Bilinguals tend to be nastier in their second language, say researchers, without all that mother-tongue emotional baggage. Marta Gawinkowska and her Warsaw University team suspect that’s why second languages are a preferred medium for bilingual taboo talk.
Past research has shown that language switching for bilinguals often occurs when things start to get emotional. This phenomenon is called “emotion-related language choice” (ERLC), defined as “a language choice made by a bilingual person, either consciously or subconsciously, which is not conditioned by factors such as the environment (e.g. home/school/playground/workplace/pub…), but lies within their own, subjective preferences.“
To test that theory, the researchers set up a covert study with bilingual Polish-English college students. The students had no idea they were being tested for their propensity to talk trash in different languages.
The test began with a vocabulary quiz to make sure that the student’s English was up to speed. Next, a short translation task in both directions of some text with loaded terms. The participants then scored the dirty words in the source text so that researchers would know just how dirty the test-takers themselves thought the words were. Later, participants were sent the the same list of dirty words in the other language, and asked to score those for offensiveness too. The researchers found that in the Polish translations, the swear word equivalents used were weaker than in the source English text; but in the English translations, the translated terms was more offensive than were in the original.
Findings: “These results corroborate the ERLC theory. However, the effect was only observed for ethnophaulisms, i.e. expletives directed at social groups.” In other words, it’s easier to use insulting ethnic terms in a second language than it is to use them in the first, because people are more emotionally distant in their second language than in their mother tongue.
Still sounds basically context dependent to me. And when it comes to bad language, I consider myself something of an expert. Now, I never use bad language in Japanese because its really bad to do so, but on a good day in English I can do a bad word with practically every sentence. Am I emotionally distant in Japanese? Well, yes. Isn’t everybody? But I think it has more to do with what kind of language is appropriate in a particular context. After all, I am a fucking New Yorker.
Further investigation along profane lines brings me to ‘Christ fucking shit merde!’, Jean-Marc Dewaels’ study of the cursing habits of “maximally proficient multilinguals.” These are the guys with the linguistic chops to curse with perfect multilingual ease. Dewaels discovered that no matter what a bilingual may boast about their second-language cursing skill, they always curse in the first language when they really mean business.
The chart below is from Language and Emotion in the Bilingual Brain by Catherine Harris, (links to a PowerPoint download) which illustrates how the power of bad language for multilinguals declines in each additional language.
Please take a moment to share your own experiences with multilingual anger management in your comments below, so that the rest of us can laugh at you.