Saturday, November 1, 2008


I’m going to digress a bit from my usual range of topics this week and deal a little with a topic of language that some would rather avoid dealing with. This week’s entry is really about teaching language and not about the language itself, and I hope you'll join the discussion.

So there I was, in the midst of a really interesting university-level conversation class about Hollywood movies. One of my students had just mentioned that she thought European film makers did a much better job than their American counterparts, and suddenly Homayoon, a student from Iran, shouted out “Bulltish!” Everybody turned to him, trying to figure out what he had blurted out. At first I didn’t get it, but it suddenly hit me what he was trying to say, and I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. Then I stood up, went to the board, and wrote the word bullshit.

“The word’s not bulltish, Homayoon; it’s bullshit.” Of course, as fate would have it, at that very moment the director of the intensive English program I was working in just happened to walk by my classroom ― with the door wide open. She stopped dead in her tracks at the door, and I could see by the look on her face that she was none too thrilled with what I had just said and what she saw on the board. She said nothing and just continued on her way, but I knew very well I’d be called into her office for a meeting to discuss this incident later that day or the next. Such timing!

I just sighed and went on with that teachable moment. I explained to my students what the word meant and why it was so inappropriate for Homayoon to use it in class. (Of course the director of the program didn’t hang around to hear that part ― oh, no.) Finally, I gave the class alternatives that would be appropriate, like That’s nonsense. or That’s silly. or That’s ridiculous. I even went further, though, explaining a little about the art of tactfulness and how Homayoon could make his feelings known in a gentler, more polite way by saying things like I don’t agree. or I don’t think that’s so. or Why do you say that?

But that incident got me thinking. After classes, when most of the teachers gathered in our lounge as they usually did to de-stress before going home, I related the incident that had happened in my class and started a discussion about whether or not we had a responsibility at some point to teach intermediate or advanced students of at least college age what we commonly refer to as “four-letter words.” I wasn’t at all surprised at the heated discussion that developed. This was 1976, so it goes without saying that attitudes were quite different then from attitudes now.

That discussion continued in our teachers’ lounge for the rest of the week. Every day some new angle was brought up. One of my colleagues even mentioned how he was going to develop a whole syllabus on this subject, which he’d divide into categories like “four-letter words about parts of men’s bodies,” “four-letter words about parts of women’s bodies,” “vulgar and semi-vulgar synonyms for acceptable words,” “basic cursing,” and all the grammatical ways to use “the f word.” Some of us were in shock at his suggestions; some of us giggled out of embarrassment; some of us cheered him on. Well, the long and short of it is that he never did develop that formal syllabus, and I never created lessons on the subject matter. But I’ve always wondered if I should have.

By the way, isn’t if funny how it’s considered acceptable to say something like “the f word,” when everyone knows perfectly well what that means, but it’s not so okay to say or write the whole word? I find it curious how we seem to be accepting of such initials or abbreviations for some four-letter words. Why should an abbreviation sound more okay than the whole word? Or why should writing sh-t or saying “Shoot!” be more acceptable than writing the scatological word they stand for? We really can be kind of weird in English, can’t we!

Getting back to treating four-letter words and cursing in a formal way, one brave ESOL teacher/author took the bull by the horns ― not the bulltish by the horns ― and wrote a groundbreaking student resource book on this topic. Her name is Elizabeth Claire and her book was Dangerous English 2000*, followed a few years later by David Burke’s Slangman Guide to Dirty English**.

English may be just about the most colorful language in the world when it comes to four-letter words and cursing. And at times it feels good to curse ― at least it feels good to me. Now don’t get me wrong. I was raised in a very prim-and-proper home where such language was never used. In fact, I still remember when I came home one day and called my big brother a pimp. I didn’t know what it meant (I must have heard it on the street) but I used it to show him I was a big boy and could use grown-up words. Well, when I think about it, I can still taste the bar of soap that my mother immediately shoved into my mouth after dragging me over to the bathroom sink. Yep, she literally washed my mouth out with soap! Needless to say, I learned my lesson ― sort of. And I didn’t find out what pimp meant until years later.

