Say what?

Say what?I mentioned in my recent post on language learning tips that I have a fondness for naughty words in other languages. A psychotherapist would be able to explain where that enjoyment comes from (and what it says about me), but there’s a very practical reason for at least knowing the common swear words in your target language: you don’t want to inadvertently blurt them out when you mean to say something else.

It’s so easily done. In some cases, just the slightest mispronunciation of perfectly innocent words can land you in hot water. One of my Korean friends swears she’ll never again complain to the front desk about the sheets in her hotel room — we decided that “bed linen” is an acceptable substitute for the trickier “sheet.” (This is the same woman who nearly caused a riot at the airport when she told the immigration officer that a sealed box in her luggage contained Korean snacks. Unfortunately, the officer heard “snakes.”)

We have a rule at our weekly K-Talk sessions that no language or cultural subject is off-limits. That’s why the bed sheet conversation led to a discussion about words that should be avoided in polite conversation. It was a surreal scene — picture a group of middle-aged women sipping tea and swearing like sailors — but they had legitimate concerns, so I was able to shake off my self-consciousness and deal with the subject matter-of-factly. Until I glanced around the coffee shop and noticed that the people at nearby tables were listening intently to every dirty word that fell from my potty mouth. Some were amused, others were shocked, but thankfully, nobody objected to what was clearly an exercise designed to save a group of English language learners from future embarrassment. Now if only my Korean friends would return the favour….


If you’re interested in learning a new language but aren’t sure where to start — or if you’ve already jumped into self-directed learning but have reached a plateau — Aaron Meyers at The Everyday Language Learner can help. Today he launches a series of guides called Stages, which are designed to nudge you along on your journey. Each guide is short and practical, with clearly laid out steps and brilliant suggestions to get you where you want to be. Aaron was kind enough to give me a sneak peak at the first guide, Before You Move Overseas, and as soon as I read it I was instantly filled with regret that I wasn’t able to get my hands on it before I moved to France.


About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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9 Responses to Say what?

  1. Sandy says:

    In my first year in China, I committed an incredible obscenity it my Chinese class. I’m still not sure exactly what I said. I said something to the teacher and there was an audible gasp from the observing teacher in the back. The teacher snapped at me “You must never, ever say that.” If only I knew what I said!

    • Maria says:

      It’s a shame your teacher didn’t tell you what the offending phrase was, so you’d be able to avoid it in future.

      • Sandy says:

        Actually, the student teacher that was observing muttered that it was a really crude word for breasts. I’m just not entirely sure what I said.

  2. Heather says:

    LOL!!! I can see it now: the coffee shop getting quiet and all ears listening to the beautiful ladies swearing…

  3. The image of you letting loose from your potty mouth as the people at the coffee tables nearby listen on is not hard to imagine. I have the same problem. When in France as a younger man, I religiously learned by heart every naughty word I could find. And did it help me in later life including on my expat travels? Absolutely not, but it was fun at the time and my parents never did understand why I kept uttering ‘merde’ around the house when asked to do the chores.

  4. Oh the trouble we can get into with wrong words, swear words, forbidden words… I stumbled on Aaron’s site earlier today, what a funny coincidence! I learned that repeated listening exposure to one thing helps more than broad exposure to many things. I guess you listen harder and take more onboard.

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