The perils of swearing in a foreign language

This post was contributed by Matt Davis, a postgraduate student in Applied Linguistics at Birkbeck. He tweets about language at @word_jazz.

As every Birkbeck student knows, 6.30pm on Friday night is not the best time to listen to an academic lecture. But if there is any serious sociolinguistic discussion that’s going to keep members of the public from their weekends, it’s one about swearing.

Jean-Marc Dewaele is a Professor of Bilingualism at Birkbeck. A Belgian polyglot, he knows a thing or two about the subject. He has spoken academically about the experience of bringing up his daughter in north London to be trilingual (fluent in French, Flemish and English). He is also winner of an annual award for the rudest title of an academic article (unrepeatable here, but more soberly subtitled ‘Language preferences for swearing among maximally proficient multilinguals’).

Closing the School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy’s series of events (‘To seek, to find, to live’) his lecture was about how speakers of a foreign language (what academics call ‘L2’) understand, experience and use taboo words in that language, and how it differs to how they swear in their first language (‘L1’).

Prof Dewaele described research, using lie detector technology, that shows we are uniformly less sensitive to the swear words we hear in our second language. He presented the results of his own survey of a number of proficient L2 speakers of English. In one question, they were asked to rank common English swear words according to what they thought was their relative level of power. This ranking was then compared to that by a group of native English speakers. Interestingly, L2 speakers of English tended to over-state the taboo of more benign words (like ‘idiot’), and under-state the taboo of some more powerful ones.

Prof Dewaele also introduced the idea of ‘sociopragmatic competence’ in a second language. This incorporates the idea that although it’s easy to learn a dictionary definition of a word – even taboo words – it takes experience to understand the various cultural values placed on that word by a society, and therefore where and when (if it all!) using it is appropriate.

Prof Dewaele is an engaging speaker and the talk was delivered with much humour as well as insight (sniggering among the audience was certainly not discouraged!) The talk was followed by a lively Q&A, where many people described their own experience in the subject. An American, now living in London, described how he had unwittingly caused great offence to a British family thanks to the greater emotional power of the expression ‘taking the piss’ in the UK. A lexicographer from the University of Portsmouth spoke about the nuances of writing taboo words into the dictionary.

So was it a better place to be than the pub? As a linguistics student, I certainly thought so but the test was whether my partner had found it interesting. A Canadian and native speaker of (North American) English, her mother tongue is actually Mandarin, but she has lived in UK for 6 years. She told me that she had enjoyed it too.

And did the findings of Prof Dewaele’s research fit her experience? I thought it through for a moment and realized I knew the answer: she never swears. As we had learned, when it comes to cursing in someone else’s language, it’s much safer that way.


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