“Should I teach my students swearwords?”
Of course, in practice, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Swearwords are all around us, for sure, whether in songs, in film, on TV and in print, and so your students are likely to come across them sooner or later and many will want to experiment with their use. Just as you and I did back in the day – right? Well, in that case you probably remember what a minefield it was, even in our native language, and how much shit – sorry, trouble – we got in, either for using them at all or for using them in the wrong situation and/or with the wrong people.
Make comparisons with their language
For this reason, then, it is probably a good idea to introduce the topic of swearwords to your students by discussing how they are used in their native language: which ones are acceptable and which ones are taboo, and in which situations, for instance, whether they tend to relate to sex, to body parts/functions or to religion, or whether some are used more by men than by women (or vice versa).
You may also want to ask your students to consider the possible reasons why some people are more offended by ‘bad language’ than by racist, sexist or homophobic language, or why the c-word or the f-word might be considered more offensive than a violent rape scene in a film. This will help raise their awareness of the sensitivity and the cultural complexity of this area of language, and also help some students get over their possible embarrassment at the prospect of swearing in front of their teacher.
Once inhibitions have been broken down, teaching swearwords can actually be great fun for both you and your students. It might be helpful to begin with getting them to give you examples (usually amid much hilarity) of any swearwords that they already know so you can better judge whether it is simply a matter of explaining these words and their use, or whether you could safely introduce a few more examples. After all, if your students are already familiar with words like ‘sonofa*****’ and ‘motherf***er’, for example, there is not much point in teaching them comparatively genteel words such as ‘damn’ and ‘blast’.
Recognize but not use
From the outset, however, you should make it clear to your students that it is enough simply to be able to recognise these swearwords when they hear them – so listening tasks are a good idea here – and to have some understanding of their effect in different contexts – eg to add humour, to express anger, to insult.
At the same time, though, you should also make it clear that actually using their list of swearwords when speaking or writing is a bad idea. In fact, I would always advise students never to swear in English. As non-native speakers of English (unless they are at least C2 level, if not higher), they simply sound rather ridiculous. This is because they are swearing through the filter of their own language without being aware of all the nuances attached to a particular word in English.
But teaching swearwords is still bloody good fun!
Fran Mackereth has degrees in Law with French from the Universities of Leicester and Strasbourg, and in Business with Economics from the Open University, from which she graduated with First Class Honours. During the seventeen years between the two, she taught EFL in the UK, Germany and South-East Asia, having gained her CELTA back when it was called the Preparatory Certificate in TEFL (and dinosaurs sill roamed the earth). She has taught all levels and all ages, both in groups and 1:1, but her primary area of interest has always been Business English, both in-company and in-class. Following a fifteen-year break from teaching, during which time she ran an award-winning blacksmith’s forge with her husband (yes, you read that right), she moved to Italy and returned to teaching. Since her return to the classroom, she has also qualified as an interlocutor for Language Cert oral exams, gained a Certificate in Online Teaching, delivered teacher training courses and written ESP materials. She is currently participating in a Creative Writing course through the University of Cambridge.
Photo AW: Hubei Province, China, 2019