Category Archives: Mummy’s Word

Once more, with feeling: life as bilingual

Finnish-born PhD student Wilhelmiina Toivo, from the University of Glasgow School of Psychology, has won the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) 2016 -17 writing competition Making Sense of Society, in partnership with SAGE Publishing.

l-r: Martin Rosenbaum, ESRC Council member and an executive producer in the BBC Political Programmes department; Wilhelmiina Toivo; and Dr Alan Gillespie, Chair of the ESRC

Brought up in Helsinki, Finland, Wilhelmiina came to Glasgow in 2011 to study psychology as an undergraduate student; last year she completed a Master of Science in Psychology and is currently six months into her PhD.

The competition, which is now in its second year, celebrates and fosters the writing skills of the next generation of social scientists. This year students were asked to write 800 words about why their research matters, and how it helps us make sense of and understand the society in which we live. There were nearly 300 entries which demonstrated the incredible breadth and depth of social science research taking place across the UK. Topics ranged from Big Data, to climate change, class, immigration, dementia, the economy and education. You can find all the winning entries here: Making Sense of Society

Entrants were encouraged to temporarily take off their academic hat, and write in a style different to what they might be used to, using their imagination to think of new ways to capture the interest of the public. A wise requirement, as academic writing, frankly, is incredibly tedious to read and it appears designed to exclude all but the chosen few. And no doubt it contributes a great deal to the failure to transfer knowledge from research into practice.

In her winning essay Once more, with feeling: life as bilingual, Wilhelmiina Toivo wrote about her experiences growing up in Scotland speaking English as a second language, and how speaking in her non-native tongue gave her a sense of liberation when it came to swearing and discussing her emotions. This personal insight linked well to her PhD research project, which focuses on why many bilinguals report feeling less emotionally connected to their second language, a phenomenon known as the ‘reduced emotional resonance of language’.

Below is the essay written by Wilhelmiina Toivo that made her joint winner with Lauren White, from the University of Sheffield. Wilhelmiina’s research caught my attention because I can relate on some level. With English as my second language, I find that the emotional force of swearwords and taboo (S-T) words is much stronger in my native language, so I switch to that when I really need to unload! It also helps that people around me can’t understand me then 🙂 And that is despite the fact that my entire life now unfolds in English and I think (and probably dream) in English. I also find it much easier to discuss some subjects in English, they don’t carry the same emotional weight as they do when I try to discuss them in my native language.

To take a short tangent now, it turns out even if you learn a second language to a very high standard, you’ll never speak it like a native unless you were exposed to it by around the age of eight. This is mirrored by brain scans. Languages you learn after eight go into a subtly different area of the brain to those acquired earlier.

Due to the complex nature, and often diverse subject matter, the value of social science research is too often overlooked or called into question, despite its significant impact on society. It turns out using a foreign language reduces decision-making biases. Four experiments show that the framing effect disappears when choices are presented in a foreign language. Whereas people were risk averse for gains and risk seeking for losses when choices were presented in their native language, they were not influenced by this framing manipulation in a foreign language. Two additional experiments showed that using a foreign language reduces loss aversion, increasing the acceptance of both hypothetical and real bets with positive expected value. The hypothesis is that these effects arise because a foreign language provides greater cognitive and emotional distance than a native language does.

Once more, with feeling: life as bilingual, by Wilhelmiina Toivo

My dad had a rather liberal philosophy of bringing up children, but he would always tell us off for swearing. As a result, I grew up feeling very uncomfortable using swearwords. Or, at least, so I thought – when I first moved to Scotland, I noticed that it was actually very easy to swear in English. Interestingly enough, I also found it easy to talk to my flatmates about topics that felt too intimate to discuss in my native tongue. In a flat of seven girls from all over Europe, we discussed the full magnitude of emotions and topics; the fears of living abroad, falling in and out of love, death, sex – everything. Swearing and talking about these emotions was not easy just because of the inherent rowdiness of the student community, or because we felt liberated being away from home for the first time. The effect I was observing is something that goes deeper and touches a huge number of people who live in multilingual settings.

