Learning To Swear

“I am my language.” What a powerful phrase about how language is so wrapped up with identity. Both our own personal identity and our social identity in a larger group.

A language learner aims to get to the moment where they “flow” with the language and “sing” language (Anna Deaver Smith talks about this here). It is the ultimate goal for all second language learners – a moment where they become one with the second language and take on a whole new identity. I remember learning French for many years yet never really identifying with the language, it was kind of something added on to myself. A bag I picked up and used when appropriate. Then, after a few months in France and hanging out with a lot of Corsican friends, I started swearing in French. Just naturally, may I say, beautifully. It was at that moment I became “French” and assumed my French identity.

This begs the question – is learning to swear a way for a student to identify and associate with their second language? For them to get motivated and feel at home in the “second language skin”? Should teachers teach swearing, how to swear?

I’ve written about this previously and at length. But today, I got to thinking about how you might teach swearing or even if you can. Swearing seems much more than the sum of its parts. We usually acquire swearing rather than learn it. We hang out with a social group that swears and we naturally pick it up. We all remember how our parents were concerned about our English getting “bad” if we hung out with the wrong types. I worked as a steel erector a number of years after university and my own family just couldn’t believe the mouth on me!

It would be difficult for any teacher to teach swearing I think. Students would love it but I can see administration, parents etc…. being up in arms. Also, it would depend on the teacher having a certain comfort level with swearing – we have a natural aversion to it unless anger/emotion overcomes it. You also never see it in a coursebook. It is a vital part of the English language but we just assume students will learn it themselves as if by magic. I say, if you can, teach it, use it in class – it will empower your students. But it is for you the teacher to be the judge.

This commercial is a nice way to begin. Here’s a worksheet for it. It also raises the issue of English only workplaces and how the language would exclude many second language speakers (this paper is a great review of this topic). A great read on the topic of swear words is George Carlin’s Seven dirty words. (and video).

But the question remains – would you ever use this in class?


Teacher trainer, technology specialist, educational thinker...creator of EFL Classroom 2.0, a social networking site for thousands of EFL / ESL teachers and students around the world.

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2 Responses

  1. Angelo says:

    I like this article. In my opinion it’s very important today learning a second language (especially learning english language).
    I studing english and french, and I speak which my english friends and french friends in their language mother.
    It is my opinion. Bye every people :)

  2. Kirstin says:

    I think learning to swear is something that is intrinsically interesting for learners. Even my business students are fascinated by swear words! I suppose we often use them in our mothertongue when we’re frustrated etc, so it could be useful to be able to express the same strong feelings in a second language.

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