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Swearing in a second language is easier

Do you find yourself cursing more easily in French than your native tongue? If so, Catherine Caldwell-Harris, Psychology professor at Boston University in the US, knows why: emotional distance.

After extensive research into questions like whether or not jokes told in a foreign language are still funny, she is now studying the emotional impact of second languages and why people curse more readily in non-native tongues.

“Language taps into our memories so when we speak, we draw on those memories. We don’t speak word by word, we draw on phrases and concepts which we’ve heard in that language. It’s not well recognised, but language and culture are intimately linked,” she says.

“For example, when Korean woman living in the US meet up in groups, you might expect them to speak Korean but they don’t. They prefer to speak English because it’s less formal, and using it means there is less hierarchy within the group.”

She says that swearing in a foreign language is often easier because it has less emotional intensity. “If you grew up in a culture where swearing is more accepted, it has less emotional resonance.

“But in Japan, for example, swearing is so frowned upon that many Japanese people prefer to swear in English.”

She says a similar phenomenon is seen in romance: “In some cultures, people never say “I love you” to their parents, lovers, no-one... but once they are speaking English as a foreign language, they use it much more freely. So they’ll have an entire conversation in Japanese and then finish with “love ya”. Switching to another language gives them the freedom to say things they otherwise feel too inhibited to express.

“In such cultures, family is considered to be so close that you are not expected to have to cultivate close relationships with family members. Trying to do so would be seen as strange, seen as indicating that you don’t feel close to your family.

“But in societies like in the US, we are all individuals so we have to reach out to our close families and friends to create and maintain close bonds. So in English, it’s normal to say “I love you” and “sorry” all the time. It doesn’t carry the same emotional baggage.”

She says it works when we are on the receiving end, too. “When people swear at us in a foreign language, we’re not much troubled by it because the words are not loaded with cultural associations and personal memories. They are just words with little emotional resonance.

“But when foreigners swear at us in our own language, it can hurt badly because the use of the swear words evokes an emotional response in us. We feel that they are getting away with it, because they aren’t feeling the same emotional resonance.”

She vividly remembers being sworn at by a customs official in France once. “He spoke quite quietly, so no-one else heard but he used the c-word and I was completely shocked. I felt completely violated, it was far worse than if an English-speaker had used that language to me. But I had the feeling that to him it wasn’t that offensive and that even if he had understood just how hurtful it was to use that word to me, he didn’t care.”

But she says that to her the memory still hurts.

“What it comes down to is this: language is so linked to culture, memory and background that when a linguistic use shocks you, it’s because you’ve just come up against a cultural shock of one sort or another.”

It is a metaphorical slap in the face, just as it is, conversely, when you discover a delightful new idiom or phrase in a foreign language. It’s one of the pleasures of learning them.  

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