Language is so much more than just a communication device; it is a way to understand the world around us

Many bilinguals report ‘feeling less’ in their second language; it does not bear the same emotional weight as your native language. Feeling less emotionally connected to your second language might make it easier to use highly emotional vocabulary, which is precisely what I was experiencing with my ease of swearing and talking about sensitive topics in English. The scientific term for this is ‘reduced emotional resonance of language’. It is a fairly well-established phenomenon, but many specific questions still remain unanswered. For example, what exactly makes one’s second language less emotional? How does this affect different immigrant communities? My research project aims to address these questions by looking into the reasons and implications of reduced emotional resonance in bilinguals’ second language.

It is still unclear what exactly shapes emotional resonance of a language and in what way – results thus far have been inconclusive. In the first part of my project we are exploring which factors in a person’s language background contribute to reduced emotional resonance. For example, is it influenced by the age at which you have learnt your second language? Does it matter how frequently and in which context you use the language? Or is your emotional experience of a language predictable from whether you dream or can do maths in it?

To investigate these questions, my project uses eye-tracker technology to measure bilinguals’ pupil responses to emotional words in English. Typically, when shown highly emotional words or pictures, people’s pupils dilate as an uncontrollable, emotional reaction. Previous research has shown the effect is smaller in bilinguals’ second language, which suggests reduced emotional resonance. Understanding the reasons why this happens can, in turn, help us explain how you experience a foreign language community, and how this could be taken into account in acculturation and adaptation.

Wittgenstein said: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” This is particularly true for your second language. For fluent bilinguals living in a community where their native language is not
spoken, reduced emotional resonance sets ‘the limits of the world’. While your language skills can be more than adequate, not being able to fully structure your surroundings through language might leave you feeling alienated; not a part of the society you live in. Or perhaps you are perceived as rude or socially awkward for using the wrong words in the wrong emotional context.

Many bilinguals report ‘feeling less’ in their second language

However, not all the implications of reduced emotional resonance are negative – bilinguals can actually benefit from being able to approach things in a less emotionally involved way. For example, bilinguals have been shown to be able to make more rational decisions in their second language. Also, switching languages can be used as a tool in therapy when working through emotionally difficult or traumatising experiences. Imagine how it would be if it were easier to talk about your emotions with your partner – maybe bilingual couples have a communicative advantage? Ultimately, understanding the full scale of implications of reduced emotional resonance is a way to understand how bilinguals experience the world.

In the increasingly globalising world where studying abroad, immigration and sojourning are more and more common, as well as pervasive issues in international politics, understanding the realities of bi- and multilingual people is crucial. Being bilingual no longer means just being exposed to two languages from birth – it can refer to a person who uses two languages in their everyday life, regardless of their level of fluency. As the number of people with versatile language backgrounds grows, understanding all aspects of language and how these mediate our lives become important. Language is so much more than just a communication device; it is a way to understand the world around us, defining our reality and what it actually means to be human.

Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart

Is the name of one of our favourite books, by Dr Gordon Livingston. Written in 2004, Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart, a variation on a Dutch proverb, is a work dealing with human issues that has been translated into 22 languages.

The book includes essays on what Dr. Livingston called 30 bedrock truths. Among them:

  • Any relationship is under the control of the person who cares the least.
  • Only bad things happen quickly.
  • Forgiveness is a form of letting go, but they are not the same thing.
  • The statute of limitations has expired on most of our childhood traumas.
  • If the map doesn’t agree with the ground, then the map is wrong.
  • The problems of the elderly are frequently serious but seldom interesting.

He got that last one from a New Yorker cartoon and worried that the old folks would be offended. But the point was that people die, bodies fail and nonstop complaining only isolates the elderly at a time when they need people the most.

Dr Livingston died a year ago this month and we have to hope that he has left us with enough wisdom to guide us forward. To read him is to trust him and to learn, for his life has been touched by fire, and his motives are absolutely pure. (Mark Helprin)

As a practising psychiatrist, he prescribed virtues like courage to his patients instead of tranquilizers or antidepressants. In his books he told us all what we need to do to develop personal virtues in the face of societal fear – and our own individual fears. And he did this with the crystalline prose and leavening wit that have made him an internationally bestselling author.

He told us we are accustomed to thinking about character in the most superficial ways. “He has a lot of personality” is usually a statement about how engaging or entertaining someone is. In fact, the formal definition of personality includes our habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and relating. to others. Most of us understand that people differ in certain characteristics, such as introversion, fondness for detail, tolerance for boredom, willingness to be helpful, determination, and a host of other personal qualities. What most people fail to realize, however, is that the qualities we value — kindness, tolerance, capacity for commitment — are not randomly distributed. They tend to exist as constellations of “traits” that are recognizable and reasonably stable over time.

