Yesterday when I was having coffee with a fellow Italian translator, we talked about our experiences of learning different foreign languages. We both agreed that swear words are the easiest to learn and remember in many foreign languages.
This reminded me of a conversation with a friend of mine. We had talked about how it is very easy to, or not embarrassing for a lady to, swear in a foreign language. Beni, the genius linguist who speaks perfect English, Chinese mandarin, Shanghai local dialect and Japanese– all four very different languages, can swear fluently in English at a club gate-keeper in New York, but can never say those swear words in her mother tongue Japanese, even if just to teach her boyfriend Japanese.
My Italian translator friend and I believe it is the emotion level of words that decides how easily we will remember them. Swear words come with strong emotion, so do words like ‘love’ or ‘hate’. They stir up emotions and leave a deeper impression, thus make it easier for the brain to remember. Remember how many times you tried to remember ‘zhuo zi’ (table) whilst almost immediately picking up ‘wo ai ni’ (I love you)?
However, when you actually use them in a foreign language, the emotional colour fades out. Because they don’t sound as harsh, one feels more comfortable using them in a different language rather than their own first language. I don’t swear at all when speaking Chinese, but I do catch myself saying ‘what the …’ or ‘shoot’ from time to time in English. Oh and just for those curious to know what the equivalent of the above two would be in Chinese, it is ‘ta ma de’ (depending on the context, can be different) and ‘cao’ (actually, a bit like the Italian ciao).
This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified)