How NOT To Use a Language

So you’re learning a new language, or thinking of doing so. That’s awesome! You have probably tallied the numerous ways you can use your newly acquired knowledge, from ordering your favorite ethnic dish, to conversing with non-English speaking relatives, to reading street signs on your next trip abroad. But, as with any language, words can be used effectively or ineffectively. Here are a few ways you should not use a language in order to avoid misunderstanding, conflict and harm:

Pronounce the words incorrectly.
My brother told me about a recent conversation he had with a friend. She was recounting what she did on a Korean-themed night out and referred to her post-dinner activity as “no-ree-bang.” Although initially confused, my brother soon learned she was talking about karaoke.

“I told her it’s actually pronounced ‘no-rae-bahng,’” he told me. “But she said, ‘I like to call it no-ree-bang.’ That hurt my pride a little.”

Taking the time to learn how to properly pronounce words is just as important as learning vocabulary and grammar. It leads to better communication and also demonstrates your respect for the language and the culture.

Esther Graphic

Granted, many languages contain unfamiliar sounds that are difficult to mimic and master. Different dialects and regional accents might make it even trickier. Our current understanding of how vowels and consonants work in English (or whatever your native tongue may be) inhibits our ability to adopt these phonetic nuances. Fortunately, there are many ways to practice and improve your pronunciation, such as watching TV shows or singing in the language you’re learning. This being said, it is perfectly fine to speak with an accent! Accent and pronunciation are not the same thing, and pronunciation is arguably the more important of the two (although striving towards greater accuracy by imitating a native accent is also beneficial).

Learn only the swear words.
Collecting an inventory of basic phrases in other languages is a great way to begin studying them. “Hello, how are you?” or a simple “please” and “thank you” can make a positive impression when traveling around a foreign country and speaking to native peoples – communicating on their level rather than expecting them to accommodate to you makes them more open to listening to what you have to say and helping you. What does not impress them, however, is profanity.

Learning how to swear in a different language seems to be a popular trend in today’s culture. There is a series of books called “Dirty [insert language here]: Everyday Slang from ‘What’s Up?’ to ‘F*%# Off!’” dedicated to teaching this “skill” in languages spoken all over the globe, from Chinese to Yiddish. The back-cover summaries of these books boast that their pages contain “enough insults and swear words to offend every person in [insert country here].”

The person picking up such a book or asking a friend to teach these terms might just be looking for a little humor, but these laughs come at a price. Contrary to the popular children’s rhyme, words do hurt. Speaking in this way is an abuse of the power of a language, leading to separation rather than constructive fostering of relationships. In addition, showing interest in only the profane or derogatory phrases undermines the richness of the language and its primary purpose.

Speak to isolate.
When used appropriately and well, language is a tool to connect people. A shared language unites two separate entities, whether that be two individuals or two countries. In contrast, language can also create distinct groups – the speakers and the non-speakers – and cause isolation.

Engaging some in a conversation in a language that others do not comprehend creates an impenetrable and obvious barrier to communication. Those who are excluded are often left anxiously wondering what is being discussed. While this practice occurs deliberately, as some may utilize a foreign language to gossip or scheme, it can also happen unintentionally.

In the US, there is a growing problem of linguistic isolation. By the US Census Bureau’s definition, a linguistically isolated household consists of no members over 14 years old who speak English “very well.” In 1990, there were 15.8 million people who reportedly could not speak or had difficulty speaking English, compared to 3.1 million people in 1910[1]. In 2000, about 45 percent of people who spoke another language reported they could not speak English “very well.”[2] This phenomenon is perpetuated by the fact that the vast majority of people in the country speak English and only English, preventing outreach to those who do not share this language.

Many of us are going about our daily lives without realizing the ramifications of our speech behaviors and building ever higher walls of isolation. Those who speak or are learning another language are moving in a positive direction to potentially combat linguistic isolation. At the same time, these people must remember to not isolate the original population they came from by speaking this new language.




Esther HeadshotI am a first-generation Korean American, born in Hawaii, raised in Southern California and now studying photojournalism at Boston University. Some of my favorite things are earl gray tea, Radiolab, rainy days and Jesus. I hope to spend my life capturing moments of joy on camera and sharing stories that deserve to be heard. Pictures of my most recent adventures and projects can be found