Teaching children to curse in a second language

Emily learned the F-word around age three, and could use it effectively in a sentence before she started preschool. By then she knew a lot of other bad words too, though she had no idea what any of them meant. I taught these special vocabulary to my daughter each night in the bath. My aim being to prepare her mind to  recognize the difference between F-you between friends and F-you which might lead to a fight. Profanity is actually pretty complex stuff, full of nuance and innuendo, and ranks up there with humor and sarcasm as some of the trickier bits of language and culture to understand and use well.

By the time Emily entered first grade she could spew forth filth from her mouth sufficient to make a sailor give up the sea. And we’d have contests to see who could string together the longest, most disgusting parade of vulgarity, just like rappers try to outdo one another at rhyme. This game came to an end a few years into elementary school, when I’d thought the lesson had sunk in, and propriety dictated I clean up my act. I never thought much about those seedy English lessons from then until now.

Emily’s been in the United States eight months. She’s in high school. And I’m guessing she’s beginning to hear for real some of the bad language she learned as a small child in Japan. I don’t know if she uses such language herself, though she’s clearly gained insight into what’s wrong with profanity versus what’s alright among friends. She’s also gained that keen feminine reaction to casual male profanity. That knowing look, slightly amused, slightly chastising, slightly in on the game. That look she now gives me every time I slip up and let on of those foul words fly.

I don’t use bad language often. And to my ear it’s seems Emily never does. Though the words are in there. And I hope such familiarity is helping her to feel a little more connected to her new home; to expressions of emotion, friendly banter, the American frame of mind. I hope it’s all still in there. Serving its purpose of acclimation. Even if she still doesn’t know what most of those bad words really mean.


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