You know how it starts. At an early age (or earlier than typical awareness of such words), children may start to slip out profane language -- also known as “dirty” talk, bad words, swearing, and mentioning body parts in an amusing or inappropriate way.
We may often wonder how our children learned such words. Perhaps they heard us say them when we thought they weren’t listening. Or they heard it from certain TV shows or movies.
The one thing we must remember is that children usually don’t know the meaning of these words. They may know from your reaction that the words are out of the ordinary. They may see you get angry or even amused; I used to laugh when my daughters started to slip out “dirty” words, which was probably a stupid thing to do.
But just as children use inappropriate language when learning their native tongue, it’s the same when you use profanity in the language you’re studying.
It’s interesting, though. Native speakers often teach these words (not italki tutors) to a new learner. If you’ve ever seen the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the plot basically consists of a guy planning to marry a woman from a Greek family. The huge family welcomes him. His future brother-in-law tells him how to greet the family back. The guy says it -- and the whole family bursts out laughing. As it turns out, his brother-in-law had told him a very dirty expression in Greek.
So, again, I raise the question of should you use such language? Here are reasons why you generally should not and when you possibly can.
Don’t look foolish
In my opinion, beginners, intermediate, and even advanced learners of their target language should not use profanity. Learn it so you can be aware of it, but don’t use it. Like the children using these words in their native tongue, they won’t mean anything, except to the native speakers of the language you’re learning. If you use them, you might anger someone who may see them as disrespectful. Or, as in the movie above, you may feel very silly if you use them and native people laugh at you.
I say learn these words and expressions, but don’t use them. By learning them, you will be less likely to use them accidentally.
It depends on the culture
Before you even think about using “bad” words in a new language, realize that what is considered “dirty “in your culture often doesn’t mean the same thing in your target language’s culture. Bad words are often hard to say. In Asian cultures for example, bad words may be said just by changing the tone of the same word.
In Western cultures, bad words are often used as an expression of anger, but they can also be part of regular language just to be descriptive. They may not signal harsh feelings, but are just intermingled with common expressions. Some people use these bad words so much that the words have lost the original feelings associated with it.
For example, for some of the movies you watch in the Western world; it feels as if every other word involves swearing. I find this to be very annoying. Apparently, other people feel the same way. Another example can be the Tv series Breaking Bad, (which was shot from where I am from, Albuquerque, New Mexico) the show’s creator would only allow one really bad word only once an episode. This way the dirty word was special and everyone knew the character who said it was really, really angry.
The most common curses
In almost every culture, using bad words involves the male and female genitalia. They are among the dirtiest words or expressions worldwide according to this article.
But by far, the worst things you can say in almost any culture are about someone’s mother. In some places, mothers are revered as goddesses. So as you can imagine, these expressions are meant to convey extreme hatred to the person you’re saying them to -- and the typical reaction is a similar curse or even worse.
So, to curse or not to curse?
I say don’t do it! Unless you are proficient in your new language, or better yet, bilingual. Anything less than that would make you look and feel ridiculous, or cause someone to become angry, or you coming across as disrespectful. Worst of all, it will show that you really don’t know the language.
And, really, why curse in your new language at all -- unless you’re with very good native friends. Just remember that whenever you bang your toe, lose your phone, or someone bumps into you on the street, there’s nothing like cursing in your own language!
Ilene Springer is an italki teacher, who only swears in English, and is the author of “the Diary of an Expatriate,” published by AUK, London. You can reach her through italki or through her website “Chocolate-English.eu”.