Home Education Language Learning When the swear word loses its strength
Last update on November 01, 2019

We think over some implications of the way Belgians use English.

Belgians are superior language learners. A week or so ago I was amazed again by their vast language capabilities. I was waiting for the tram around 10 in the morning so that I could make my English literature class lecture when an elderly man and woman made their way to the stop. As the tram was arriving the man asked me something in Dutch that I didn’t understand. I replied to him in Dutch, “Sorry, maar ik spreek Engels en ik kan je niet goed begrijpen.” (Sorry, I speak English and I can’t understand you well). He immediately switched to English and asked me if I could help his lady friend off the tram in a few stops.

I was amazed that this man, who reminded me of my own grandpa, could so easily put an English sentence together. I said of course that I could help her. I sat next to her on the tram and after a few stops I asked her in Dutch, “Moet je hier afstappen?” To which she replied with a smile, “No, the next one.” She made a little joke about buying too many groceries at the grocery store and I commented back that I usually do that, too. It was the same sort of friendly conversation that I would have with the American equivalent of this sweet older lady. When occurrences like this happen it is apparent to me just how much English pervades life here. This was a pleasant experience but sometimes there are also experiences that give me more of a negative feeling.

It’s common to be walking down the street or sitting on the tram and hear an English swear word thrown in among a string of Dutch words. The preferred expression of girls between the ages of 12 and 25 is, “oh my god.” Because I had a relatively conservative upbringing, these words still don’t often cross my lips. I was made aware at a young age that people can be easily offended by this expression. The choice not to say this expression, in my eyes, has nothing to do with religious preference, but rather a common courtesy that I take in order not to offend someone. The strongest of English swear words, for which we Americans have many silly substitutions (such as ‘freaking’, ‘flipping’, ‘fudge’), is very commonly heard.

When I first moved here, I always felt taken aback when I would hear young people saying this so freely in public. Likewise, sometimes from the mouth of my boyfriend comes the swear word ‘shit’. Although, seemingly less strong of a cuss word to me than the ‘f’ word, it still always makes me look around quickly to see what catastrophe has occurred. I hate it when he says this while we’re in the car because my automatic reaction is to think that something is going terribly wrong. This brings me to my point that as these English swear words cross the barrier of language they seem to lose some of their strength. Belgians, specifically Belgian youth, throw them around with reckless abandon while I still choose to use them more sparingly. Although I hope to someday be able to switch languages as easily as these amazing Belgians do, I don’t want these ugly words to become part of my daily vocabulary. Afterall, damnit, when I say ‘shit’ I want to mean it.