People who speak two or more languages often prefer to use one language over another, depending on the situation. This is especially true when it comes to cursing and insults. It seems that people prefer not to use their native languages to talk smack. Here's why.

In a study published a couple of months ago in PLoS One, two Polish researchers at the University of Warsaw explain that linguists and psychologists have long wondered what causes people to switch back and forth between languages. Apparently, one reason is that people feel more emotionally connected to their native languages. As a result, they're willing to say things in other languages that they wouldn't say in their own. The researchers write:

Those who have contact with bi- or multilinguals often notice that it is easier for the latter group to express certain content in one language, while other content is more willingly conveyed in the other. What does this preference depend on? It has been noticed and proven that it is mostly emotional topics that cause slipping from one language to another. Kim and Starks name this phenomenon 'emotion-related language choice' (ERLC) and define it 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.

Apparently, this is because other languages feel "disembodied," while a native language feels intimate. Topics that would be taboo in the native language don't feel so upsetting in other languages. Cultural and social norms of politeness — which are often rules we learn as children — are followed much more rigorously in the native language:

Pavlenko, [using] the results of a web questionnaire for bilinguals on expressing emotions in [their second language (L2)], notices that words connected with emotions may be considered 'disembodied' in L2, whereas in [their first language (L1)] they seem natural, even if they are considered 'taboo' expressions, terms of endearment, or swear words. What is interesting, a theory postulating emotionality of L1 and artificiality of L2 can lead to two alternative conclusions: on the one hand, it should be easier for bilinguals to talk about emotion-loaded issues in the more natural L1; on the other, they may prefer L2 for that purpose, as the cultural and social norms of L1 regarding expressing emotions can be too burdensome.

Why it's easier to swear at people in another language

To find out how emotions associated with anger might affect bilinguals, the researchers undertook what they call "a covert experiment." They wanted to see whether ethnic slurs (called "ethnophaulisms") were easier for people to use in their native languages or other languages. So they asked students to translate offensive phrases from English to Polish, and from Polish to English. General swear words didn't seem to hold quite the same emotional weight as ethnic slurs, as you can see in the chart above.

Contrary to what you might expect, Polish students were more uncomfortable using ethnic insults in Polish. But in English, they often intensified the insults:

Bilingual Polish students translated texts brimming with expletives from Polish into English and vice versa. In the Polish translations, the swear word equivalents used were weaker than in the source text; in the English translations, they were stronger than in the original. These results corroborate the ERLC theory. However, the effect was only observed for ethnophaulisms, i.e. expletives directed at social groups. It turns out that the main factor triggering the language choice in bilinguals is not necessarily the different emotional power of both languages, but social and cultural norms.

I say this is "contrary to what you might expect" because one might assume that people are more likely to insult another group when they are using their own group's language. You would think, for example, that a native English speaker might want to insult Spanish-speakers in English. But apparently not. The social norms and taboos over insults are too powerful, and people tend to tone down ethnic insults in their native languages — even if they are willing to go over the top with them in other languages.

If nothing else, this may help explain why all the Western characters on Firefly hurl insults at each other in Chinese.

Read the full paper in PLoS One

Spotted on the Journal of Improbable Research