“What kind of language do I need to steer my students to avoid?”

Most learners want to be understood as much as understand, and this involves a need to not only know the language item in question, but to apply it appropriately. Hymes (1972) termed this communicative competence and defined it as whether and to what degree something is:

  1. formally (i.e. grammatically, syntactically) possible
  2. feasible
  3. appropriate in relation to the context in which it is needed or used
  4. actually performed

In terms of language to avoid, point (3) above is particularly important: learners need to get a communicative “job” done, but they need (and want) to do this without upsetting or offending anyone, and often without sounding “foreign.” It is therefore important for learners to learn both formally appropriate functional language and also to come to grips with any taboos or sensitive areas of language in the culture of their target language.

Every culture has its own norms and it is hard to generalize across different varieties of English. However, I believe that some areas where linguistic sensitivity is required can be mapped out.

The following are just a few example areas – issues surrounding race and gender (pronouns) will be dealt with in future posts.


I would encourage learners to avoid terms such as crippled, mad, deaf, blind, demented, and replace these terms with wheelchair user, hearing-impaired, sight-impaired, living with dementia/mental illness. You may think that no student would actually want to use a word like crippled or demented, but i) in their country such words may still be considered ‘acceptable’, ii) through the filter of English they may, for the student, feel less offensive or have a different connotation, and iii) the student may have stumbled across such words and simply want to test them out.

Marital status and children

Particularly for women, this can be a sensitive area; single/lone parent is both gender-neutral and non-judgmental and could be taught as an alternative to unmarried mother.


Bare imperatives may get a job done (and thus fulfil Hymes’ 4th criteria), but the risk of sounding impolite and demanding (especially to British English ears) is high. Lower level learners could be encouraged to use antecedent “please” (Please put the book on the table; Please give me an apple) as well as learning modal structures (I would like…) as chunks.

Explore connotations

I’ve found that the best way to teach language that is best avoided (and vocabulary and lexis in general) is to explore connotation with learners when they come across a new term (or bring them up in class). By allowing learners to engage with the connotations (positive and negative) of words and phrases such as Give me a coffee vs. I would like a coffee or My brother is crippled vs. My brother uses a wheelchair increases both their vocabulary and their general language awareness, and so empowers learners to make informed linguistic choices outside the classroom. Learners at the B1 level and beyond may enjoy authentic listening materials (or, if possible in the teaching context, live interviews with L1 speakers) around a sensitive topic in order to explore the language used “in the field”. 

References: Hymes, D.H. (1972); On Communicative Competence in: J.B. Pride and J. Holmes (eds). Sociolinguistics. Selected Readings. Harmondsworth: Penguin, pp. 269-293.

Kirstie Jackson Wilms worked as a face-to-face General English trainer in Oxford before moving to Germany in 2010, where she continued to teach (mainly) Business English online. She joined the Publishing team of an online training provider in 2018. Kirstie is CELTA and DELTA qualified and is currently working towards an MA in Professional Development in Language Education (MA PDLE). Her professional interests are in developing learner autonomy through materials writing and classroom practice. In her free time she enjoys hiking, reading crime novels, and watching cricket. Check out her blog: https://tefl45.wordpress.com/