Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

F on or F off? Should ELT materials teach swear words?

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. I’ve been that daft one. What about you? Have you used a swear word in a foreign language and been told it just sounds wrong?

Dive in or steer clear?

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.

C words

Part of the problem is, of course, that there are swear words and swear words. Some, like 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 maybe other 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.

What do YOU think?

I’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. I’d also like to know any other thoughts you have on the subject.

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

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4 thoughts on “F on or F off? Should ELT materials teach swear words?”

  1. I taught a very entertaining 2-hour lesson on swearing about 10 years ago with an upper intermediate group in Newcastle, all in their early to mid 20s (as I was too at that point). I taught them for 20 hours a week for 3 months. Our morning lessons focussed on FCE, and our afternoon lessons mostly also on FCE but with a little more flexibility. After a few weeks of noticing them all swearing in their own languages, I asked them if they’d like to learn how to do it in English. We all really enjoyed the lesson, and they said that it was useful to understand the difference between a lot of swear words they’d heard on TV or in films, but never really knew about. I’ve probably still got the materials I made on my old computer somewhere…

    1. Hi Sandy,
      Thanks for writing. I bet those students have never forgotten that lesson! I think it just has to be the right place at the right time. This example sounds perfect. I’d have done the same, I’m sure. And yeah, I bet there are lots of students who come across swearing in films or series and don’t really have a grasp on what they mean or how they shouldn’t be used.

  2. I’ve been pondering this in the last few weeks, as I teach an advanced Ukrainian ESOL class, mostly young adults about to get UK jobs and some teens who will soon be going into mainstream UK schools. I’d love to do something on swearing to prepare them for some of the language they’ll hear, but I don’t know them well enough yet to decide. Might be fun to include the contradictory meanings of swear words, just to reinforce how complicated it can be. ‘It’s bollocks’ vs ‘It’s the dog’s bollocks’. ‘I’m shit at maths’ vs ‘I’m shit hot at maths’ etc.

    1. Hi Fiona,
      Thank you for taking the time to comment. That’s a great suggestion. You could make a worksheet if you decide to do it. I totally get what you say about not yet knowing them very well though. I’d be reticent if that were me. Good to ponder though.

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