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

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Introduction

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

References

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.

Spirituality on sacred ground: tertiary TESOL program design and delivery with Aboriginal Students from a remote community

AusELT member Marnie Wirth provides an account of partnering with her students to create curriculum. She shares her experiences of jointly creating an academic language and literacy program with Aboriginal students from a remote community in northern Australia.

Acknowledgement of Country

I would to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the lands on which we all stand. I pay my respects to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders past, present and emerging. I extend that respect to all on this forum. 

Purpose

I would like to share my experiences of jointly creating an academic language and literacy program with Aboriginal students from a remote community in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia. I developed the program in partnership with the students to support learning within their various bachelor degrees. Students studied and lived on campus at Macquarie University, Sydney. For most students it was their first year at university and their first time living away from their ancestral lands. 

I will describe the context of learning and how we co-created a supportive learning network. As their TESOL teacher, I’d also like to share what I have learnt so far around the place of spirituality in Aboriginal TESOL practice. 

This post is sectioned under four subheadings: 

  1. Context
  2. Co-created program: Student and Community voices
  3. Considering Spirituality in TESOL
  4. Takeaways

Context: the students and their language groups

To help understand the context and main participants, it is important to introduce the students’ community and language groups. The six students are from a remote Arnhem Land community on the Roper River near the Gulf of Carpentaria, NT, Australia. Some of the students have close kinship to Galiwinku, also known as Elcho Island. The students live on campus studying bachelor degrees including: Business, Education and Performing Arts. 

The people in the community are known as Yugul Mangi and the common language among clans is Kriol. The traditional languages spoken in the community are Alawa, Marra, Warndarrang, Ngandi, Ngalakgan, Nunggubuyu, Ritharrngu and Wägilak. The use of English in the community is used for dealing with outsider institutions, such as government agencies.  For many students, English is their third or fourth language. 

Co-created program: student and community voice

Relationship building

Although I have been a long-term supporter of Aboriginal rights and tertiary level literacy development, as a non-Aboriginal person, I am an outsider to their culture. Therefore, creating opportunities to get to know each other was vital to the operation of the program (refer to the Coolangatta Statement).  We got to know each other firstly through conversation while doing activities like sharing stories about family life, bushwalking, shopping, and organising and decorating our learning space. These informal conversations were powerful in building bonds and getting to know students’ interests and preferred ways of learning. Observation of and listening to the students’ stories, politics and ways of seeing the world was invaluable (refer below to Guideline for Preparing Culturally Responsive Teachers, the Alaskan Native Knowledge Network). Given that family, totemic spirits and relationship are integral parts of interpersonal interaction for these students, authentically fostering the relationship between teacher and students is critical (Scull 2016). 

 How the learning sessions were arranged

The students expressed a desire for 1:1 learning sessions which was a functional way to work on their particular needs. To work on their academic language and literacy, they had 1 to 4 hours of 1:1 tutoring with me per week as well as 1 to 2 hours per week with their discipline specific tutors. Together, the students and I coordinated with the tutors and the Student Engagement Team to create a supportive learning network. Personal learning timetables were created for each student. These were shared with the tutors and Student Engagement Team and copies were placed on the walls in their learning space and in my office.

We also conducted weekly workshops every Friday to work on common areas of need, such as sentence structure, referencing, genre and reading skills. 

These workshops were relaxed environments where students assumed responsibility for the structure/organisation, for instance: background music, start with a laugh, food to share and they asked me to bring along my dogs, which the university supported. The aim was to create a supportive and upbeat environment in the weekly workshops (MacIntyre, 2016 p. 6). 

After the workshops, we Zoomed the students’ community Elders and family members. Given the wide cultural divide between remote community life and the big city university life, meeting the Elders and family members over video link was key. The weekly Zoom sessions enabled the Elders to share their knowledge, such as ways of working with the students. They also shared cultural and spiritual knowledge with me to foster understanding. Visually connecting to the Elders and family in real time reduced feelings of homesickness and supported morale. The Elders also used this time to uplift us all with supportive comments about the students’ journeys to date and the program itself.

It was a time to learn and listen to each other; to check in on student progress, to consider emotional wellbeing, to reflect on program structure and aims, and at the least to catch up on each others’ news. 

Arranging the learning demonstrates a recognition and respect for these students’ Aboriginal ways of being and experiencing the world. 

Considering spirituality in TESOL practice

The term spirituality here is about how we find peace and purpose in our life and relationships, rather than doctrine or formal religion. Spirituality comes from the meeting of the natural and supernatural worlds. The Yugul Mangi believe nature communicates messages, warnings, and hope via spiritual presences, signs and symbols that dwell in nature and dreams. While working with the students, I began to learn more about their spirituality and how it is central to teaching, learning and program development, for example, kinship and community obligations around grief. Sorry Business lore meant the program needed to be flexible to give students time to fulfill their obligations and to grieve the loss of the family member.

Another example is an up-close visit of a willy-wagtail bird. In my students’ Aboriginal culture, a willy-wagtail signifies bad news. As the willy-wagtail danced about in front of the student she tried to dodge it, saying ‘Leave me alone you. I don’t want your bad news’. Because of the distance between community and the university, this sighting led to a flurry of text messages and video call conversations with family members back in the community to ensure all was well and to forewarn family to take care. Signs such as these are taken seriously by the students and the community; hence as a person working closely with the students, I needed to acknowledge this and allow time for conversations between kinship groups. Sadly, within 3 days of sighting the willy-wagtail one of the students’ family members suddenly passed away.

Contribution to TESOL professional development: What are the take-aways? 

TESOL programs will have better outcomes when students’ spirituality and cultural lore are acknowledged and supported in an authentic way (Scull, 2016). Authenticity comes from community and student involvement in the design and implementation of programs. 

  • Reflect on the ways in which spirituality influences your own TESOL practice. For further on this: 
Farrell, T. S., Baurain, B., & Lewis, M. (2020). “We Teach Who We Are”: Contemplation, Reflective Practice and Spirituality in TESOL. RELC Journal, 51(3), 337–346https://doi.org/10.1177/0033688220915647 .
  • Become familiar with key documents on the teaching and implementation of education programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, such as:
The Coolangatta Statement on Indigenous Peoples’ Rights in Education (1999)  
Indigenous Literacy Foundation (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander storybook publications)
  • Increase your understanding of indigenous education globally with documents/resources such as:
The Alaskan Native Knowledge Network 
Na Honua Mauli Ola – Hawai’i Guidelines for Culturally Healthy and Responsive Learning Environments 
United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2008)                        

References

Alaskan Native Knowledge Network. (nd). University of Alaska. https://www.uaf.edu/ankn/ .

The Coolangatta Statement on Indigenous Peoples’ Rights in Education. (2006). In What Good Condition?: Vol. Aboriginal History Monograph 13 (p. 229–). ANU E Press.

MacIntyre, P. D. (2016). So Far So Good: An Overview of Positive Psychology and Its Contributions to SLA. In Positive Psychology Perspectives on Foreign Language Learning and Teaching (pp. 3–20). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-32954-3_1 .

Jurgita Antoine. (2013). Na Honua Mauli Ola: Hawai’i Guidelines for Culturally Healthy and Responsive Learning Environments [Review of Na Honua Mauli Ola: Hawai’i Guidelines for Culturally Healthy and Responsive Learning Environments]. Tribal College25(2), 48–. American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

Scull, J. (2016). Effective literacy teaching for Indigenous students : Principles from evidence-based practices. The Australian Journal of Language and Literacy39(1), 54–63.