Likewise, those attributes of character that are less desirable — impulsivity, self-centeredness, quickness to anger — often cluster in discernible ways. The psychiatric profession has taken the trouble to categorize personality disorders. Dr Livingston used to say he often thought that this section of the diagnostic manual ought to be titled “People to avoid”. The many labels contained herein —histrionic, narcissistic, dependent, borderline, and so on — form a catalogue of unpleasant persons: suspicious, selfish, unpredictable, exploitative. These are the people your mother warned you about. (Unfortunately, sometimes they are your president.) They seldom exist in the unalloyed form suggested by the statistical manual, but knowing something about how to recognize them would save a lot of heartbreak and bad decisions.

We are what we do. In judging other people we need to pay attention not to what they promise but how they behave… We are drowning in words, many of which turn out to be the lies we tell ourselves or others.

If every misfortune can be blamed on someone else, we are relieved of the difficult task of examining our own contributory behavior or just accepting the reality that life is and has always been full of adversity. Most of all, by placing responsibility outside ourselves, we miss out on the healing knowledge that what happens to us is not nearly as important as the attitude we adopt in response.

What would be useful is a manual of virtuous character traits that describes qualities to nurture in ourselves and to seek in our friends and leaders. At the top of the list would be kindness, a willingness to give of oneself to another. This most desirable of virtues governs all the others, including a capacity for empathy and love. Like other forms of art, we may find it hard to define, but when we are in its presence, we feel it.

This is the map we wish to construct in our heads: a reliable guide that allows us to avoid those who are not worthy of our time and trust and to embrace those who are. The best indications that our always-tentative maps are faulty include feelings of sadness, anger, betrayal, surprise and disorientation. It is when these feelings surface that we need to think about our mental instrument of navigation and how to correct it, so that we do not fall into the repetitive patterns of those who waste the learning that is the only consolation for our painful experience.

He was spared the events of last 12 months, but he left us his wisdom on the subject. We have to identify those among us who are qualified to lead and teach us. They must be intelligent and devoted to the principles of kindness, tolerance and hope. If, instead, we elevate those who are stupid or arrogant (or both) we will then get the future we deserve.

A Feast for Mum

A Feast For Mum

A Feast For Mum

Looks like we are taking over the strawberry kingdom too…

A Feast For Mum

Oh, I love it! I can smell the Cointreau in the panettone!

A Feast For Mum

Looks like Santa will get cherries this year instead of milk and cookies.

A Feast For Mum

Hmmm, this has cherries but it doesn’t look like desert.

A Feast For Mum

Puffles, have been playing chef again?

A Feast For Mum

It’s a supersalad! It has sweet potatoes, full of carotenoids, vitamin C, potassium and fibre; sweet cherries, full of antioxidants, potassium and fibre; goat cheese, high in vitamins A, D, K, thiamine and niacin plus B vitamin riboflavin and phosphorous; kale, full of beta carotene, iron, folate and fibre; and pistachios, full of healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids.

A Feast for Mum

Let’s have the cherry trifle! It’s full of brandy, custard and cream goodness 🙂

A Feast For Mum

Your body is away from me but there is a window open from my heart to yours.
From this window, like the moon I keep sending news secretly.


The Real Story of the Hiking Adventure

The Real Story of Hiking the Scenic Rim

Not to take anything away from little Puffles and Jay’s grand hiking adventure, but their experience is not exactly typical of those who hike the Scenic Rim. And not just because nobody else climbed trees 🙂

To be clear, this was luxury hiking, which is why little Puffles and Jay went on this adventure, but the luxury came at the end of the day, after some serious hiking. We had no problem understanding the luxury aspects of the adventure 🙂 but it turns out we had no idea what the hiking part of the adventure entailed. My good intentions about my fitness level did not translate into sufficient action on the matter, but at least I managed to prepare with the right gear. Although my idea of wearing in my hiking boots was to wear them to the office for a couple of days. Well, it worked! But I don’t recommned this approach. Too much reliance on sheer damn luck that it will all work out.

