Verbal dynamite: how swearing differs between first and foreign language users

Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele from the Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication recalls his experience of learning the strength of swear words after moving to the UK, and his research on how the use and perceived offensiveness of words differs between first and foreign users of English. 

When I arrived in the French department at Birkbeck in October 1994, after having finished my PhD on French interlanguage at the Free University of Brussels, I was well aware of a number of aspects of the English language that I was still struggling with: prepositions, the pronunciation of certain words, some verbal constructions… I was unaware of gaps in my knowledge of taboo words, appropriate communication of emotion, the distance between British speakers (one arm length, rather than half an arm’s length like on the continent) and general avoidance of physical contact with interlocutors. I picked up most of these things gradually, through the observation of my colleagues and students.  My neighbour, a librarian at Senate House, was kind enough to proofread my papers until I became more sure-footed in academic English. I realised that I would never get rid of my French-Dutch accent in English and decided that I could live with that – even if it involves answering the regular and rather tedious question ‘where are you from?’ to which I invariably answer ‘London’ and then add ‘from Belgium originally’.  My English vocabulary grew, with the exception of words that were bleeped out on radio and television or censured in the newspapers.  I had no idea what was meant with b****, b******, c***, d***, though I guessed that f*** meant ‘fuck’.

My colleagues, students and friends were too well educated to use such words in conversation, the words were unprintable and they did not figure in the English word lists at my secondary school in Bruges.  How then, I wondered, was I, a foreign language user, supposed to learn these vibrant dark words? I asked a colleague in the Applied Linguistics department, Dr Macolm Edwards, what he considered to be the worst English taboo word.  He looked at me quizzically and remained silent. I encouraged him, telling him that we were applied linguists after all and that we could deal with the dark linguistic stuff.  He straightened his back, looked at me and said: ‘I couldn’t possibly tell you but I can spell it out: c – u – n- t’.  ‘Cunt?!’ I repeated.  He jumped back as stung by a wasp. ‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘mighty word indeed’.

I told him that French and Dutch have cognates ‘con’ and ‘kont’ that are not nearly as powerful and wondered why some words that share the same origin become taboo whereas others don’t quite manage to join that league.  This conversation happened in the mid-2000s when I was busy working on how multilinguals used their different languages to express particular emotions. One of the striking findings was that languages learnt later in life typically felt disembodied and that emotion words in these languages lacked the emotional force of equivalent words in multilinguals’ first language(s).

I decided then to focus on specific negative emotion-laden words in one language, English, and to invite first (L1) and foreign language (LX) users to rate their offensiveness and frequency of use. The aim was to have a wide range in offensiveness, from relatively mild words such as ‘fruitcake’ and ‘idiot’ to really taboo words and expressions such as ‘fucking hell’ and ‘cunt’. There are also questions about general frequency of swearing in English with various categories of interlocutor.  More than two thousand English L1 and LX users participated in the study. English LX users reported swearing significantly less in English than L1 users, possibly because of a lack of emotional resonance of the LX or because they had other languages to swear in. High levels of Psychoticism, Extraversion and Neuroticism were linked with more swearing in English among both L1 and LX users. The level of English proficiency, the frequency of use, early onset and context of the acquisition were linked to swearing among LX users.

The analysis of differences between L1 and LX users for the 30 words and expressions yielded some unexpected findings. As expected, L1 users reported more frequent use of the highly offensive words.  However, rather than underestimating offensiveness, LX users significantly overestimated the offensiveness of 29 out of the 30 words.  The only word they underestimated was ‘cunt’ – the most offensive word in the list. I have argued that the word is so offensive that it is invisible in the press and used quite rarely by L1 users which means that LX users have few opportunities to acquire a complete semantic and conceptual representation of the word. They may therefore wrongly believe that ‘cunt’ is just another swear word, not perceiving the second red flag known to all L1 users. Use of the word was found to be linked to personality with participants scoring high on Extraversion, Neuroticism and Psychoticism reporting more frequent use of the word.

To conclude, the dark side of English is a bit like the dark side of the moon to those who are not astronauts: full of fascinating, mysterious and potentially dangerous features.

Dewaele’s most recent research into swearing – “Cunt: On the perception and handling of verbal dynamite by L1 and LX users of English” is published by Multilingua. 

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The Medical History of Speech Disorders

microphone-1716069_1920Dr Marjore Lorch from Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication talks to us about her recent investigation into the first recorded case of spasmodic dysphonia (SD) – a condition in which  involuntary spasms in the tiny muscles of the larynx cause the voice to break up, or sound strained, tight, strangled, breathy, or whispery. The below interview is adapted from an interview given to the National Spasmodic Dysphonia Association and published in their newsletter Our Voice, 2016, 26 (1) 14-15.

What did this piece of research entail?

Together with Dr Renata Whurr, I investigated the very first case of spasmodic dysphonia that is regularly cited in the current research literature. We found that the picture presented by this patient, translated from German in the 1870s, was not what it seemed. The clinical description was not consistent with our current view and it is likely that the patient didn’t actually have SD. Subsequently, we discovered that research by a British clinician, writing at the same time, contained observations very similar to our current characterization.

