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Taboo or not taboo?

May 01, 2008

Hello again,

Should we censor the English we teach? I suppose if our students are under a certain age, we should avoid any coarse and vulgar expression but adults might well demand a smattering of oaths and rude words, if not to use, at least so...

... they can understand when facing abusive language from others.

I confess I have devised a lesson on taboo language to satisfy the demands of successive classes to know more on this topic. To prepare the ground I always have a discussion about how the students in the group use offensive language in their native tongues: how often, to whom, under what circumstances. I then ask them to think about how their choices are made: are there people to whom they would never swear no matter how provoked? I can then explain that the use of such words is highly idiosyncratic. In some circles, expletives are used freely and nobody is surprised or offended. In others such language would be ill advised as it would brand the speaker as impolite and ill-educated.

Then I offer a rating system for the terms. A one-star word or expression can show emotion but is not likely to be considered unduly offensive. At the other end of the scale a five-star rating indicates something too strong for use unless the speaker wants to cause deep offence. Some dictionaries do this, so you can cross-refer with the dictionary you are using.

My next step would be to find an article on the topic. Try this URL if you want something very meaty on this topic: http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A753527 (The Origins and Common Usage of British Swear-words). According to the article I use, I prepare some question for students to discuss in pairs or groups. The questions usually involve grouping words according to their literal meaning, then to the ways in which they are used. I also ask them to think about why certain subjects become the source of coarse words: religion, body parts, sexual activity. I then initiate a class grading exercise to see if the learners have managed to pick up on the level of offensiveness. I make sure that by the end of the lesson they really do have their ratings correct as the chances are that some of the students will try the expressions out.

I realize that I have evaded the issue of whether teachers should teach this type of language or not. Firstly, I don’t think we should ask any teacher to do so who is uncomfortable with the topic. I am not all that comfortable with it myself and will not give this type of lesson to students who have an immature attitude. On the other hand, this is an integral part of the language and learners will meet vulgarity in English at some point, so I think it is legitimate to teach it. I would not make the topic a core part of any curriculum but if the learners request such a lesson and can deal with it in a mature and responsible way, then I think schools should find a way of providing it.

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  1. waltereggars Says:

    I teach at a university for students hoping to be translators or get a masters degree. They take it pretty serious. I had a number of requests to help them how to interpret the many uses of the word "sh!t" especially.

    I found a transcript to Dirty Words by George Carlin - I play it and then have a full discussion of the words, what they mean in different contexts and approach the whole subject rather clinically.

    After the first 5 minutes of laughter the joke gets old and the invariably settle in and really seem to get a lot out of it. I have found it to be one of my most productive lectures.

  1. Doreen Nestor Says:

    Dear Brenda

    I'm sure you did not write the "Hi all!" introduction. It is littered with so many basic mistakes that it made me shudder. E.g."To" for "Too", the possessive "Your" instead of the contracted form and "Weeks" instead of "Week's". Please ask the writer to be more careful, as it does make one lose confidence in those associated with teaching the English language.

    Many thanks

  1. Brenda Townsend Hall Says:

    Hello Doreen,

    I am not sure which post you are referring to. I never begin an entry with "Hi all." I am sure I am as guilty as anybody of making typos from time to time but these particular errors do not seem to be in my entries. If you are referring to comments by teachers left here for discussion, then I post them warts and all as I was once accused of being patronising because I corrected errors.

  1. kevin Says:

    Obscenity and vulgarity exist. In the real world it is in deeds and situation, not speech. In the English language it is in the minds of those who were culturally indoctrinated.
    The inappropriateness and use of English expletives are not always obvious to foreign language learners. An enthusiastic student came into my class one day and told me he fucking loved to be there. It wasn't meant to be shocking; maybe he had seen one too many videos. Maybe he heard somebody talking that way. It turned into one of those learning moments.
    It's confusing. Students should probably get some instruction on bathroom euphemisms and conversational niceties.
    Just telling students to avoid certain words that they often hear only leads to more confusion. Are their film heros being bad? Are the people next door really low class?
    Also, many "dirty" words are entirely dependent on context and are innocent by themselves. Example: In public it's acceptable to say, "cock your hammer" or "prick my finger" but try saying them in reverse.

  1. gabriel Says:

    On her last day, as a Host Student with us, our girl told us something shocking/funny! Her first few days at school many students asked how to say 'English expletives' in her native Dutch language. Surprised, I asked her what she did. Her answer was, 'I told them I didn't know'! I'm sure she didn't...but I'm also sure she learned a couple of English ones to take home with her!?!?

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