The Power of Learning Swear Words in English

swearingI know I’m going to get a lot of heat (criticism) for this one. Swear words (also known as curse words, cuss words, bad words, and obscenities) are for the most part considered taboo in the world of teaching and learning English.

In my opinion, teachers and learners everywhere deserve to hear the truth and decide for themselves how valuable this is to their fluency.

It is a complicated issue, but if you don’t at least understand them, you lack fluent communication skills for a significant part of the language.

Traditional English schools have censured this part of the language for way too long, and today we are going to explore not only why it’s a good idea to learn bad words, but also the real reason why some learners abuse them, and most importantly, how you can avoid these common mistakes and use the power of bad words (responsibly) to increase your fluency.

This includes native speaking media, international pop culture, or even when people are insulting (or complimenting) you.

FREE E-book: 101 Words You Won’t Learn at School

The truth is that a lot of people are afraid to teach swear words, others are afraid to learn them, and many more abuse them to the point that they sound horrible and even offensive, NOT because these words are inherently bad or offensive, but because the people never learned how to use them properly.

But if you do choose to learn, use, and/or teach swear words, this article will serve as a guide and caution. While there is nothing worse than hearing a highly competent English speaker make a complete ass (idiot) of him/herself by abusing swear words, the learner who never learns to at least understand them will NEVER fully reach fluent comprehension of native speaking pop-culture.

Why Learn Swear Words

Swear words are everywhere, and for better or for worse, they are powerful.  As we all know, they have the power to offend people (whether we intend to or not), and they even give us the power to embarrass ourselves (even native speakers do this).

According to Harvard linguist Steven Pinker, in addition to verbal abuse, swear words have a variety of other important uses, including to add emphasis, to convey emotion, to find relief from pain, and quite importantly, to connect people in a relaxed social atmosphere.

What most English learners don’t realize, even though they do this in their own native language, is that swear words can actually be a pretty useful, powerful, and even necessary tool for fluent use of spoken English, and more importantly, what it’s all for:  connecting us with our fellow human beings.

What they don’t teach you in school is that by learning slang, colloquial language, and even swear words, you deepen your connection not only to the pronunciation and the comprehension of the language, but also to the culture AND the people.

However, as we’ll talk more about below, to use swear words in your spoken language demands a high degree of understanding, cultural sensitivity, and caution. But there’s no better time to start learning than right now.

Why Bad Words Are Bad

Why People Are Afraid to Teach & Learn Swear Words

There are at least four main interrelated reasons why the English learning industry is so resistant to bad words:

  1. A general misunderstanding of the utility and nature of swear words, as well as the assumption that they are always bad, leads teachers and learners to not value these.
  2. Most non-native teachers don’t know how to use them themselves, and don’t have a deep understanding of colloquial aspects of the language.
  3. A lack of adequate explanations, resources, and safe learning opportunities for students to develop the understanding, cultural sensitivity, and perception of swear words.
  4. Very small errors in the spoken use of swear words can drastically alter the meaning and cause big misunderstandings.

Schools, teachers and students have reason to be afraid. Let’s face it, curse words are delicate, volatile, and few English learners were taught how to use them properly. After all, without a correct understanding AND cultural sensitivity, you may very easily offend people and embarrass yourself.

The truth is that even many native speakers aren’t mature enough to use them in a culturally fluent way, so maybe swear words really are better learned outside of the classroom.

For those who decide to develop a deeper connection to the English language, the problem remains: they don’t have access to a safe container where they can practice, play with them, develop cultural sensitivity, and get feedback.

Given the fact that most people learn English from books and traditional schools, they are never given the opportunity to learn how to use them responsibly, so they either:

(a) totally avoid them

(b) abuse them and offend people.

Avoiding them is clearly the best of these two options, and if we’re dealing with young children or emotionally immature adults, it is probably the only option.

However, for those of you who are capable of paying attention to context, listening, and developing the necessary understanding AND cultural sensitivity to use them with caution, I’m going to introduce a responsible and effective approach to learning curse words.

First, let’s look at how learners, and even native speakers, tend to abuse them though.

Why People F*!k Up With Swear Words

The biggest danger of English learners using swear words is that we don’t feel how they affect others.

When adults learn a swear word in a foreign language, we tend to develop an intellectual understanding of the word, but miss a significant part of the emotional programming necessary to feel the emotion behind the words, how they affect others, and the proper context to use them.

