This month, I’m going to look at swearing, so please be advised that there may be some naughty words in this text and reference to some subjects which readers might find offensive or embarrassing.
Come on, let’s admit it, for many people, part of the fun of learning languages is finding all the rude words… or teaching them to a visiting foreigner and watching him try to buy a beer in the pub whilst telling the barman to kiss his behind (as some Irish friends did to an American!). Of course, there is also the eternal experience of mispronouncing a word or making a grammar mistake and producing an embarrassing utterance (think of the “Italian in the hotel” joke and the “sheet on the bed”). Swearing is part of every language, so it is obvious that we, as teachers of languages, are going to encounter it. There are even books written on the subject, such as Dangerous English (ostensibly to teach students about the pitfalls, but probably just as popular because it has ready store of vulgarities for the student to refer to). http://www.amazon.com/ Dangerous-English-2000-Indispensable-Language/ dp/1887744088
One of the problems with swearing is, as with the politically correct language we looked at in a previous article, that it can change over time and across diff erent socio-cultural groups. For example, a word like bloody was once considered a strong word but has become accepted as a mild oath which can be used openly. However, a few years ago it was the cause of some controversy in UK because the broadcasting agencies banned its use in an Australian Tourism Advert (Aussies are renowned for their use of it). It was all the more puzzling for many Brits, who found the advert very funny and totally inoff ensive (and the whole storm provided a lot more publicity for the Australian tourism industry). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TebeNC-_VjA
The word swear sometimes confuses students because it can mean to promise or to use bad language. This probably comes from the fact that promising, or taking an oath, often involved invoking a religious fi gure (Jesus, God, a saint, etc.). However, using such a word without just cause was seen as blasphemy. So, using religious words out of context was seen as inappropriate and potentially off ensive. The meaning came to include any words which were socially inacceptable to use publically. Some linguists have pointed out that swear words often change as society’s tastes change. So, whereas using religious words may have been a serious misdemeanor in days when religion had a stronger social hold (or still does, in some places), they are not so off ensive to many people. However, sexually based swear words, which were once readily used (check out Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale”) are now considered some of the strongest words in English, presumably because our views on sex changed at some point. Many modern swear words which are considered mild, such as bloody, crickey, and damn (“darn”) are based in stronger religious phrases, such as “Blood of Christ”, “Christ”, etc. In older literature, you might fi nd the term “Wauns”, which comes from “Wounds of Christ” and was presumably quite strong in its day. My father said that when he was at school, the boys used to giggle when a character in Shakespeare’s Macbeth asks, “What bloody man is this?”, although the word in question refers to the man being covered in blood, not as a curse. In my class, we giggled when the Duke of Gloucester referred to one of King Lear’s daughters as “You naughty woman!”, as it seemed trivial or suggested something slightly risqué. Our teacher pointed out that he was actually using a strong insult, saying she was a “nought”, “nothing”, a “loser”.
In UK, there are two ways to gauge the severity of profanity. One, although certainly not 100% eff ective, is to ask an Englishman if he’d say it in front of his mother. Seriously, even when I was in the army, and my mouth produced more F@#ks than a brothel on piece work, I was physically incapable of saying it in front of my mum! I practically choked. A second, and more eff ective way, is to see which words are on TV before the “watershed”. The “watershed” is a point on British TV and radio where it is assumed the children are in bed and the grown-ups can watch a bit of sex and violence and listen to naughty words. Really! Particular kinds of words and visual action are not allowed to be broadcast before 21.00 (and, even after that, some are still restricted). It’s quite interesting watching a “hard-hitting” drama at 20.30, where the characters are saying things like “damn” and “crap”, and then watching one after 21.00, where the F’s and “Shits” appear.
So, how does swearing fi t into language teaching and learning?
I was in the pub one evening, having just played a concert, when a middle aged man, obviously well educated, came up and started talking to me. He began with, “Where the F@#k are you from?”, to which I told him. He then asked, “Where the F@#k is that?” What was strange was that he seemed to think he was being very eloquent in English and that this was a totally acceptable way to address someone. The next night, I met another man who was chatting with me in a friendly manner and then asked, “So, who the F@#k are you and what the F@#k are you doing here?” He kept using this kind of punctuation until I answered his questions using one F for every other word. He seemed to get the idea that I was not happy with his English.
What puzzled me for a while, and several Polish friends I mentioned it to, was why these obviously educated men thought this was appropriate. Of course, the reason probably isn’t that hard to work out. A lot of examples of spoken English are heard in the cinema, on TV, and on the radio. This is also ‘helped’ by the fact that censors in non-English speaking countries may not choose to restrict access to the language content or use a milder form in the dubbing/lector/subtitles. Hence, a fi lm in UK which might have a high age certifi cate due to bad language might be more accessible to a younger audience abroad. I recall seeing the fi lm Billy Elliot in Poland. At one point, a girl tells Billy, “I’ll let you see my fanny.” The Polish subtitles translated this as “pupa”. Now, there’s a problem… in American English, this would be correct, but the fi lm is set in North-East England, where it isn’t. She was actually referring to what she had in front, not behind! I can imagine someone who has learned this word trying on some jeans in the shop and loudly asking his or her boyfriend, “Does my fanny look big in this?”
