“How to say?” she asked.
I showed her the vowel sounds and had her mimic them back to me. The i in kid or lift is especially difficult for Koreans, so this was worthy practice. Then I pointed to the words and spoke them, showing her the difference. She nodded and turned to head back to her seat, but by now, the rest of the class had seen what we talked about.
It was Ayoung who raised her hand first, “Bitch and beach?” (Both nearly identically pronounced.)
I laughed. This particular class is an extracurricular and focuses on English conversation. We’ve been practicing phonetics, so correct pronunciation is a major part of the curriculum. A great way for them to improve their pronunciation is by listening to a native speaker, such as myself. And since my students are very advanced, a solid twenty minutes of each class for the last two weeks involves me telling them stories and allowing them to ask questions. And on this particular day, they asked about swear words.
After teaching them how to properly say bitch, I opened the floor to any question about an English swear word. We covered the f-bomb, hell, bastard (which I explained to mean someone who is a jerk), and one student decided to bring up a certain anatomical reference.
“Asshole!” Yoon-kyung shouted gleefully, immediately covering her mouth to hide a giggle. She has the round face and eyes of a toddler and is in a perpetual state of joy. I have never before heard a cuter rendition of asshole.
Immediately the class wanted to know the meaning. I refused, so Yoon-kyung told them and they groaned in disgust. I recovered by telling them it’s what we call someone who is rude.
“Instead of saying bastard, you could also say someone is an asshole,” I told them.
“Steven, you’re an asshole,” Hyun-gang said. The class burst into laughter.
“Shut up,” I said, and the class laughed even harder. To them, that phrase is the golden ticket to rude town, so naturally I’ve tried to desensitize them to it. A coworker and I have even got them to do a call and response wherein we say “shut” and they say “up” to get them to quiet down before class. It works wonders because they feel like they’re doing something naughty.
If it isn’t already apparent, my style of teaching is playful. I give crap to them and they give it right back to me. At least once a day I’m told that my fashion is terrible or that I’m fat, short, or stupid. I once retorted with, “Your face is terrible!” and a whole new slam was born. Students began telling me that my face was fat, round, or stupid. They had great fun doing it, and even decided to start combining their jabs. “Shut up your stupid face.”
Of course, allowing this behavior can lead to a few mishaps. A few weeks ago I came into a middle-level English class, and, as I was setting up, a student named Yeon-soo called my attention, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “Fuck your face.”
Needless to say, I was flabbergasted. “Where did you learn that?”
“You!” she shouted. “You taught me!”
Now, I’m the first to admit that I’ve a rather incriminating history when it comes to using swear words, but I was certain I’d never let this particular phrase slip. In fact, when discussing the f-word, I myself do not say it. Personally, I’m not offended by it in the slightest, but I know that many of my students want to travel to English speaking countries, and the last thing I need them to do is to drop the atomic bomb of swear words because their English teacher said it was okay. I want to show them that in my culture, it’s often very taboo.
I told Yeon-soo that she shouldn’t say that because if she said it to a foreigner who wasn’t me, they’d be very angry. Then it dawned on me.
“Did you mean, Shut your face?” I asked.
The girl’s face softened in realization. “Yes, teacher! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”
Then again, this pales in comparison the time a student asked if I had a small johnson. But that’s what happens when you’re teaching a foreign language. The curiosity of the forbidden is overwhelming and quite often you hear things that leave you scratching your head, wondering where they could have come up with that. I like to think that by now much of my naïveté has worn off and so, instead of being shocked by what I hear, I try to use it as an opportunity to teach. Because if there’s one thing fun about learning a new language, it’s knowing what awful things you can say with it.