Thursday, December 9, 2010

Swearing: No training prepares you for this

It was near the end of class and I was reviewing the language used in “Go fish!” with my students, when a student said, “Teacher look.”

He showed me his phone background and then said, “Mario, fuck you.”



Back up.

As a child, I thought one of the worst things that could come out of my mouth was “the F word”. I never said it, and I would never even have imagined saying it in front of an adult, especially in class.

Teaching English outside of the United States I have realized something about swear words.

English swear words don’t hold the taboo that they do to a native speaker. (Maybe you already knew that.) In fact, apparently swearing in a language that is not your own is supposed to be “cool” … though to the many speakers of that language it comes across as quite crass because it is often used without appropriate intonation or situation.

In Moscow, the F word was scrawled on walls inside stairwells and on outdoor walls. Like swearing in English, English graffiti seemed to be “cool” and even the authorities didn’t seem to care to clean it up. “Musturbation” (yes, it was misspelled), “Я love my BaBy”, “Sex”, and “Fuck police” are some of the more memorable graffiti I saw in Moscow.

While crude language was all around, if a student used the F word in class, all I had to do was stop, give him a look, and say in a stern voice that he shouldn’t say “that” word again. Then, it would never happen again, at least not in that class. There was an understanding that some language shouldn’t be used in a classroom of younger students. (Adults were a different story …)

In Ulsan, Korea, things work a bit differently. There is a bit of graffiti on the walls of the stairwell, but places where you would think there should be graffiti, under bridges for example, are clean. Most of the graffiti in stairwells is stylized middle fingers with hardly any English words, but it’s the classroom situation that is the most different. Perhaps because I’m teaching kids, not teenagers and adults.

Students aren’t supposed to have cell phones in class. Yet, they usually take them out toward the end of class to check the time, and I have started to ignore it. They aren’t texting during class like Russian teenagers, so I cut them some slack.

One student, eight years old, has prided himself on the image he has on the background of his phone and likes to show me when he gets a new one. Usually the images seem silly, but not that shocking. Wednesday, this student very proudly showed me the picture on his phone, and then said, “Mario, fuck you.”

I know I didn’t react properly. He wasn’t being malicious. He was smiling, thinking it was cute, maybe, and my shocked face doesn’t even begin to explain my reaction. I couldn’t believe what I had just heard coming out of this child’s mouth. Yes, the picture was Mario flipping me off, which I think I would have ignored on its own, but a small child, a good student, uttering the F word, threw me.

An audible, “What?!” jumped from my mouth.

Of course, my intonation was lost on these children, and my, “What?!” was promptly followed by all the children saying “fuck you” in unison. Like I had just said, “What?” in a nice calm manner, or had just initiated a say and repeat. I tried to follow that by a, “No. You shouldn’t say that,” and a serious tone, but I was simply bewildered by the situation. I had never encountered anything like this before.

How inexperienced of me, I know.

After thinking about this a bit. All children repeating, in unison, what you wish they didn’t even know must happen accidentally in Kindergartens across the States, but this was the first time it happened to me.

Did I react properly? I don’t know. Probably not. I mumbled a bit and went back to the language used in “Go fish.”

As an end note on this:

Students saying something shocking in a totally innocent way happened in Moscow as well.

The F word, teenagers understood. They caught my tone. They whispered it hoping I wouldn’t hear. A word they uttered with no idea the baggage and consequences was the N word … yes, the one that rhymes with Tigger. They actually were shocked when I told them that we never, never, NEVER use this word as white folk. NEVER! And they were even more shocked when I said they could use the word “black” to talk about someone with dark skin because translated, this word has negative associations.


  1. You have learned your "teacher lesson" well...
    Never ask a child "what?" unless you want to hear it again. Although, I have to admit, I've never heard anything like that in chorus before!

  2. I dated a guy from Wales for a few months who used the "C" word (the one that rhymes with punt) on a regular basis. Like, if his boss was being a jerk, he would say, "He was being such a c*** today." In Wales where he is from, it's perfectly acceptable. It's the same as us saying jerk. But it took me a long time to get used to. After a while, I didn't really notice it anymore but I still can't stand it when an American says it. Language is such an awesome and powerful thing. It's amazing what an emotional response a simple gathering of sounds can generate!