“Bad Language” In Class

shhh.jpgWhen did you last give a lesson on cursing? No, I’m not writing about a certain blogger’s recent lament on the lack of foul language on TEFL blogs, but about an article in the TEFL section of the Guardian. Author Sara Young makes the point that not getting the low-down on “bad” language can negatively impact English language students.

Perhaps the most obvious example is that of the “n-word.” I’ve heard students use it, sometimes just asking about it, sometimes not realizing it’s an inappropriate word choice, or sometimes mixing it up with another “n-word” that also has some negative connotations, though perhaps a slightly different set, which for some reason they think might be better. At any rate, learners using these terms generally lack an understanding of all the connotations associated with them. By no means does this imply it’s fine to say them! They need to know they shouldn’t. I’m not about to engage in a debate on these words, but I think it’s safe to say English language learners are really best off just not using them at all.

Another interesting phenomenon is when students use language they’ve overheard in the wrong context. In general, this is a great opportunity to learn – I’d hate to be insensitive towards a student taking a risk with new language. But a student who writes “For Christ’s sake, the memory card is the best invention of the last 10 years, and my work life wouldn’t be the same without it” needs to realize first of all that this sounds strange and even angry in a relatively formal writing context, and second, that in speech, in the US anyway, plenty of people won’t want to hear “Christ” or some other words in this turn of phrase.

I’m not sure how I would incorporate this into a lesson – perhaps in the context of euphemisms, though combining it with these, if you also include funny examples like “domestic engineer” for housewife, may give the impression that all “alternative” language is silly, when in fact, the scale of the difference in negativity of “housewife” and the “n-word” is gigantic.

To be sure, I try to deal with this vocabulary as it comes up. Comfort yourself by realizing that though it may feel and sound awkward for you, for your students these are just words – to test this, just try swearing in another language! See?

Thanks to Sue from An ELT Notebook for alerting me to this article.