Thursday, June 19, 2008


A screen cap from South Park's episode "Good Times with Weapons."

One of the things newcomers who end up as teachers in Japan love to do is teach profanity to their students. They justify it by claiming its "real" language which students need to know. This is 98% bull cookies. The 2% which is valid applies to people who are interested mainly in consuming entertainment from other cultures which happens to include profanity and those who are going to live in an environment where they will certainly be exposed to "curse words".

The latter is a far smaller portion of the English language studying Japanese population than immature teachers who focus on the profane and scatological would care to recognize. The vast majority of people who interact with foreign culture have no need for such words as they tend to move about in a limited (vacations), official (business), formal (ceremonies), or sheltered (home stay) capacity while abroad. For this reason, I have rarely taught or mentioned such words in my lessons. I think most people teach swearing because it's far more interesting for the teacher to talk about "bad words" than to teach how to use articles or verb tenses. It's also a lot easier for the untrained teacher to prattle on about the "eff word" and it's gang of lesser pals than to learn to teach textbook content.

For the first time, I think I've got a student who actually needs to have knowledge of baser English vocabulary. This student is headed for a university in northern middle America and I'm concerned that she won't be able to relate to college-level pop culture. Her interests lie more with Disney sitcoms that are targeted at pre-teens than in college humor.

Since I'm 43 years old and college was 22 years back for me, I am not sure what college kids are into in this day and age. I asked my much younger friend and partner in pop culture inanity, "the wombat stuffer", as he not only graduated about 2 years ago and is more in touch with what college kids may talk about, but is vastly less mature than me in the best way possible. Anyway, he told me that Comedy Central fare is still valid including South Park, the Daily Show and the Colbert Report. Since my student can't possibly grasp social and political commentary because the context is too broad, I directed her more toward South Park as a means of dipping her toes in the icy water of adult-oriented pop culture.

The main problem with South Park is that it is rife with the kind of language you don't want to teach a Japanese person for fear that they'll use it wrong and look really stupid. Worse yet, they may use it correctly and end up offending someone because they don't grasp appropriate context even when they use proper grammatical usage. This is something I've heard and read on more than one occasion. English colloquial expressions do not flow trippingly out of Japanese mouths. My students are often writing "oh my Got!" I've also read and heard "fack" on multiple occasions. I've have never experienced a student who could use obscenities in a way that didn't make me want to laugh in his face.

The best I can do for my student is send her to the Comedy Central site and recommend she watch a few episodes. Fortunately, I'm also able to direct her to a script site so she can read the English as she can't understand it because it's delivered at lightning speed. Even this is complicated by the fact that dictionaries often do not include the zestier definitions of words. In trying to explain that she'd likely see Kenny (in South Park) die again and again and hear the same lines repeatedly and one of those lines included "bastard", I discovered that the Japanese translation that came up was "unnecessary".

So, if she's hearing, "oh my God, they killed Kenny!" followed by "you bastards!", she's hearing 'oh my Got, they killed unnecessary'! That's not quite the impact the line is supposed to have.

While my intention is to help my student find some cultural touchstones with the college juniors and seniors she'll be associating with, I can't help but feel like I'm corrupting a minor. She's so innocent and clean-minded. I'm rather torn between the feeling that it's "wrong" to expose her to such "impure" influences and the idea that it'd be far worse to send her off to the U.S. in a month with no understanding of the sort of rough talk that she'll no doubt be exposed to. When it comes down to a choice between sullying her with the sort of talk in English that she doesn't use in Japanese or allowing her to end up possibly looking and feeling like a clueless dork, I guess it's better to choose the corruption.


badmoodmike said...

Holy crap! I can see why you are torn...naughty words are kind of a funny area all the way around. You certainly don't want to corrupt a young person, to be sure, but since she is getting thrown to the wolves in a foreign college I would think being forewarned is forearmed.

If we are to be judged based on the board of fare delivered by Comedy Central, we might as well be doomed! I wish I could provide some insight for you, but I, too, am out of touch...even living close to a rather large university. Some tamer programming would be the likes of Family Guy and the Simpsons, but that would be the limit to what I could recommend.

I can understand your views about young teachers teaching naughty words in class. There is a time and place, I would imagine, for teaching some of the colloquial and certainly less well understood parts of a language, that it should be saved for advanced lessons or for those to be exposed to more informal situations. (Or as a reward to good students at the end of a lesson give them a flavor of what we would consider naughty!)

In an informal setting, like friends or coworkers, teaching the baser vernacular might be a decent way to get to know the thought process behind how a culture functions. Such as when I was a contractor and would often go to a Japanese company that was a client, several of the engineers and other Japanese personnel would teach me bits and pieces of Japanese language ... some of it naughty words!

Suffice to say, though it is fun to find out what would be considered naughty in a culture (and could potentially be helpful to remember what to avoid), much could be lost in translation.

Orchid64 said...

I'm actually very concerned about her being amongst the "wolves" in more ways than one. I'm worried that she won't understand the predatory behavior of Western males and I'm worried that she'll be made fun of for being clueless.

Obviously, I hope she'll be in a supportive environment, and I think there is a chance she might be, but I'd like to give her some idea what people might be laughing or joking about in college.

This student is already aware of the Simpsons and she doesn't like it. She thinks the humor is too "mean". Of course, it's got nothing on South Park!

Wally Wood said...

I teach my Japanese conversation partners (adult, married women) what "naughty" words mean so that they can understand them if they hear them, but caution them not to use them because of the context/association problem.

My dictionary, for example, gives "shoshi" (庶子) as the translation of "bastard" meaning, "a child born out of wedlock." I suspect without knowing that calling somebody a shoshi (if it is even in common usage; my dictionary doesn't help me there) has a very different meaning than calling him "you dirty bastard!" or even "you silly bastard" when "the impact changes dramatically with the modifier.

It seems, when I think about it, that maybe more than with most words, context and modifiers change the meaning of profanity. While there is a core meaning, that can be entirely lost in a given situation. Good luck!


Roy said...

I agree that teaching profanity is not a good idea. However, I used to teach a high level discussion class about cultural taboos and one of the main themes was that you could learn a lot about a culture by looking at their bad language.

Most taboo words spawn from things considered taboo in the culture, as you know. E.G. sex and bodily functions in North American/English culture, religion in French, and otherness,handicapness or difference in Japanese culture. I was able to encourage Japanese students to reflect on their own cultural taboos and teach the F word at the same time. :-P

badmoodmike said...

I don't know whether it is truly naughty in meaning or not, but the one word I remember most from my unsanctioned, off-the-cuff Japanese lessons is pronounced "shimata".

This is supposed to mean "sh*t" I guess.

For some reason, it has become rote for me over the years to say this where the English equivalent would normally be used. I don't know why it has become so ingrained as I only worked for the company that farmed me out to the Japanese company for about a year. And that was almost six years ago.