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Arabic-speaking U.S. college students' comprehension of English emotional tone: a psychological anthropological approach




Bombaci, Brendan Muir, author
Snodgrass, Jeffrey G., advisor
Browne, Katherine E., committee member
Thaut, Michael H., committee member

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Emotional tone in Western languages (i.e., the Germanic and Romance group) is influenced by the Western musical scale. Studies have shown that as differences increase between Western and non-Western languages, overall comprehension of emotional gesture and emotional tone decreases (the “linguistic proximity” hypothesis), though ratios between percentages of perception correctness for different emotions is fairly universal (the “in-group advantage hypothesis”), revealing cross-cultural mechanisms that obscure or reveal certain emotions to outsiders. Training in Western music helps Western children and non-Western youth and adults to better recognize Western emotional tone. Social Anxiety and Major Depression have been correlated with reduced emotional tone comprehension, and music therapy is known to relieve these disorders’ symptomology. For Westerners and non-Westerners alike, musical exposure and training may help not only emotional tone proficiency but also mental well-being. Studying Arabic speakers’ comprehension of Western emotional tone was novel as an exhaustive search uncovered only two studies on emotional tone recognition by Arabic language speakers (using Web of Science and Academic Search Premiere). Also,here are strict sanctions in Islam on the relation of musical tones to emotion or kinesthetic action like dance (via the “tawhid” tenet), limiting conservative adherents’ Western media exposure and possibly affecting their vocal tone expression as well. My convenience-sampled study subjects were in gender-balanced groups: 12 Arabic international college students and 19 American college student controls. Research methods included (1) an English emotional tone discrimination test using recordings of one actor’s and one actress’ vocalizations of six emotionally different statements, accompanied by semi-structured and recorded debriefing interviews, (2) participant observation, and (3) quantitative survey instruments to measure cultural affinity (ARSAA II survey), musical genre affinity and performance experience, and mental health (DASS 42 survey). I performed descriptive statistical analysis on the quantitative data, and then theme analysis on the qualitative data to reveal both culturally shared and also personal reasons for response choices. The “linguistic proximity” hypotheses was validated for Arabic speakers, as Arabic students scored 50% lower than American students in accuracy on the emotional tone recognition tests, with Arabic females scoring lower than Arabic males. Statistically significant correlates to low emotion recognition scores include, in rank order, those of higher Arabic than American cultural affinity, those of higher Arabic compared to American musical affinity, English language experience, and anxiety level (the latter mostly with Saudi females). High affinity for Arabic culture may lead to integration issues relative to the American educational system and religious mandates forbidding developing certain kinds of interpersonal relationships; however, these associations may also simply reflectthe amount of time spent in America. Quantitative and qualitative data reveal various culturally relative and Arabic-only gender differences in perceptions of English-language encoded emotions. Some Arabic students preferred non-translatable emotional terms, and others said that speed and volume of speech might be more important than intonation for Arabic emotion expression and understanding. Nine out of the 12 (75%) of my Arabic subjects were Saudi Arabian and thus conservative Muslims with little exposure to Western tonalities (let alone “emotional” Arabic music). If their government were made aware of the importance of musical tonality in English language, Islamic “tawhid” strictures on musical expression and exposure might be lifted for students abroad. As it was, many Saudi students I met averred that they enjoyed one or more Western musical genres, which meant they would likely be receptive to such reforms. English language coursework could involve theater and dance attendance, where facial and gestural expressions generally matched dramatized vocal and musical elements. Better English language and emotion comprehension would facilitate better communication and well-being and thus augment students’ abilities to become ambassadors for the Arabic world and to find professional opportunities abroad.


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emotional tone
social anxiety


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