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Liberating disaster

As a Japanese national, I do not swear. I don't know how. The Japanese language, despite its many excellent linguistic virtues, is simply not strong on the swearing front.

The British Council in Tokyo has a course for students who are preparing to study abroad in the UK. I attended this course in my youth and innocence all those years ago. This comprehensive course took care of not only the grammar and other boring serious matters of the English language, but also the multifaceted British culture.

Once, we had a cultural-awareness class on swearing.

Well-versed in the tame abusive language of this country, our teacher, a Brit, realised the danger we faced in our naivety; for example, when accosted in a pub by a drunk who incoherently shouts something we don't quite understand the purport of, we may puzzledly but politely smile. Therefore, as a kind of survival lesson, he taught us words and expressions that we should watch out for. "Leave them quietly if they start using these words," he said.

As a professional language teacher, he was thorough. Although it was not so we could use those words at ease ourselves, he tried to perfect our pronunciation too: "No, not 'cant.' Repeat after me, c..." After a few times of our attentively repeating the word after him (we were quite the model students, very eager to learn), he started out laughing in some private amusement. Furiously blushing, he said he'd never had so much fun in class.

He also categorically prohibited the use of colloquial expressions. He told us to leave off slang, as foreigners just couldn't carry it off. When questioned why we shouldn't use slang expressions, he paused for a while, and staring into the air, thoughtfully said, "It just sounds ... wrong when foreign people use slang." His kind heart could not bear the thought of us making fools of ourselves trying too hard to blend in.

I do understand where he was coming from. We must admit that we foreigners lack the elegance, the charm, the grace if you like, of native English speakers who have been bred and raised in the colourful verbal expressions. We would sound wooden, or false. Maybe loveable, at best, but pityingly funny. Cringing at worst.

The golden rule, "leave slang to natives," was impressed upon me with some force. Swearing, the jewel of colloquial language, was the unattainable pinnacle to watch from afar. Casually broken language was something of luxury, only allowed to native speakers of the language. Therefore, I have always faithfully tried to be rigidly grammatically proper, to the utmost of my ability.

Accidents happen, however. I do not know what possessed me on that fatal night, but I did the unimaginable recently. After drinking heavily for some hours, I found myself entrapped in a futile and vehement argument. My sole opponent and I were vociferously voicing our opinions in a rapidly exacerbating discussion which was getting farther away from the original point, while all the other people present had to look on and quietly suffer our obnoxious display of drunken self-will. Provoked beyond my inebriated reason, at one point I spat out "shut the fuck up" without any conscious thought.

Which may not sound so shocking to native ears, however. This is quite mild as expressions of disagreement go. What was incongruous was that it was uttered in a series of seamless, impassioned, rapid-fire verbal attack that was otherwise entirely conducted in Japanese.

As I said earlier, I do not swear in Japanese. Clearly, every sentence must start with an eff in my internal monologue in English.

This little accident led me to ponder yet again over a matter that has been bothering me for years. Do we develop a different persona in a foreign language? I cannot help but think this must be true to a certain extent, since a completely different new language brings you not only new expressions and sounds, and the pain of learning tortuously arbitrary grammar, but new concepts, new ways of thinking, and new values: new culture that the language enfolds. Language embodies culture, after all.

"Shut the fuck up." Yes, it is cringing. (Though there are so many other issues here that I do not care to go into, beside the cringe factor.) Our dear teacher was right.

What he didn't prepare us for, however, is the fact that a new language changes you. It creeps in until what is at your core is no longer so easily definable by mere nationality. In the end, you're just this obnoxious person who swears at your countryman in a foreign language.

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