How did you get involved in historical research?

I was fortunate to have teachers throughout my training who stressed that the way to understand neurogenic disorders, observed clinically, was to go back and read earlier descriptions to understand how syndromes were characterized by the perspective of the observers which changed over time.

Can you explain how historical research impacts current and future research?

I believe that applied medical history can contribute important insights into current clinical issues. This method puts a spotlight on understanding the way assumptions, concerns and questions change over time and how that influences the types of answers that are pursued. This kind of approach may be particularly useful in making progress on points that have been debated over the years by analyzing the types of symptoms that have been considered central to different formulations in the past. For example, whether clinicians considered SD to be psychogenic or neurogenic has changed over time. To develop a more nuanced and detailed picture to drive forward future avenues of research, it is valuable to go back and review historical observations. It can be a source of inspiration to revisit previous hypotheses and characterizations. The benefit is that it may produce a reassessment of things that were held as unquestioned assumptions.

What drew you to spasmodic dysphonia research?

I began my involvement with spasmodic dysphonia research in the early 1990s through my work with Dr Renata Whurr who was head of Speech and Language Therapy at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery at Queen Square London. Over the years we have collaborated on a variety of aspects regarding SD. Initially, this was focused on treatment. However, I later became interested in the linguistics aspects of the problem. We investigated how the vocal cord movement disorder interacted with the articulatory properties of different languages. One important finding drew attention to the fact that speakers with SD will have different vocal symptoms depending on what language they speak. For example, the diagnostic features of SD for English will not adequately describe the characteristics of French SD speakers. Put more simply, if you have SD, your symptoms will be slightly different depending on the language you speak.

What has surprised you the most about researching the history of spasmodic dysphonia?

When my colleague, Dr Whurr, and I went back to the original case of SD reported in the 1870s that is still cited today, we were amazed to find that the individual didn’t have a voice disorder that we would recognize as SD. This research revealed the common practice of perpetuating a reference to historical literature without necessarily going back to the source. The selection of emblematic cases is also influenced by the assumptions held by the researcher. Our work highlighted how a particular view of the past may be colored by present day biases. In this instance, a strong belief in Freudian psychology in the mid-20th century may have played a part in choosing a historical case that was formulated as “hysterical”. It also highlighted how more significant and worthwhile observations may not be promoted, because of social rather than scientific reasons. By reading the 19th century literature, we recovered important observations about SD that had been lost to posterity.

How do you think this research will help people with SD?

Our research has highlighted the contribution of the 19th-century clinician, Morell Mackenzie, who described the particular sound of a person’s voice, which will lead directly to the diagnosis of SD. This is of vital importance as there is often a long delay in diagnosing SD. It is important to recognize that changes in voice may be the only symptom of this neurogenic disorder.

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What’s in an umlaut?

This post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

It sometimes seems as if the news is made up of either cataclysmically large or vanishingly small issues. There are quite enough of the former to worry about at the moment, you might think – and the latter – the ‘human interest’ stories – are just there to sell newspapers.

UmlautIn theory, they do not get much smaller than the argument, reported in this week’s papers, which is raging in a small town in Minnesota.

Lindström was founded by Swedish immigrants in the 19th century. The reason for the current battle is that the Minnesota Department of Transportation has decreed that the town name should consist only of ‘standard English characters’. Therefore the umlaut, i.e. the two dots above the o, has been omitted from the sign. The inhabitants are up in arms over this – apparently petty – issue.

It is interesting to look beyond the apparently trivial casus belli and consider the deeper issues at stake. Is it possible that someone in the Transportation Department is ‘anti-immigrant’, or at least very right wing (in European terms)?

They may be a supporter of the ‘English Only’ movement, which argues that immigrants should integrate linguistically. Rather than being encouraged to maintain their language of origin, which linguistic studies have shown time and time again to be beneficial to their OVERALL linguistic proficiency AND to their wellbeing, in some states they are instead obliged to take additional remedial English classes.

In this case, the immigrants in question have long ago been eaten by the worms; the umlaut-supporters are merely symbolically honouring their distant ancestors, and their own origins.

The kindest interpretation of the Department’s refusal to add the umlaut is that they just want an easy life and cannot be bothered with the idiosyncacies of the local population, which necessitate additional signwriting resources. But I suspect the issue is related to their convictions about what it means to be American.

Whichever it is, the importance of the umlaut for the population clearly goes well beyond its tiny presence on the town sign. Like so many linguistic issues, it can only be understood in terms of the link between language and identity. Crush my language, my accent, my alphabet, my name, and you deprive me of my individuality, my history, my sense of belonging to a particular group.

In Alsace under the German Occupation, Jean had to become Hans and François had to become Fritz – on pain of serious punishment. Europeans joining Islamic State change their names to Islamic ones. In this case, a Swedish name which indexes the heritage of the town is being bleached into an English name. Perhaps next year it could have an e added at the end, then why not remove the ‘str’ and replace it with an h? ‘Lindhome’ would sound as American as apple pie.

Of course none of this matters a single jot compared with the big issues in the news – until you start to realise that language is one of the main ways in which our identity is expressed. Languages, words, names – and people’s expressed wishes about them – should not, and cannot, be swept under the carpet – or painted out on signs.

