Should ELT materials teach swear words?

This is something that we’ve been talking about for decades and we’re probably no nearer to reaching a consensus than we were at the beginning.

Swear words as content

I’ve never been asked to include swear words in published ELT materials. There are obvious reasons for this of course and as many of the materials I’ve written have been for children, the omission is hardly surprising. But a conversation the other day got me thinking about how and when it might be useful to include swear words and how the only likely place to find any meaningful reference to them will be in materials that teachers create for their own learners.

Swearing in another language

One of the arguments that is often put forward for teaching swear words in class is that learners should be able to recognise them when they hear them, especially if they are on the receiving end of an insult. While there is a logic to this, my feeling is that there is a more pressing reason to teach them: to make sure that anyone choosing to use them, does so correctly. Not just in terms of pronunciation, which is usually less of a problem, but in terms of usage, and in particular appropriateness and register.

Put your hands up if you’ve ever heard an L2 English speaker trying to impress with a colloquial use of swear words but coming across as sounding ridiculous? This happens to all learners of all languages of course and is probably a good reason not to even attempt to use vulgarities until you have a certain command of the language. In my experience, even at that point you stand a fifty-fifty chance of sounding daft. I’m speaking from experience here – my own experience of using swear words in Spanish. I’ve definitely been that daft one. What about you? Have you used a swear word in a foreign language and been told it just sounds wrong?

So, should it be F off or F on?

Some of the authentic content around which we create our classroom materials is littered with colourful language, so it might be an idea to highlight it in some way, especially if learners are likely to ask about it. Film and video will help learners with pronunciation but how do we tackle usage and register without addressing it explicitly through materials? Or should we just steer clear? I don’t have the answers, but it’s something that might be interesting to discuss.

There are swear words and swear words

Part of the problem is, of course, that there are swear words and swear words. Some, like the ‘c’ word being the most offensive in my opinion. Sorry, I can’t even bring myself to write it, let alone say it. So if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ll need to do an internet search. And then there are more anodyne words, like cockwomble*, one of my all-time favourites, nearer the bottom in terms of strength of insult but extremely rewarding to slip into a conversation.

Context is everything

At the end of the day we should probably treat swear words like any other potentially risky content. We should consider the context of those who will be using the materials, learners and teachers. We usually know what will work and what won’t. If you aren’t sure, I tend to think, ‘if in doubt, leave it out’ is a good maxim.

*I feel a small sense of accomplishment for having slipped this word into a blog post. It’s the small things, eh?

Kath

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What do YOU think?

We’d love to know whether any of you have ever created teaching materials which highlight swear words and especially, how well it was received by your learners … and whether you’d do it again. We’d also like to know any other thoughts you have on the subject.