Likewise, records which contain strong lyrics might readily be played on breakfast radio, whereas they would not be played until late evening in UK (if at all). One result of this, which sticks in my mind, was the day a sweet, little, angelic primary-schoolgirl came up to me and asked, “What does @#$%^& mean?” because she’d heard it in the lyrics of her favourite rapper (of course, her parents didn’t speak English). Another example was when Kuba Wojewódzki appeared on the jury of Mam Talent, talking to a 9-year old girl whilst wearing a t-shirt saying “Who the F#$k is Mick Jagger?”(his wasn’t censored). I found this extremely off ensive, as while the girl might not know what the word meant, Kuba obviously did. Imagine if Simon Cowell had been on BGT wearing a Polish language T-shirt… FAKT would have had a fi eld day.
This kind of exposure to swearing can mean that the student learns the words but not necessarily the social context in which they should be used. Of course, exposure to native speakers isn’t always helpful, as I know plenty of people who use f@#k as a kind of punctuation and somehow manage to come away without being off ensive. So, how should we, as teachers, deal with swearing?
Of course, some teachers fi nd the subject awkward and just prefer not to deal with it, perhaps, just saying, “You can’t use that word!” To be honest, I fi nd this approach frustrating, as it can leave the student confused, particularly as some social contexts change the severity of the obscenity and, in some cases, the word may be perfectly acceptable. As well as this, there are some words which are commonly used which, while not always appropriate, are not always easy to replace.One such example is the word shit. This is usually considered an off ensive word, not to be said infront of children but quite often used inoff ensively amongst adults as an adjective, noun, or verb. One day, a Polish/German friend of mine used it, (Oh, someone has left shit in the toilet!”) just before we were due to receive British guests. I advised her to be careful about using it in front of some of the older guests, as it might off end them. Surprised, she asked what she should use instead. I had to think, as most of the words I could think of were either too technical (turd, faeces, stool) or more childish (poo, jobby). I then began wondering why I couldn’t think of a neutral word, coming to the conclusion that, unless the social context calls for it, we simply don’t mention these things by name! I mean, if I was at the doctor’s, it would be perfectly natural to be asked about my stools, but I wouldn’t use that with a kid, “Have you produced stool today? ”Neither would I announce in polite company, “Excuse me, I just need to evacuate a turd”: I’d just say I was going to the toilet. That said, amongst mature adults it is often quite possible to use the word shit to emphasize distaste or lack of quality. This is, however, a matter of judgement.
It’s important to remember that just because the student learns the word, it doesn’t mean he/she has to use it. One of the benefi ts of talking about profanity in class is that the student can learn which words are not acceptable and which are. The teacher can advise (as best he/she can). Often, a student doesn’t realize the severity of the word being used. I had one 17-year-old genuinely ask me, “Why can’t I say ‘f@#k?’ “. I took the bull by the horns and whispered one of the possible to him… his eyes popped. “Oh, I see!”
Of course, I’m not suggesting we should line up our primary students and give them a lesson in how to swear. We need to show discretion in what we let them use and what they learn. One of my colleagues took the opportunity to discuss the appropriateness of using certain words in a classroom context when one of his older teenage students started speaking about oral sex in the classroom. Firstly, he corrected her grammar (“It’s give, not do!”) but then pointed out that it was not appropriate in the classroom as it might off end others. Such an instance might be useful for opening a discussion about which words you might use (both in English and in the students’ own language) in which social situations and why it might be off ensive to others.
Another tactic I have sometimes used is demonstrating how some words can change in meaning in diff erent situations. Usually, I use milder words. For example, my teenage students sometimes giggle nervously when I teach the word bitchy (it’s in an FCE activities book). I usually turn from the board and say, “OK… let’s look at the word ‘bitch’.” I spend some time pointing out it has a range of strength, from being a nasty word for a female to being an American verb to complain (as well as a female dog). I then point out that whilst it is not really a ‘bad’ word, it isn’t one I would use to someone I don’t know.
With older groups, and those which are willing, it is possible to give them texts (fi lm scripts are useful) and see which words they can identify as profanities. They could then try to rewrite the text using less off ensive words. This can be quite funny, especially if they are encouraged to try to make it as ridiculous as possible (there is a very funny Polish cabaret sketch where the speaker acts as lector to a record of a rapper swearing. The Polish ‘translation’ takes some of the strongest sexual swear-words and translates them as childish playground taunts, etc.).
Another activity which can be both fun and instructive is to look at potentially embarrassing phrases which might be made from innocent word combinations. The above mentioned book has several good examples. This is particularly useful when the students’ own language doesn’t translate directly into the same words in English. For example, in English, the testicles are more commonly called “nuts” or “balls”, whereas in German and Polish, they are called “eggs”. An example of an embarrassing situation might be when someone’s child has taken your kid’s tennis balls away. Imagine walking over to the parent and loudly demanding, “Please tell your daughter to stop pinching my son’s balls!” OK, it’s all very childish, but it can raise awareness of potentially awkward situations. I had one situation in class with my Polish teenagers, not long after moving to Poland. One girl had left her mobile on. Usually, if the phone goes off , I’ll ask, “Oh, what’s his/her name?” On this occasion, I said, “Just tell him you’re in class and you’ll meet him for ice-cream later!” Now, imagine the puzzled face of the teacher at the sight of a class of teenagers going red with laughter…