 18 January in the Group’s journal Nature, Scientific Reports, concludes that the acquisition of fear can be seen to be directly affected by language context

The scientists have found that two of the most indicative mental and physical measures of the response to fear -the dilation of the pupils and the sweating of the skin- showed a lesser effect of conditioning to fear when participants were in a language context in which the prevailing language was the foreign language.

The team of researchers was led by Jon Andoni Duñabeitia, principal researcher at the Faculty of Languages and Education of Nebrija University (Madrid), by Albert Costa, ICREA research professor and director of the research group on Speech Production and Bilingualism (SPB) at the Center for Brain and Cognition (CBC) at Pompeu Fabra University (Barcelona), and Azucena García Palacios, researcher and professor of Psychopathology of Jaume I University (Castelló de la Plana).

The conditioning of fear is one of the paradigms with the greatest implications in the field of psychology, consisting of associating an initially neutral stimulus (for example, seeing an object of a particular colour) with a clearly aversive stimulus (for example, receiving an electric shock). In this way and by repeated exposure to the two stimuli, the neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus and people end up developing and showing fear at its mere presence. To be conditioned, there is no need to actually experience the electrical discharge, that is to say, the impact of the aversive stimulus, as it is enough to explain to an individual that this stimulus may take place to show a response of fear of the conditioned stimulus.

The study investigated whether the language in which the experiment it is carried out (native or foreign; Spanish or English, in this study) modulated people’s automatic response before the conditioned stimulus. Thus, they were asked to count down while they were shown squares of two colours. The participants believed that only in the presence of squares of a particular colour could they receive small electric shocks through a device that had been placed on them, although this never occurred in any of the cases. While half of the participants completed the protocol in their native language (Spanish), the other half did it in a foreign language in which they had a good level (English).

Using a device to record eye movements, the researchers recorded the dilation of the pupils before the conditioned and non-conditioned stimuli (the squares of colours), and also recorded the galvanic response by means of a system for measuring skin conductance, both very reliable indices of conditioning to fear.

The results were highly convincing: the people who completed the study in a foreign language showed a significantly lesser effect of conditioning to fear than those who completed it in their mother tongue. The magnitude of the effects of pupil dilation and sweating of the skin when faced with the conditioned stimuli in relation to non-conditioned ones was greater in the mother tongue context than in the foreign language context. For the authors of the study, “emotional reactivity is lower in a foreign language, and this makes us distance ourselves with greater ease from situations loaded with emotional content when the predominant language of the environment is the foreign one”.

Use of foreign languages as a psychotherapeutic tool

“Now we are closer to understanding how the intensity with which we experience our emotions can be affected by the language in which we interact”, states Albert Costa, and he believes that “these results may have implications for psychological therapies in which patients have problems to express their emotional experience in the face of traumatic events”.

The researchers are already working on new studies of an applied nature that purport to provide evidence in favour of the use of foreign languages as a psychotherapeutic tool. “These results open a new line to explore the usefulness of using a second language in psychological therapies as a method to decrease emotional intensity and in health areas where emotions may interfere in the decision-making process”, the authors of the study underline.

In the near future, the knowledge of this interaction between the language context and emotional reactivity in the face of highly intense situations may help to improve some therapies, changing language into a tool at the service of psychologists and psychiatrists. Thus, one of the next steps for the researchers will be to verify the effectiveness of the use of foreign languages in situations of manifest conflict between people, as well as in therapies aimed at extinguishing certain conditions that prevent people from living normally.

Reference work:

Azucena García-Palacios, Albert Costa, Diana Castilla, Eva del Río, Aina Casaponsa & Jon Andoni Duñabeitia (2018),  “The effect of foreign language in fear acquisition”, Scientific Reports, 8: 1157. DOI:10.1038/s41598-018-19352-8.