Find out more about Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros

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Why “younger” is not always “better” in foreign language learning

TProfessor Jean-Marc Dewaelehis post was contributed by Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communications.

Politicians can be forgiven for not having much time to read the fine print when asking advisers to translate research findings into workable policies. Or does it work the other way round? Do politicians decide on policies first and subsequently ask advisers for appropriate research findings to back up the policy?  This seems the case when considering the wide consensus across the world about the benefits of early introduction of foreign languages (FLs) in pupils’ school curriculum. The expression “younger is better” in education sounds perfectly plausible, is simple and convincing, and must be a vote winner.

In the UK, FLs used to be introduced in secondary education. Estelle Morris, then Secretary of State for Education, changed this policy in 2002, scrapping compulsory modern FLs for 14- to 16-year-olds, and introducing them in primary schools. She claimed in 2006 that: “Starting at a much younger age is the best way of making sure we get more pupils taking exams and, more importantly, more of them enjoying and feeling confident about speaking a language other than their own”.

In other countries, FL teaching has even been introduced in nursery schools.  There seems to be a universal consensus among politicians that an early start in FLs will lead to a smoother, quasi-effortless learning process leading to high levels of proficiency in the FLs. Is this a myth?!

Spanish ClassCounter-intuitively, research suggests that adolescents and adults progress more quickly than children when learning FLs in a school context (so-called “instructed FL learning”). Many researchers have serious doubts about age of onset being the most important variable in successful FL learning. Indeed, research shows quite clearly that starting age is only one of many independent variables in very complex question.

A crucial distinction exists between so-called naturalistic and instructed FL learning.  Research on naturalistic learners, typically immigrants, shows that younger children are indeed more likely to become undistinguishable from native speakers of the FL compared to their parents and older siblings. However, the picture is not so clear in research on instructed FL learning, a crucial distinction that is commonly overlooked.

A large-scale project on Age of Onset of Acquisition (AoA) in formal foreign language teaching, the Barcelona Age Factor project has looked at effects of starting age and the comparisons were always of groups with same amount of instruction hours (200, 400, 700, and 800 hours of instruction). Earlier exposure (ages eight to nine) to English (as a third language) in a classroom did not result in better performance. Learners who started English at age 11 and those who had started at age 14 were found to progress more quickly than early learners but, after a similar number of hours of exposure, the differences between the groups were limited, with older starters still having a slight advantage. In another study with young adult learners who had 2500 hours of instruction, AoA was not found to have an effect but amount and type of exposure had a positive effect. In other words, input seems more important than AoA.

A Swiss study (Pfenninger, in press) found no advantages of an early start among Swiss learners of English even after five years of instruction. The writing skills of late starters caught up with those of the early starters within six months.  One possible explanation is that older learners have greater metalinguistic, metacognitive and strategic skills.

Munoz points out that from the observations that younger immigrants and immersion students in naturalistic settings seem to outperform older peers “an inferential leap is made in the assumption that learning age will have the same effect on students of a foreign language, when they are exposed to only one speaker of that language (the teacher, who is not usually a native speaker) in only one setting (the classroom) and only during very limited amounts of time”.

This does not mean that there are no age effects at all in learning and later use of the FLs.  Indeed, younger children seem to be more motivated in learning FLs. In my own research on language choice and self-perceived proficiency among more than 1500 adult bi- and multilinguals, I found that early starters in a FL felt more proficient in speaking, comprehending, reading and writing their FLs. They were also more likely to choose the FL for the expression of anger and feelings, for inner speech and mental calculation.  Interestingly, the effect of mode of instruction was even stronger than age of onset: participants who had acquired the FL naturalistically or in mixed mode (formal instruction combined with authentic use) outperformed participants who had learned the FL through classroom instruction only.

In their excellent overview of the literature on age and the teaching of FLs, Lambelet and Berthele point out that more research is needed on improving age-appropriate teaching techniques in order to boost motivation levels and metalinguistic awareness of FL learners of all ages. Moreover, extra thought needs to be given to the primary school teachers who are suddenly expected to teach a FL and who may lack in confidence and competence. In other words, those arguing for an early introduction of FLs at school need to take the nuanced research findings into account and avoid promising miracles.

At what age did you start learning a foreign language? How do you think this affected your fluency and confidence in the language? Please leave your comments below.

Further reading

  • Dewaele, J. M. (2009). Age effects on self-perceived communicative competence and language choice among adult multilinguals. Eurosla Yearbook, 9, 245–268.
  • Enever, J. (2011). ELLiE. Early Language Learning in Europe. London: British Council.
  • Lambelet, A. & Berthele, R. (2014). Âge et apprentissage des langues à l’école. Revue de literature. Fribourg: Research Centre on Multilingualism.
  • Pfenninger, S. (in press).The literacy factor in the optimal age debate: a 5-year longitudinal study. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism.
  • Muñoz, C. (2011). Input and long-term effects of starting age in foreign language learning. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 49, 113–133.

Other posts by Professor Dewaele:

Other blogs about linguistics:

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