Why do we swear more readily in French?

Minding your language may be trickier for bilinguals - but there is a reason behind it

Researchers want to learn why swearing or 'over-sharing' comes so easily to bilinguals

Do you swear more liberally when speaking French? Or perhaps you ‘over-share’ intimate details about your life to relative strangers when not using your native tongue?

If so, you are not alone - scientists believe such behaviour is common because we attach less emotional weight to any language that is not our own. It even has a name: reduced emotional resonance.

Wilhelmiina Toivo, a Finnish doctoral student reading psychology at the University of Glasgow, carried out a research project on the subject following her own experiences when she first moved to Scotland.

"Swearing and talking about my emotions was not only easy because the other students were comfortable with each other, or because I felt free to be away from home. The effect I observed was deeper, affecting a significant number of people living in plurilingual contexts," she said on a Guardian forum.

“Many multilingual people have the impression of “feeling less” in their second language, which does not carry the same "emotional weight" as the mother tongue,” said Ms Toivo. “By feeling less emotionally tied to the language that is spoken, one can more easily swear and / or relate details of one's private life. The scientific term for this is "reduced emotional resonance of language”.”

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The phenomenon, she added, is "rather well established", but many aspects "remain mysterious", which is why further research is required.

To try to establish the causal links between the language and the emotional reactions of those who speak it, the researcher uses a technique that analyses eye movements when bilinguals are presented with the words "representing emotions" in their mother tongue.

"Typically, someone who is faced with emotionally charged words or images will have dilated pupils under the impulse of a strong and uncontrollable emotion. Previous research has already shown that the effect was lessened on people confronted with their second language, less emotionally charged. "

The challenge of such research, she says, is to better understand the experience of migration and adaptation to another culture. Even those who have mastered the second language may feel isolated because the world around them is structured in a different language. Or they might feel clumsy or unpolished because they do not use the right words.

However, there are positive aspects to reduced emotional resonance, said Ms Toivo. For example, bilinguals can benefit from the fact that they are less "emotionally invested", and make better, more rational decisions in the second language. Bilingual couples may also find it easier to express their emotions, as they can move from one language to another.

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