Over the three days we hiked around 35km, hiked up about 1100m the first day and 1200m on the third day (in total we climbed the equivalent of over three times the Empire State Building – that is 102 floors three times over!), and we hiked over rocks and trees and everything else that got in the way. While carrying a backpack!

The Real Story of Hiking the Scenic Rim

The first two days went by somehow with awe at the stunning views of the Scenic Rim, getting to know fellow hikers and our two amazing guides and with Puffles and Jay providing a suitable distraction with their antics 🙂 At the end of the two days we enjoyed the comforts of Spicers Canopy and the wonderful cooking of Rachel and Josh. In the meantime the temperature was dropping steadily and the wind was increasing just as steadily and exponentially! The first night at Spicers Canopy there were fleeting thoughts of the tents being blown away and this joke came to mind: “I wake up staring at the stars and wondering – Where the heck is my tent?” At this point I must mention that despite the freezing temperatures, we did not feel cold at night. The bed was simply wonderful and wonderfully warm, also helped by the hot water bottles from the hot water bottle fairy 🙂

Before long the third day arrived, and the biggest challenge of the hike. By now all illusions of lush rolling hills and pleasant walks (think Julie Andrews in the hills in the Sound of Music) had well and truly been crashed by reality. All muscles between my toes, now with a few blisters, and my gluteus maximus were sore like they had never been before. On a side note, I went to a fitness boot-camp a few years back, and it was a walk in the park compared to this hike. The temperature had dropped to somewhere around freezing and the wind was blowing at gale force speeds.

The Real Story of Hiking the Scenic Rim

So when we left on the third day at the bright and early time of 8am, I was quite apprehensive, and dressed for a blizard. And I was still cold! Around 10am we checked the temperature and the wind, and it was 8°C that felt like 5°C and the wind speed was 41km/h!

Incredibly, there was one advantage to being that cold. I could no longer feel my legs! I lost count of how many times I thought I was not going to make it on that third day. But then options were seriously limited. As in only one available, to take a deep breath and keep going forward, one step at a time. It’s just over one day later and I am already asking myself if it ever happened. But five other brave adventurers, two amazing guides and a whole lot of photos all say that it did happen. Not to mention an impressive collection of bruises (and that’s just the ones I can see!), a tender right ankle (from overflexing) and all the hiking gear in my suitcase!

If like Honey and Isabelle you are asking “What did you do that for?” the answer is, the only way to stay at Spicers Canopy is to do the hike. The only other way is to hire the entire site. I know, I asked! With short-cuts not available, we joined the hike. Would I have done it if I had known how hard it was going to be? I would like to think so, but hopefully I would have prepared better. Although as it was pointed out, we all made it despite being surprised by the level of the challenge! The limiting factor turned out to be not my leg muscles, but the ability of my heart to pump blood fast enough to the working muscles and of my lungs to oxygenate the blood to the level required by the effort involved. With no control over involuntary and cardiac muscle, the only way to manage was to stop and wait until breathing and heart rate came down a bit before taking off again. Right now the experience feels surreal.

The Real Story of Hiking the Scenic Rim

Spicers Peak Lodge is a luxury retreat for adults, quiet and dignified. The arrival of six euphoric hikers and two little bears 🙂 totally shattered the silence and the formality of the atmosphere. The formality was further shattered by four little bears running around the lodge 🙂 checking everything out. While Puffles, Honey, Isabelle and Jay were sitting on the couch in the lounge all dressed up for dinner, some other guests arrived, looked at them and said to some of the staff, there are teddy bears on the couch! I did not hear the response.

Now that it’s over I am certainly glad I did it. It was an amazing experience, exhilarating, thrilling, intoxicating! Yes, I know, they are all synonyms. And I am talking about the hike, not just the special treatment at Spicers Canopy and Spicers Peak Lodge. The icing on the cake (and we do like cake!) was all the people we met on this adventure. They made the experience a truly unforgettable adventure.

The Real Story of Hiking the Scenic Rim

We’ll talk about the dense rainforest of Spicers Peak, with giant ferns and awe-inspiring 1,000-year-old hoop pines, about the panoramic views of Spicers Gap and the Great Dividing Range in a future post. Right now we are going to celebrate little Puffles big day with a royal high tea. Stay tuned for photos 🙂