In fact, swear words are even programmed into our brains in a different way.  While language processing is generally a higher brain function and uses the cerebral cortex, swear words are based on emotion, which is considered a lower brain function, and uses limbic system and basal ganglia.

If you observe your native tongue, how you or other native speakers use swear words, you’ll realize that you were conditioned from a very young age to feel the emotional effect of swear words.

In other words, in your native tongue, whether or not you choose to use them, you have a much stronger emotional connection to these words, how it affects others, and when it’s okay to use them.  In the language you are learning, however, even if you know what the words mean, you are often initially emotionally disconnected.

This happened to me when I was 25 years old learning Spanish. While I didn’t tend to swear that much in English, little did I know, I had a potty mouth in Spanish (I used many obscenities in inappropriate contexts).

cringingLooking back now, I cringe (a painful facial expression of intense regret–see picture to the right) to think about my irresponsible use these words and how I affected others.

The problem, just as I described above, was that I learned Spanish from my friends in very colloquial situations, and I didn’t have the cultural sensitivity to guide my use of these words in different situations. They were intellectual concepts that I had absorbed in one context, but I was not able to feel their emotional impact in other contexts.

Now that we’ve discussed some of the difficulties that language learners encounter with using swear words, let’s explore how you can develop not only the intellectual understanding of swear words, but also the cultural fluency to use them responsibly.

A Responsible and Effective Approach to Swearing

By studying curse words, paying close attention to exactly how natives use them, and asking lots of questions, you will start to develop a deeper and more culturally fluent understanding of these words.

For most people, the safest first step to fluency in swear words is to (a) open your mind to their inherent power (and their value to your learning), and (b) start observing how we use them, when we use them (in speech, and which social contexts), and most importantly, the emotion behind each word.

Let’s start with a few examples that tend to confuse even highly proficient English speakers:

The Shit vs Shit

What a huge difference one little article (the) can make. If I say “that song is shit,” I’m communicating a very negative emotion about the song. It’s not offensive unless the person I’m talking to strongly disagrees, or if the context is more formal.

But if I say “that song is the shit,” I’m communicating a very positive emotion about the song and even recommending it. While this would not be appropriate in a formal context, its use is not vulgar or abusive.

It’s clear why “shit” would mean something derogatory and cause a vulgar emotional reaction, as the literal meaning of the word is obscene (poop), but the meaning of “the shit” actually has a very positive connotation.

Learn All the Different Uses of the Word SHIT

Ass vs Badass

You probably know that “ass” is a more vulgar way to say “butt,” and you might even know that an “ass” is an animal similar to a “donkey” (from “jackass”), but the word ass communicates literally dozens of other uses that cover a whole spectrum of both profane and positive emotions.

So in a literal sense, an “ass” and a “badass” look pretty similar, but their meanings and uses are complete opposites.  “Badass” doesn’t meaning an “ass” that is “bad.” As an adjective, “badass” means “awesome”, and as a noun, a “badass” is a tough and aggressive hero like Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator or Vin Diesel in The Fast and the Furious. 

feeling

Learn All the Different Uses of the Word ASS

The point is that you can’t learn many of these words by dissecting the literal meaning or studying from a book. You have to learn it in context and feel the emotions behind it.

Why do “the shit” and “badass” have completely positive and figurative meanings, while “shit” and “ass” are much more literal and evoke a much more negative emotion?

Who knows?

Exactly why languages evolve in certain ways is often a mystery to us all, but one clear thing is that fluent understanding (and use) of these terms demands a direct and meaningful experience of not only the words, but also the cultural context in which we use them.

Obviously it’s the decision of each person the degree to which they learn swear words, but it’s undeniable the importance of swear words in the fluent participation of English speaking pop-culture.

We highly recommend you at least open your mind to understanding them.

As far as using them in your spoken English, it’s a lot more delicate, but if you see value in it, if you move forward with extreme caution, learn the meanings, and develop the necessary cultural fluency to tune in to the different contexts in which we use them, there’s no reason not to develop swear word fluency and become a badass English speaker!

If you guys enjoyed this article, here are some articles about curse words that will help you learn how to orient yourself in the crazy world of bad words! Have a great day.

  • Justin Good afternoon! Wich english school you teache? I live in Belo Horizonte, and I’m looking for a english course to do. See ya!

  • Justin

    Hey Tsatsu, I’m glad the article was useful. Be careful, but they aren’t off limits :0) Thanks for reading and commenting.

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