Occasionally my friends ask me to teach them to swear in their target languages. Usually I beg out of it, but occasionally, I have consented to a few tutorials in vulgarity.
I’m always a little frightened by the lurid, desperate curse-lust that I see behind their eyes; they’re a little too eager. It’s a bad sign when your learners creep you out before you even start.
When I used to go as a chaperone on student trips to Mexico, I would drop them off at language school for their immersion classes, taught by some Mexican teachers only a few years older than the students. I’d see my students through the window as I walked back through campus for second breakfast. They would have wild, ecstatic looks in their eyes, gleefully taking notes as if everything their teacher said was made of sex and money, breathing hard and wiping the occasional trickle of drool from the corner of their mouths.
Two months later, those kids are back in my classroom, and they act like taking notes is a totally foreign concept to them. Come on, I say, if you would only take notes with half as much desire as you did in Mexico, when they were teaching you to swear…
How did you know they were teaching us to swear? they ask me, like I’m stupid.
It doesn’t matter that the kids all learned the swear words; they didn’t practice them, so they forgot them in a matter of hours. Course langauge, grammar, vocab… if you don’t practice, it all goes away.
In any case, unless I know the person to be a good language learner, I will refuse to teach them how to curse. It is horribly embarrassing when I have to witness them swearing, because usually the Foreign Dork factor is off the charts. The discomfort I feel in watching someone swear dorkily in a language that I speak is like watching someone tongue-kiss a turd. It’s bad.
I’ve experienced, of course, when ESL people try out their American swearing on me. One time on the bus in Rome, I was yelled at by a homeless man, who seemed to be mentally ill. An Italian grandma watched the whole thing go down, and when the man had gone, she told me gently in Italian, don’t worry about him, he’s a fool. I smiled at her kindness.
I must have given her the “I didn’t understand” smile, though, because I saw her think for a second and then tell me, in English, a little too bitterly, “HE IS A SON-OF-A-BITCH!” She was shaking a little bit.
And then, a second time, “HE IS A SON-OF-A-BITCH.”
And then, faster: “HEISA SONOFABITCH.”
My first thought was, whoah, lady, let’s please take it down a notch. Then I reminded myself that she wasn’t an English speaker, that she knew words “son-of-a-bitch” without really knowing how we use them. I mean, I like swearing as much as the next guy, and I can terrify some fools with my version of the “S.O.B.” but when it comes from Roman grandma, it actually sounds pathological .. in the clinical sense. The emotion does not correspond to the social convention.
And why should it correspond to an American social convention? She’s not a part of American society. She knew the word, but culturally, it was a mistranslation.
When I ask Americans why they want to swear in one of the languages I speak, they usually report these motivations:
- It sounds cool, I want to sound cool! I want to be part of the club!
- I want to have something awesome to say in times of frustration, as a form of release!
- I want to curse somebody out! I want to be terrifying, when it’s necessary!
Shall we look at these motivations one by one?
1. It sounds cool, I want to sound cool! I want to be part of the club! This is the saddest reason to swear, in any language, foreign or native. You should really examine the relationships in your life, and determine who likes you for who you really are, rather than how you can entertain them.
2. I want to have something awesome to say in times of frustration, as a form of release! Look, you can learn a few “dammit’s” and “shucks’s” in your target language, but seriously, nothing is going to be more cathartic than swearing in your own native language, trust me. Even if you’re speaking your target language, switching to your native language to swear will be better for both you and your listener, even if they don’t understand it.
3. I want to curse somebody out! I want to be terrifying, when it’s necessary! This is really the only valid reason to curse, in my mind. Unfortunately, as far as your second language is concerned, you have a greater chance of sounding horribly dorky and/or pathologically disturbed, rather than intimidating. You should stick to your native language to curse someone out; they’ll get the message better.
Of course, the few of you that are reading this have no interest in NOT learning how to swear; I recognize the rabid look in your eyes.
You can sit with your native speaker friends and make a list of dirty words. You can buy a book and study it… maybe this one, which my boy Mateo wrote. You could read raunchy vocab blogs… like I do, hee hee.
You can watch edgy movies with lots of awesome swearing and rewind and re-listen like some disgusting teenager until you get it right.
You can do all these things, and I guarantee you, you will still sound TERRIBLE. Either dorky, or creepy, but most probably a mixture of BOTH.
There is only one way to learn how to swear properly, and that is through immersion. Only through immersion will you understand the context, get the correct intonation, and get the practice necessary to not sound like a Creepy Embarrassing Dork.
You will, of course, have to convince your partners in immersion to swear around you. You’ll need friends to mimic for a while. You might find yourself in less than savory situations, involving booze, cigarettes, sex, fisticuffs, gambling, ecstasy, tragedy, loss, danger, and boredom. That’s where you learn to swear properly; learning to swear involves living life.
If you don’t have the benefit of living life in your target language, you should probably just keep it clean, and stick to practicing grammar and vocab, that will get you farther anyway. Concentrate on learning the language, and the swearing will come to you naturally.
Or maybe it won’t. I remember once my parents had a bunch of aunts and uncles over for dinner, and they were telling stories about how someone at work was an “A-hole.” When my auntie said, cheerfully, “I think he is an A-hole,” I remembered everyone at the table giggling like fifth graders. The vowel was wrong, the stress was wrong, and honestly, giggling is the wrong response. They were all fluent in English at a superior level, living in the US for decades, and they still hadn’t acquired American swearing, because they hadn’t grown up with it. I remember feeling embarrassed for them, and rolling my eyes with my cousin.
So maybe you’ll never learn it. So what? You’ll be fine. You’ll find other ways to fit in, other ways to express frustration, and as for terrifying people, you probably know how to do that already. I, for one, am terrified right now, of you, hearing the purring of curse-lust in the sub-sonic register underlying your breathing. Creepy.