Knowing that we had been struggling with our strong-willed four year old’s emotional outbursts, my sister gave me a parenting book for my birthday. My sister, a yoga teacher and prospective counselling psychology student, could not have given me a better gift because it shows that she truly knew what we were lacking – emotional coaching skills.
The book Superpowers for Parents by Dr. Stephen Briers gives practical tips for parents to teach important skills to their kids and ensure emotional well-being and happiness. It has made me think about the importance of teaching children emotional literacy – the ability to understand their emotions, empathize with and listen to others and express their emotions productively. See this article from The Guardian to learn more about Dr. Briers’ work.
For parents and teachers, helping children to learn the vocabulary of feelings and to read emotions is just as important as teaching them to read and write. For more on the topic of teaching emotional literacy in schools see this edutopia blog post.
In which language do you feel?
Are feelings translatable? Perhaps feliz and happy evoke the same feelings for other bilingual speakers of Spanish and English, but do they really mean the same thing? I love etymology, so of course I looked these words up and as it turns out the English word happy and the Spanish word feliz both come from words that mean luck, chance or fortune (Middle English hap and Latin felix).
Just as multilingual blogger Madalena Cruz-Ferreira has written about the question “In which language do you think?”, if language and vocabulary are so integral to our individual understanding and expression of emotions, what happens when a child or person speaks two or more languages?
Ricky Ricardo, on the TV show I Love Lucy is referenced in this article for his use of code-switching because he would always begin speaking Spanish when he got upset. I remember when I was first able to have an argument in Spanish, it made me very excited to know that I was fluent enough to find the words and verbs to use even when overcome by emotion. This happened to me once at the airport in Mexico, I was very upset, and exhausted, and when my Spanish began to fail me I couldn’t have been more relieved when the customer service representative responded in English. It is very normal for multilinguals to choose one language over another in certain situations.
“Feelings” vocabulary times two
So far my daughter’s emotional vocabulary seems to be more extensive in English, her second language. This could be because we are living in Canada and the majority of our emotional literacy lessons take place in an English environment – whether on the playground or reading a story. She will almost always use feeling and mood words in English. Last night I asked her, in Spanish how the character in a book (written in Spanish) was feeling and she answered “sad”. It is important for her to be able to use emotional words in English, since she will be going to Kindergarten next September in Canada. However I do also hope to help her to use “Spanish feelings” to balance her two languages.
Drawing on research from psychology and linguistics, the researchers seek to better understand how using different languages to discuss and express emotions in a multilingual family might play an important role in children’s emotional development. They propose that the particular language parents choose to use when discussing and expressing emotion can have significant impacts on children’s emotional understanding, experience, and regulation.
It seems that for multilingual families the best thing to do is to be consistent. Despite being bilingual (and able to feel in two languages), I think that it might be best for me to identify my feelings in English and my wife in Spanish, that way our daughter will get an authentic representation of emotions in each language, and hopefully we can all become more emotionally literate.