Swearing and Naughty Words in Two Languages

by expert · 4 comments

Suzanne’s son gleefully sharing his multilingual knowledge.

By Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert

Becoming fluent in another language is only complete when you have mastered the swearwords. Formal or school classes simply don’t teach them. Knowing them is not enough, because getting them wrong can make you look immature.

Swearing confidently in another language is a true skill only learnt from being immersed in the culture. This was clear when I taught young adults English in a language school in London; those who frequently slipped in forbidden words were either going out with an English boyfriend/girlfriend, or watching a lot of television after 9pm (where swearwords are allowed).

My children’s first experiment with swearing came when my third child, Gabriel, was born. His older brother and sister innocently asked me ‘How do babies learn to speak?’ I replied that babies learn though repetition.

During a short car journey they managed to teach him to say the mildly naughty French words caca (poo) and pipi (pee) in less than five minutes, proving that young children can instinctively sense words that have an effect on parents.

Seven-year-old Gabriel still likes to use these words liberally, and collapsed in giggles on the sofa while watching the Brazilian World Cup match and hearing them talk about the footballer called Kaká.

But that’s nothing, compared to the variety of swearwords that primary and high school kids know. One day I had our French cousins, aged ten and eight, over to stay with my two older kids, nine-year-old Marc, and Nina, who was seven.

The children played with a set of washable bathroom pens designed for toddlers. I walked in to see a wall of graffiti that I could not understand. The cousins thought this was hilarious. An aunt they could swear to without her reacting!

So I sat them down with a pen and paper and asked them to write down the Top 10 Bad Words. I was shocked, the one and only swearword I’d learnt on my French exchange visit twenty odd years ago (merde) was nothing compared to the list of words that appeared to be part of their everyday playground vocabulary.

Marc and Nina reassured me that they didn’t use them but, rather worrying, knew all of them.

How do we deal with swearwords in a bilingual family?

Three issues came up in a recent discussion on swearing with parents in a Bilingual Support Group:

  • As parents, how do we recognize and ban swearwords in our second language?
  • Should we teach our children swearwords in both languages?
  • What happens when words in one language sound bad in the other language?

Swearwords are tied closely to society and children like to fit in so picking up a few swearwords or slang words is quite normal in terms of language development.  Even if we don’t like it our kids will, at some point, try out a few naughty words for amusement or shock value.

The school playground is often the source of many bad words. But these words are not found in dictionaries or language classes, so you need to listen into kid’s conversations, or ask local friends with kids. What is important is to know the overall shock-rating of specific words.

Which words are ‘acceptable’ for children to use together (like stupid/idiot)? Which words are ‘adult’ (like bitch/whore) and unsuitable for young children? Some languages may have a ‘lighter’ version, like saying ‘shoot’ or ‘sugar’ to replace a swearword, which a child can get away with without upsetting too many people.

Which words should you ban? If in doubt in a second language do ask your child’s teacher, or a close friend with children who can advise you on your child’s language.

Should we teach our kids swearwords in two languages?

If you are living away from your first language your children only get limited language modeling from their parents. Even if your kids hear you swear (it’s easy to lose your cool in a traffic jam or with a grumpy salesperson!), remember a younger generation often has different words and won’t necessarily copy their parents. Their model is children of their age, so children living away from one culture can miss out of current swearwords.

Patricia, British mother of three bilingual French/English kids living in France, says she lets her friends with kids from England help out, asking them to slip in a few naughty words or slang when they come to visit so her kids will know what real English kids say at school. Books and films or television series for kids sometimes have a character who swears, this is useful because the words are in context and can be explained.

There can also be times when an innocent word in one language becomes dangerous in another. Like the French word for seal, phoque, which caused some embarrassment when we were playing Pictionary in England and my kids were thinking in French first, and started shouting out the word loudly.

The sweet tales of dancing mouse Angelina Ballerina unfortunately have a Miss. Zizi, the French word for a boy’s willie. I’m guilty too, I thought the French word for swimming pool, piscine, was hilarious as a teenager, me and my friends liked to say ‘We’re going to the piss-cine!’These language blips amuse kids and are generally harmless, but it’s worth explaining to confused relatives or friends why your child is laughing.

Swearwords and naughty words are part and parcel of learning a whole language for a child. Although it can seem daunting to have to deal with a hidden unwritten linguistic code it is part of your child’s world and should not be underestimated.

Curious about French/English swear words?
Click here to find a list for young kids.  And click here to find a list for older kids.  Have fun!

Do your multilingual children use swear words in their different languages?  How do you feel about your children using swear words in different cultures (where one culture may be more lax about it and other more strict)?

Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert is British and married to a Frenchman. The family lives in France with their three more-or-less bilingual children. Suzanne has a Masters in Education and teaches English as a second language. She independently researches family bilingualism and multilingualism. Suzanne is the author of Language Strategies for Bilingual Families - the one parent-one language approach and Bilingual Siblings: Language Use in Families. (Multilingual Matters, 2004). Suzanne is on the Editorial board of The Bilingual Family Newsletter and writes a quarterly column: Notes from the OPOL Family about life with two languages and cultures.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Colleen Trimble July 28, 2010 at 9:34 am

Interesting article, hoping my daughter will get all her slang and naughty words from her 3 older cousins in the states!!


2 Monica July 28, 2010 at 8:24 pm

Funny! You know, growing up I always thought swearing in Spanish was much dirtier than swearing in English. To my ears, they just sounded much worse. (I think they still do!)
So I do wonder, if swearing in the minority language seems “more shocking” than it does in the community language. Do you think it is just desensitization? We hear it so much, we don’t even flinch when we hear it?


3 Alice July 28, 2010 at 11:38 pm

I think swearing in majority language German sounds more shocking … 😛 … so I swear in English all the time. Somehow it doesn’t seem quite that bad when in English. I really should watch my mouth, though…lest my kids pick up on this …(so far they have been really good, though).


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