Emotion plays a pivotal role in language acquisition and language acquisition plays a pivotal role in emotional intelligence
Frustrated, heartbroken, deflated, elated. Acquiring emotion words is a crucial stepping-stone in the process of understanding abstract concepts. This is because words that describe emotional states, moods or feelings provide examples of how a word may refer to things that exist without being observable.
Typically developing children learn words for concrete objects before learning words for abstract concepts because the latter are significantly more difficult to pinpoint. So children begin by mapping real world, observable objects to their corresponding words. However, the 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. Learning emotional vocabulary allows children to understand that it’s possible to name things that are not tangible, but are just as real.
Mapping a world of words: The more words children know, the better they can become at discerning the different emotions they feel
The benefits of learning emotion-related words go beyond the acquisition of abstract words. Feelings and emotions are a spectrum which exists independently of the labels we give them. They are much like colour: we conceptualise feelings and emotions according to the finite number of words our language gives us, but in reality, there is an infinite number of feelings between these labels. In other words, just like there could be a million different shades of blue, which we still call “blue”, there could be a million shades of “happiness” that we still call so.
From this, it follows that the more terms we have for describing the finer distinctions between emotions, the better equipped we are to recognise a variety of emotions. Put differently, the more emotional words we know, the more precise our emotional awareness and understanding can be. This is why aiding children with language proficiency and exposing them to a variety of emotion words plays a role in helping them develop an understanding of their own emotions as well as those of others.
The more words children know, the better they can become at discerning the different emotions they feel. Indeed, according to a scientific study, individual differences in children’s emotional understanding were independent of their age, but were closely related to their language ability. In fact, their language ability alone was responsible for 27% to 28% of the variance in their emotional understanding. This difference is difficult to ignore.
Verbalising emotional experiences calms down our brain and regulates our explosive feelings.
Another key benefit of learning emotion words is that expressing our feelings has calming down effects and allows us to process them more efficiently. Although this was previously hypothesised - after all, who doesn’t feel better after venting to a friend - it was recently shown accurate by neuroimaging studies.
In an fMRI study, participants were asked to observe emotional images; the researchers then studied the activity in the area of the brain that’s responsible for emotions (the amygdala). They then compared the brain activity of participants that were asked to silently process the emotional images, to the brain activity of participants that were asked to linguistically express how the emotional image made them feel. The results showed that participants who didn’t express their emotions through language exhibited significantly more intense brain activity than participants who were asked to express what the image made them feel. In other words, this study showed that verbalising emotional experiences calms down our brain and regulates our explosive feelings!
 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.
 Barrett, L.F., Lindquist, K., Gendron, M. (2007). ‘Language as context for the perception of emotion’. Trends in Cognitive Science, 11(8), 327-332.
 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.
 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.