But I do think there’s a time and place for cursing, and I think such language has therapeutic benefits. Perhaps it’s something you’d only want to use in private or with people you’re very close to, but whoever you are or aren’t with at that moment, cursing can really do wonders for you. My mother ― yes, the woman who washed my mouth out with soap ― learned to curse quite well after she got her driver’s license and frequently took to the road. I was grown up by then, but I used to laugh out loud sitting in the passenger’s seat next to her every time I’d hear a trail of those colorful words fly out of her mouth as she sat behind the wheel, steaming at what one reckless driver or another had just done.

So how do you feel about that marvelously colorful area of English that includes four-letter words and cursing? Do you think they play a vital role in the language, or do you think they should disappear? I’d like to know what you feel about all of this, and more importantly, I’d like to know what you think about whether this part of the language should be taught to students of an appropriate age. I’d also like to know if you’ve had a situation in class similar to the one I’ve mentioned. If you’d like to discuss how teaching should or should not get involved in this area, please join in.

(P.S. ― I did get called into the director’s office the next day, and she did read me the riot act about teaching such things. Boy, was she p---ed off at me!)

*Elizabeth Claire. Dangerous English 2000: An Indispensable Guide for Language Learners and Others, 3rd edition. Delta Publishing Co. 1998

**David Burke. Slangman Guide to Dirty English: A Guide to American Obscenities and Insults. Slangman Publishing. 2003


Anonymous Ismael Tohari said...

First off, let me give you a big hand for such a wonderful, interesting article!

And now, I'm going to reply to the questions below one by one.

Q: So how do you feel about that marvelously colorful area of English that includes four-letter words and cursing?

A: I love it! It's so interesting that I wished you talked about it till the cows come home!

Q: Do you think they play a vital role in the language, or do you think they should disappear?

A: Can you eat any food without any seasonings at all?! That what they do in the language. So they must remain, otherwise language wouldn't have a taste anymore! And I'm afraid that without it, you may puke!

Q: I’d like to know what you think about whether this part of the language should be taught to students of an appropriate age.

A: I think it should be taught to students of an appropriate age even if you raise that topic without having students asking about it. That's because language and culture can't be separated and that's one part of any language. Now you might ask, what about the students who are not of an appropriate age? I think we should address that as it arises i.e. if a student said something that is not suitable for class, then we, as teachers, should teach them that this or that is not appropriate at this atmosphere and give them what is acceptable in such place. And at the end of the day, we are not ONLY teachers, we are educators, too.

Q: I’d also like to know if you’ve had a situation in class similar to the one I’ve mentioned.

1. The day before yesterday, I asked one of my students to come to the board to write a sentence. He picked up a marker and unconsciously the air condition remote control. He wrote the sentence and I asked him to erase a part of it. It downed on him that when he started erasing he was using the a/c remote control instead of the board eraser since they both were adjacent! At that moment he unintentionally uttered one of the f-words in our language. Needless to mention that the whole class was giggling! But he, after some seconds, apologized for uttering such a word!

2. Another incident, which might not relate much to our topic, is when one of my students said, in the middle of an activity, "I wanna piss"! Yikes! What did I have to say?! Ummmm! Ok you can go! Then I told him, in private, that he should have not said such word and he should use something like "I need to go to the restroom, WC, etc" from now on.

I hope I made my case clear!

Waiting for you comments, Richard.


November 2, 2008 10:57 PM  
Anonymous Grammar Guy said...

Thanks for sharing so many interesting thoughts and anecdotes, Ismael.

I especially got a kick out of the anecdote about the student who had to go to the restroom. Your correction would certainly be more appropriate! One interesting thing to note, however, is that if this is a high school or university environment, in many cultures (such as mine in the US), the student should not say anything. He should just quietly wait for the proper moment and then leave the classroom to tend to his business. : )

Thanks again, Ismael!

November 10, 2008 8:25 PM  
Blogger Mrs. Ebert said...

When I was studying in Mexico in an intensive Spanish program, the school offered specialized topics of discussions for the advanced speakers of Spanish a couple of afternoons a week, and one of the discussions was about the many different ways the f-word (chingar) is used in the Spanish language. It was really very interesting because it was not always vulgar when in context.

November 16, 2008 5:21 PM  
Anonymous Grammar Guy said...

That must have been a very enlightened program, Mrs. Ebert! Thanks for joining in.

November 16, 2008 6:30 PM  

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