When Your EL’s New Word Has Four Letters


When Your EL’s New Word Has Four Letters

I’ll never forget a fabulous group of second graders I taught who were the most foul-mouthed group of kids I’ve ever met. Sweet as could be, yet these English Learners would oh-so-casually drop language that would make a sailor blush. Then I read something I thought profound: curse words don’t translate.  That got me thinking.  Of course the denotation of a curse word is translatable, the concrete meaning always has a respective translation, but the connotation does not. The shock, the horror, the whatever-emotion-you-experience-when-you-hear-a-six-year-old-drop-the F-bomb, is completely lost in translation.

The thing that makes a curse word a curse word, is completely cultural and completely relative. Granted, most curse words have to do with defecating, sex, or other taboo topics, but there is nothing, besides the fact that culture has dictated it is so, that makes the word “sex” less offensive than the word f**k.  Each language has their own offensive words, but a transliteration of them would no doubt lack the impact of the original outside of its cultural context. That’s why to English learners sh*t is just another word in the –it word family. So don’t be surprised if it shows in their writing or you hear it on the playground. English learners may pick up these words on tv, from their peers, or even parents, who may not understand the impact of a word and fail to pass on the cultural context when they use it. And of course, there will always be those few who think it’s funny to teach an English Learner a bad word to get them in trouble.  At the end of the day though, it’s not a hill to die on. Address it, teach some alternatives (I suggest “pickles”), and move on. You’ve got more important battles to fight.


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