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Dirty words in the language classroom

Man with hands on head looking shockedTony Grice, freelance writer and OUP author, considers whether it is appropriate (or necessary) for teachers to teach ‘taboo’ words in the language classroom.

Swear words, vulgarities and curses – I’ll group them together and call them ‘dirty words’ – exist in all languages. They can colour things in ways which their genteel synonyms cannot, and deliver a punch which only a fist can match.

However, the prohibition on them is almost as universal as the words themselves. It extends even to classrooms where language is actually taught – pretty much the one place where you’d expect dirty words to be arranged in an orderly fashion and behaving respectably. For, despite their wide-spread use and usefulness, we do not teach students of English how to curse and swear in the language they are studying. We are uncertain about whether it should be done, and even if we were sure it was OK, we probably wouldn’t do it very well.

Field research shows we speak an average of 80–90 dirty words per day but, despite their universality, the prevailing view is that dirty words are somehow morally corrosive. Even prolific swearers will abhor their use in front of ‘innocents’ and are shocked when children use them, even when they don’t know what the words ‘mean’. Because we are aware that others judge us by the way we speak, we warn our children and students that the use of dirty words will make them appear disreputable and coarse – as if they didn’t know that already.

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