Abstract Living in high expressed emotion (EE) environments tends to increase the relapse rate in schizophrenia (SZ). At present, the neural substrates responsible for high EE in SZ remain poorly understood. Functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) may be of great use to quantitatively assess cortical hemodynamics and elucidate the pathophysiology of psychiatric disorders. In this study, we designed novel low- (positivity and warmth) and high-EE (criticism, negative emotion, and hostility) stimulations, in the form of audio, to investigate cortical hemodynamics. We used fNIRS to measure hemodynamic signals while participants listened to the recorded audio. Healthy controls (HCs, $$n=42$$ n = 42 ) showed increased hemodynamic activation in the major language centers across EE stimulations, with stronger activation in Wernicke’s area during the processing of negative emotional language. Compared to HCs, people with SZ ( $$n=41$$ n = 41 ) exhibited smaller hemodynamic activation in the major language centers across EE stimulations. In addition, people with SZ showed weaker or insignificant hemodynamic deactivation in the medial prefrontal cortex. Notably, hemodynamic activation in SZ was found to be negatively correlated with the negative syndrome scale score at high EE. Our findings suggest that the neural mechanisms in SZ are altered and disrupted, especially during negative emotional language processing. This supports the feasibility of using the designed EE stimulations to assess people who are vulnerable to high-EE environments, such as SZ. Furthermore, our findings provide preliminary evidence for future research on functional neuroimaging biomarkers for people with psychiatric disorders.