Original Paper

Journal of Nonverbal Behavior

, Volume 33, Issue 2, pp 107-120

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Recognizing Emotions in a Foreign Language

  • Marc D. PellAffiliated withSchool of Communication Sciences and Disorders, McGill University Email author 
  • , Laura MonettaAffiliated withSchool of Communication Sciences and Disorders, McGill University
  • , Silke PaulmannAffiliated withSchool of Communication Sciences and Disorders, McGill University
  • , Sonja A. KotzAffiliated withResearch Group on Neurocognition of Rhythm in Communication, Max Planck Institute of Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences


Expressions of basic emotions (joy, sadness, anger, fear, disgust) can be recognized pan-culturally from the face and it is assumed that these emotions can be recognized from a speaker’s voice, regardless of an individual’s culture or linguistic ability. Here, we compared how monolingual speakers of Argentine Spanish recognize basic emotions from pseudo-utterances (“nonsense speech”) produced in their native language and in three foreign languages (English, German, Arabic). Results indicated that vocal expressions of basic emotions could be decoded in each language condition at accuracy levels exceeding chance, although Spanish listeners performed significantly better overall in their native language (“in-group advantage”). Our findings argue that the ability to understand vocally-expressed emotions in speech is partly independent of linguistic ability and involves universal principles, although this ability is also shaped by linguistic and cultural variables.


Emotional speech processing Affective prosody Vocal expression Cultural factors Cross-linguistic group study