Two researchers studying bilingualism have actually come up with the bright side to squabbling in a second language – “it appears that when bilingual people are given decisions to make in their non-native language, they seem to take a more rational, less quick-draw approach — maybe because processing the scenario takes a bit more cognitive energy.” The study looked at rational and cognitive behaviors in the mother tongue and in a second language, and they believe their findings can be stretched to apply to relationships: “If you start having a fight with someone and you’re speaking a second language and the fight is heating up, pretty often you switch to your first language and you say things you don’t want to say. So when you fight in a second language, perhaps you take more psychological distance and you can cool down and perhaps … [it] allows you not to say things that you will regret later on.”
I’ve gotten into more than one dispute over in Belgium, from incompetent STIB agents in the Brussels Metro, stingy sandwich makers (I will not pay 5 Euro for iceberg lettuce, sorry), customs agents, to bizarrely abrasive DJs who refuse to take song requests, and I’ve actually come up with more or less this same theory before, so it’s nice to see it validated by science. When I get heated in my native English, so maybe less of a bicker and more of a full-on fight, I often say something I don’t mean (oddly enough), that I regret (bad habit, trying to work on this), a slew of curse words. It’s my native language and the argument leaps from my brain right on down to roll right off my tongue before I’ve thought about the consequences it may have once it’s already been uttered (sorry Mom!! I love you).
But when I feud in French, and let me tell you, with the level of customer service in this country it is RIPE for the picking, I can’t always give that zinger to shut an argument down. I might be in the middle of an argument and realize that a key term is missing entirely from my repertoire of vocabulaire. There is nothing worse than the two seconds before you land on this word that is unbeknownst to you, knowing that you’re about to lose so much credibility while you flounder around, trying to imagine what that translation looked like on Word Reference because you’ve definitely looked it up before, you knew it at one point in your life … I’d say usually, even though I’m pretty darn fluent, before I make a solid argument en francais I actually have to give it at least 20% more thought than if I was making the same point in English. Just to save a little face. So overall I believe that my most important arguments in French have historically been a little more rational, thought out, and executed than my rap sheet in English.
Worst part about quarreling in a second language? Mispronouncing something or using an inappropriately chosen word in the middle of an argument, and the native speaker you’re trying to squash with words and tact can’t help but start giggling. If they didn’t take you seriously before, you’ve completely lost them at this point! And it’s at this very moment where you need to scrap this whole second language thing and go all New York on their a** and show them who’s really boss!