Metaphor, emotion and multilingualism

12.30-13.00 Sandwich lunch, 13.00-14.00 Talk

“She looked at him sweetly”
“She looked at him kindly”

What’s the difference between these two statements? The first is based on a metaphorical expression, while the second is based on a literal one.

Research shows that when native speakers, as well as language learners, read the first sentence, they engage more emotionally than when they read the second sentence. This discovery has dramatic consequences on political speech, marketing and other types of communication aiming to persuade.

Dr Francesca Citron (psycholinguist and neuroscientist at University of Lancaster) will address these questions and provide an overview of the latest scientific discoveries in the field, using examples taken from different languages. Her talk will be followed by an opportunity for questions.

Her most recent article on The Conversation can be found here:

The event is organised and hosted by Creative Multilingualism in collaboration with TORCH. Creative Multilingualism is a research programme led by the University of Oxford and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of the Open World Research Initiative.

Participation is free and open to the public. Lunch will be provided.

Please register your attendance on EventBrite:


The speaker
Francesca Citron is a psycholinguist and neuroscientist at the University of Lancaster. Her research currently focuses on the comprehension of figurative language (metaphors, idioms) and its associated brain responses. She also investigates topics related to language learning and second language processing.

The talk (Abstract)
The aims of this talk are to first give an overview of recent research from my lab, which showed that figurative language engages readers at the emotional level more strongly than literal language, and then present my current research on how second language speakers process figurative expressions compared to native speakers.
Our first study aimed to test whether comprehension of very common metaphors, e.g., She looked at him sweetly, activate concrete representations in the brain (such as the taste cortex) compared to their literal counterparts, i.e., She looked at him kindly, and we did find evidence in support of our hypothesis.
Interestingly, we also found that metaphorical formulations activated a brain structure called amygdala, which responds to emotionally salient stimuli, more strongly than their literal counterparts, despite the two stimuli having highly similar meaning and emotional content (Citron & Goldberg, 2014). We were able to replicate and generalise this finding to other metaphors, not restricted to the taste domain, and during more natural reading processes, i.e., reading natural stories (Citron et al., 2016). Furthermore, our findings are in line with a meta-analysis of 23 neuroimaging studies (Bohrn et al., 2012) and converge with evidence from physiological responses (Rojo et al., 2014).
Given that even highly common metaphors may be challenging for proficient second language (L2) speakers, and that they typically show more emotional distance from their L2, we investigated how they would process such expressions compared to native speakers. Surprisingly, unlike natives, L2 speakers showed no differentiation in the brain between metaphorical and literal sentences. This may be because they juggle multiple representations in response to both stimuli (metaphorical, literal, and L1 representations), while natives only do that in the case of metaphors (metaphorical and literal representations). However, when we restricted our analyses to the amygdala (region of interest), we did find stronger activation in response to increasing level of “metaphoricity” in L2 speakers too, meaning that they also get more engaged in response to metaphorical language.
I will discuss these results in more detail, link them to the existing research on multilinguals, and welcome any suggestions.