Oh @#$! Swearing and Taboo: to teach or not to teach?



Although among some of the first words adult language learners are interested in learning, swear words, for the most part, are avoided by most English teachers, rarely included in English language textbooks, and routinely excluded from language learning syllabi. Now, considering that the average (L1) English-speaking adult utters approximately eighty swear words per day (depending on the person, and how one defines swearing), isn’t it time to address this frequently used form of linguistic expression with our adult learners? After all, swearing is not only an effective means for expressing our emotions, but is also commonly used to claim and/or signify membership to a group, display elements of our personality, project various social identities, and add texture and vibrancy to our words. 

With this opening paragraph in mind, I am dedicating this post to the promotion of serious discussion related to the whenwherehow, and why (why not) of addressing swearing with our adult language learners, especially if these language learners find themselves living in English-speaking countries. To this end, and in order to get the discussion started, I will present five reasons why I believe swearing and taboo language should be addressed in adult language classes. 

Reason 1: Swearing and Taboo Language is Omnipresent

There is no escaping it. If you find yourself living in an English-speaking country, consuming English language media, or socializing with with (L1) English-speaking friends, you will be exposed to swearing. And not just exposed to it, in many cases, you will be bombarded with it. For example, it has been estimated that in American-produced television series targeting adult viewers (think Sex and the CityBreaking Bad, and South Park) the prevalence of swearing is in excess of 15 words per hour, with the sweariest of shows peppering viewers with between 10 – 20 swear words out of every 1000 words of dialogue spoken. As for print media, research shows that the rate of swearing in books has increased almost thirtyfold since the 1950s, while swearing online is also a common occurrence, with approximately 1% of all words on Twitter coming from the lexicon of swearing. 

In social situations, swearing is no less common, with field studies suggesting that in daily conversation swear words comprise anywhere between 0.0%-3.4% of all words spoken, with the “average” (L1) English-speaker’s swear word usage ranging from 0.3%-0.7% (which is approximately the same frequency as we use first-person plural pronouns). Aside from conversational swearing, studies into the use of swearing by members of various groups have also clearly shown that swearing is not an infrequent occurrence, with one study exploring language use in a men’s rugby team revealing that swearing made up approximately 2% of total words uttered during pre-match huddles. 

Reason 2: Swearing and Taboo Language is Social 

Contrary to popular belief, the majority of swearing is not aimed at abusing or hurting others. Instead, it is aimed at building and maintaining rapport, expressing closeness and solidarity, communicating membership to a group, showing affection, expressing humour, and creating a relaxed social atmosphere. With these reasons in mind, I believe that by helping our learners better understand the numerous cultural and social functions swearing and taboo language facilitate, we are not only helping them to become more socially competent, but we are also equipping them with the tools they need to build rapport and display belonging in many different social situations, especially when interacting with English (L1) speakers. 

Reason 3: Swearing and Taboo Language is Authentic Language

If you are a language teacher, then you have probably been informed about the importance of using “authentic” language with your learners. And, as much as I personally agree with this, I think, for the most part, we are using the term “authentic” in a modified way. If “authentic” means language without swearing and taboo terms, then most textbooks and curricula are probably adhering to this limited definition of the term. But, if, like myself, you think “authentic” should actually mean authentic (i.e., genuine and based on fact), then you must agree that swearing and taboo language is authentic language worthy of being addressed in our language classes with willing adult participants. 

Reason 4: Avoiding It Does Not Make It Go Away 

Regardless of one’s moral or theoretical stance on the topic of swearing and taboo language, simply avoiding it, does not make it go away. In fact, avoiding the topic of swearing and taboo language with adult learners may inadvertently make things worse, especially given the fact that the misuse and/or misunderstanding of this style of language can lead to a range of undesirable consequences for our learners.  

Reason 5: A Professional Approach to Teaching about Swearing Will Yield Better Results 

Finally, and building on from my last argument, taking a professional and pedagogically sound approach to teaching learners about (i.e., the social, pragmatic, emotional, grammatical, and cultural elements and functions of swearing and taboo language) this style of language will yield better results than simply leaving our learners to acquire this lexically rich, grammatically complex, pragmatically versatile, and socially stigmatised element of language by themselves. This being the case, I believe adult language learners should be afforded the opportunity to learn this stye of language if they so choose (although this does not mean educators should be forced to teach it).

Parting Words

In conclusion, I am not suggesting that language teachers should rush out and start teaching learners the art and science of using and understanding swearing and taboo language – that decision rests with you and your learners. All I am suggesting is that swearing and taboo language is just as much a part of the English language as more formal registers of language, and as such, it is high time the language teaching community engaged in a sincere and open discussion as to the whenwherehow, and why (why not) of teaching about swearing and taboo language with adult language learners.

Shameless plug! If you are interested in learning more, please feel free to read my research article related to teaching about swearing and taboo language to South Korean speakers of English (https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1263547.pdf), or listen to an interview I gave discussing the subject in more detail (link below).

Otherwise, that’s it from me. Thanks for reading. 

Listen to my interview here

Currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Linguistics at Macquarie University, Josh Wedlock has been involved in language education for over a decade. Although currently researching the pragmatics of swearing and taboo language in an additional language, Josh is also interested in the practices, beliefs, and behaviours that enhance language learning outcomes. For more about Josh, please visit www.joshesl.com or connect with him on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/joshua-wedlock-phd


Bednarek, M. (2015). “Wicked” women in contemporary pop culture: “bad” language and gender in Weeds, Nurse Jackie, and Saving Grace. Text & Talk, 35(4), 431-451.

The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/what-the-f-how-much-swearing-is-there-on-tv-24836

Jay, T. (2009). The utility and ubiquity of taboo words. Perspectives on psychological science4(2), 153-161.

McEnery, T. (2006). Swearing in English. New York: Routledge.

Twenge, J. M., VanLandingham, H., & Keith Campbell, W. (2017). The seven words you can never say on television: Increases in the use of swear words in American books, 1950-2008. Sage Open7(3), 2158244017723689. 

Wang, W., Chen, L., Thirunarayan, K., & Sheth, A. P. (2014, February). Cursing in English on twitter. In Proceedings of the 17th ACM conference on Computer supported cooperative work & social computing (pp. 415-425).

Wedlock, J. (2020). Teaching” about” Taboo Language in EFL/ESL Classes: A Starting Point. ORTESOL Journal37, 33-47.

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