The Dangers Of Slang For Non-Native Language Speakers


I have had interesting discussions with linguists and intercultural coaches after publishing an article,  “You Are What You Speak: How Language Influences Behaviors”,. The debate was mainly around  words and cultural context.

The most recurrent question was:  Is it the cultural context or environment that impacts the way we attribute meaning to words and then produces thoughts that trigger certain behaviors ? or is it actually the language itself that makes us think and react in a certain way ? I would say both based on differences between regional variations of the main language such as English spoken in UK or American English or Spanish from Spain and South America.

Nobody really found a satisfactory answer as there are too many factors involved in a communication process including personal preferences. However some interesting comments highlighted the differences between native speakers and non native speakers.

I just experienced something quite typical for a non-native English speaker. I use a “curating” tool:  “ScoopIt” that helps compile different articles and blogs organized by specific topics. You can use ScoopIt to automatically quote an article in a WordPress blog then make your own comments, edit text, add images or links to additional resources.

For my previous post I found an article from “Fast Company” about networking and I kept the original title without feeling that something was wrong. One word I did not know sounded “soft” slang to me. The initial title was Yes, It’s Possible To “Network” Without Being A Scumbag … Yes, I know now, that is a really, really BAD wordProbably you were shocked to read that in my blog ! Hopefully I have an American friend who is also a regular reader of my articles who suggested that it was maybe a word I would never use in my language, especially in writing  (Thanks Barbara !). So I look at the translation for this word in French and I felt it was disgusting, obscene and vulgar. Yet when I read the title again in English I do not feel that bad, the word doesn’t trigger any emotional reaction that probably native speakers learned when they were little boys and girls watching the faces of their parents and other adults with a horrified look after they said it.

So English might be the most common language in the business world but I guess few people learn slang and profanity in their English as Second Language (ESL) classes. In every cases I would recommend to learn some slang and other swearing words to understand fully a conversation between natives but would not use them especially in writing.

Back to language and behaviors, many expats report that they behave differently when they think with words from their mother tongue or think and speak using their second language, unlike true bilingual people who learned two language simultaneously. It is clear that emotions and feelings linked to a sound or a word are learned very early in the development stage of babies and young children. It is also true that people who are exposed to technical and international  business English feel much at ease in a professional environment than some native language speakers who do not know specific jargon and didn’t learned leadership skills in English for example

How about You ?

Can you share examples of foreign words you used that were inappropriate ?

What was the reaction of people around you ?

About Anne Egros

Zest and Zen is a blog about Expat Life Challenges, Global Leadership, Intercultural Communication, Health and Wellness, Nutrition, Change Psychology, Life Transitions
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6 Responses to The Dangers Of Slang For Non-Native Language Speakers

  1. enzzzoo says:

    Hello Anne, thanks for this fantastic article. I’ve been looking for someone to write about this intriguing and sensitive subject.

    I can’t really add value to your post with further examples of foreign words that are inappropriate. The fact is that I have heard and read hundreds of distorted terms in my lifetime, but for all the confusion in my mind I can’t really isolate one that is a better example than another.

    Let me explain better. I was born in the US [Little Italy in Philadelphia] but moved to the UK at the age of ten. I’m bilingual as my heritage is Italian; my parents are from two different regions in Italy. I have lived and worked in Italy, Canada and both the north and south of the UK. All the while, due to my job, I have worked with people of many other nationalities. My mind has become saturated with so many national and regional linguistic variations that it causes me some confusion at times. I ended up choosing British English for both my spoken accent and writing style to avoid appearing schizophrenic.

    I’m fortunate to be able to follow conversations no matter how colloquially a person speaks. The downside is that I often cringe at the abuse of the English language but I have to bite my tongue and let it pass for want of coming across as a professor, which I certainly am not.

    Anne, I applaud your call to arms to learn the more colourful and colloquial aspects of the English language. Even natives who think themselves as fluent would do well to learn regional variations and dialects…you don’t have to cross international borders to feel like a fish out of water. 😉

  2. jlhilleary says:

    Oh the memories this brings back, Anne! 😉 When I went to Baku, I was teaching business skills and one class was on idioms. I got embarrassed explaining non-literal meanings when I used “hand gestures”… you can imagine the trouble that ensued!

    My lesson when speaking a foreign language? Keep my hands still (not in my pockets, not under the table- I found both had unsavory connotations!)

  3. Great post, Anne, as usual. There is a great example with the French word con. The original meaning of the French insult, which most people have forgotten, is rather vulgar but it has become so common that people have forgotten that they were referring to female genitalia. However, the literal translation in English, cunt, is perceived as a lot more offensive then when we use it in French. I have seen many French people using the word cunt in English as they would in French and being surprised by the strong reaction it received.

    • Hi Guillaume, excellent example. Yes French word “con” is really used by anybody even children without sounding bad. The real meaning in English would be “stupid” or “idiot” and it is true, nobody think about the literal translation. Thanks for teaching me more slang, I learned another bad word with you today ! Other example: “putain” is used very often to finish sentences in the south of France, it has no strong meaning maybe like “shit” in English. Not very elegant though in a conversation and nobody use it in writing except in novels.

  4. Barbara says:

    Interesting read as always Anne. And it’s also something to see the progression of the meaning of a word. “Scumbag” for example, used to have a very bad conotation –referred to the contents of a condom. Yet it is heard more often now in conversations and has a current definition as “a contemptible or objectionable person” — that definition certainly cleans up its act a little. So, talking to a younger person, the term probably doesn’t sound as offensive, impolite yes, but not as offensive. But in business-speak? I would avoid it like the plague.

    • Hi Barbara, Thanks for giving more explanations. Like you said “scumbag” maybe used more often but translated in French slang it has a much stronger meaning and is totally inappropriate in all circumstances, especially if a foreigner says it with an English accent for example. Bad words and colloquial English in general are very hard to learn if you are not totally immersed in the local language with regional and individual differences. Social status also impacts the way profanity sounds. Coming from your boss, this word doesn’t have the same effect than among peers and friends.

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