In what language are your fighting words?

fightinglanguage

I’ve been speaking to my French in-laws in their native language for the past week.  But when my nine-month-old spits up all over the reindeer sweater we’ve just bought him, the first thing out of my mouth is in my native language: “Oh my God!”

From Ricky Ricardo, to real life, it seems to be a general rule that when it comes to expressing surprise or strong emotions, bilingual people will revert back to their native language every time.

But should we try to change our ways?  In a recent post on New York Magazine’s website, Jesse Singal references a study about language’s influence on decision making, and makes a very unexpected connection: bilingual people should argue with their significant others in their second language. Singal theorizes that, since the study showed people listened more carefully and took more time to reflect when something was explained in their non-native tongue, they might be less hasty about what they say in an argument if they don’t use their first language.  But to me, and, I’m guessing, a lot of other bilingual people, the suggestion seems like “bs”, as one commenter on the article eloquently put it.

The person didn’t go on to explain their comment, but I figure it means either one of two things, and for me, at least, both are true: 1. When you’re really upset about something, it’s almost impossible to control yourself enough to speak in your second language, especially for an extended period of time; and, 2. If you are able to do this, you’re still angry and probably just as likely to say things you’ll later regret.

But then again, I may be wrong about that first one. According to this compelling piece in Psychology Today, the language that bilingual or multilingual people revert to in times of strong emotion isn’t always their native one.  Author Dr. François Grosjean argues that the language you use to express strong feelings has more to do with the feelings that you have about that language.  For example, he cites people who report feeling inhibited or haunted by memories tied to their native language, and who find freedom in expressing themselves in a foreign tongue they learned later.

Grosjean concedes that there could be some truth to the notion of reverting to a native language when emotions are running high — it’s just that not every bilingual or multilingual person systemically does this. Still, just as he uses examples of people he personally knows to prove his point, I can say that most of the bilinguals I know (including myself) prove mine; it’s just an accepted piece of knowledge among my bilingual friends and acquaintances that you revert to your native language when powerful feelings are involved.

No studies or research seem to show percentages of bilinguals who use their native language, versus one they acquired later, to express emotions.  But one thing is sure: thoughts like Singal’s, and articles like Grosjean’s definitely make you think more about relationships – not ones involving a significant other – but with language.

Alysa Salzberg

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