As a teacher at an International School, many of my students are English Language Learners. Even my native English speakers are living in a non-English speaking country. Due to my unique teaching position, I have had some readers ask for tips on teaching English Language Learners. Here is this week’s Tuesday TESOL Teaching Tip:ELL Teaching Tip #45: Teach Taboo Words
As an English teacher in Morocco, my students rarely speak English when they are away from me. However, they do sing in English. That is because more than 50% of the songs on our radio stations are in English. This is not uncommon in non-English speaking countries, due to the prevalence of American pop music. My husband did not learn English until his twenties, but he grew up singing Michael Jackson in English. However, because the general public does not speak English, the curse words that are “censored” from general radio in the US and other English speaking countries are not censored here. So, it is not uncommon to hear kids singing along to curse words and not knowing that they are saying anything inappropriate.
For awhile, I tried to ignore the curse words, thinking if I didn’t give them the power to shock, then it wouldn’t be a big deal. Then I heard one of my students mis-use a curse word in conversation, not having any clue that the word a bad word. Luckily he was talking to me and not someone who was clueless as to how he came across this word. However, this made me realize that when we teach children English (or any language) we are teaching them to communicate for better or worse. Part of communication is understanding what words are taboo. It’s also not enough to just say “Don’t say that word!”. We should explain at least a little bit about the meaning of that word, in case they do say it, or in case they have it said to them. I do try to keep these explanations as simple as possible, but I have realized that it is necessary for students to know that if someone says “Kiss my a**”, this is a bad thing, but if they say “Another word for donkey is a**”, then it’s actually an acceptable use of the word. (I’ve actually recently learned that in the UK, this is the way it is said even for small children.)
In addition, I have learned to explain appropriate timing for other partially taboo words, especially those dealing with bodily functions. These normally come up in general conversation and I actually found myself saying last week “We don’t say: I do a burp, we say I burped.” Talk about things you never thought you’d say as a teacher!
Overall some tips on taboo words are:
1.) Don’t freak out when they say them. Ask where they heard that word, and explain an appropriate meaning (A** is a bad word for your bottom.) Then explain that we don’t use that word in polite conversation – or school.
2.) Address those song lyrics and movie lines with curse words that you hear them using in conversation. For older students, this is a great time to talk about knowing appropriate contexts for words. For younger students, give appropriate substitutes that can be used.
3.) Be careful with your wording, and be prepared to justify your explanation to parents and administration.
4.) Talk to students about using language as a communication tool. Remind them that some words are not appropriate for school conversations and that this is true in all languages.
Do you enjoy the weekly TESOL Teaching Tips? Would you like to view an hour long presentation on this topic? I recently presented on Strategies for Teaching English Language Learners at the Everything’s Intermediate Expo. Now you can grab the presentation for just $3.95 from Teacher’s Notebook.
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