The reality is students are exposed to bad language at a much earlier age then previous generations. The Internet has provided young learners with access to songs with provocative lyrics, films with verbally abusive characters and the opportunities to speak with their peers on the other side of the world; granting pupils the knowledge of how to swear in any number of languages. Here’s how teachers need to deal with this reality and how can they make swearing in class work to their advantage.
No one should be allowed to be abusive or insulting in a class. Students (and teachers) using the expression “Fuck off” should be reprimanded as they should if they use “Sod off!” or any other expression of that ilk. However, the use of swear words in everyday speech should be treated in a different manner. By dealing with the event positively and with understanding of the modern world, students using bad language in class can be used to break down barriers and build respect.
As a teacher, there are two very important rules to obey in this matter:
Use the swear word that the student has just used.
This rule applies regardless of whether the student was abusive or swore in everyday speech. By using the word immediately after the student, the teacher shows he or she is not afraid to use the word. By doing so, ownership of the word does not belong to the student; neither does the student gain any kudos from peers for being brave and provocative. What the teacher does is ‘normalise’ the word.
I was asking my students what they did at the weekend. One of my 15 year-old students replied,
“I fucked my girlfriend.”
Of course, there were behind the hand sniggers from his classmates.
I replied, “Fucked. Regular past tense verb. I’m glad you didn’t say ‘fuck-ed’. You know you have a tendency to use two syllables with verbs in the past tense. I wonder why you don’t do that with that word.”
“I know the word,” was the reply.
The class laughed.
By using the swear word immediately after the student, the teacher avoids the situation of the student having sole authority over the word. Were the teacher to use a euphemism “The F word”, for example, the teacher is showing a lack of courage, a lack of authority and, by extension, a lack of leadership that the student has just demonstrated to their peers. By using the word as if it were any other word, the teacher has normalised it and taken control back (and the limelight) from the student.
Of course, the cat is now out the bag. The swear word is in the room. It has been granted a licence and with it, other swear words.
This is where the opportunity to break down barriers and build respect occurs. After saying the word, a teacher can now set some rules as to its use. The tone and manner should not be authoritarian. A quick reminder that such words are ‘not really appropriate for a classroom setting’ or that the speaker should ‘be careful when they are used so as not to cause offence’, sets boundaries that allows the student to use their own judgement. It indicates that the teacher is assuming a level of maturity and responsibility onto the student. This is often received with a certain amount of pride and goodwill on the part of the student. It also results in the student having more respect for the teacher. Who isn’t respectful of those who show respect to us?
Allowing restricted swearing in class allows for the value of these words to be learnt. In social context, there is a significant difference between ‘dick’, ‘cock’ and ‘willy’. There is some justification in allowing those words to be used in order to teach the social context of each.
Acceptable words for a man's…..*ahem*……"thing" 😉
The other rule is an obvious one.
Never teach a swear word.
Listen carefully to the words being used. If you know a bad word that isn’t being used, don’t introduce it! Keep it to yourself. As I have already mentioned, the Internet has given students a global access to bad language. As a teacher, it is not your role to add to that particular lexicon.
I have had students ask me what certain words mean. Sometimes I know they know the word. Sometimes I feel they have probably heard it in a song and can guess the sexual connotation, but are not sure. My response is always the same. I tell my student to ask an older sibling. This is definitely a job for the older sibling – especially if both the student and the sibling are male. It’s a brother thing! If they don’t have an older sibling, I tell them to Google it.
“I already did,” is often the response.
“Well then you know what it means.”
“I just wanted to make sure.”
“I’m sure you have it right.”
It’s very rare teachers come across young leaners swearing. The process usually occurs around mid-teens when the delights of challenging authority begin. However, I believe the response should be the same with whatever age of the student. The only difference should come in the language that the teacher uses to impose restrictions of the use. Obviously, the younger the student, the more the restriction should be defined and clarified.
All in all, allowing the use of swearing in class can have great benefits if handled correctly. It starts by acknowledging the world we live in today and by assuming a level of maturity that is aimed for by the student if not immediately present in their character. It helps break down barriers and develop mutual respect. It also stops the student from being provocative and superseding the authority of the teacher.