Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Teaching Strategies for Impoliteness?
By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
I was recently able to attend the IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) Conference this year in Brighton, UK. Among the many wonderful sessions I attended, one really made an impact. So much so, in fact, that I have been thinking about it ever since.
Martin Warters gave a presentation called “There is (no) need for that!” In his speech, he explored “the appropriacy and need for the explicit teaching of impoliteness in the second-language classroom in a UK setting.” When I read the session description, I was intrigued. Teaching impoliteness to our students? I wasn’t sure how I felt. I don’t feel comfortable teaching students how to swear in English (they can get that from most Hollywood movies, thank you very much) and I kind of feel that the world doesn’t need more abusive individuals in our shops, our restaurants, and our motorways.
One Loaf of Bread and a Christmas Cake, Please
On the other hand, I haven’t been able to shake the feeling of impotence I experienced when I tried to order bread and a bûche de Noël (Belgian Christmas cake) at a local bakery a couple of years ago. To make a long and unpleasant story short, I was trying to place my order in French. My French is not great now, but it was even worse then. I was further disadvantaged by the fact that I didn’t understand that the bakery would be open on Christmas morning until half way through my order, at which time I decided, fridge space being limited, I would rather pick up my order on December 25th rather than the day before. Some confusion ensued as I tried to communicate that I wanted both the cake and the bread on that morning and the shop assistant sighed dramatically and angrily tore up my order. She was just plain rude to me.
I had no French to reply, so I launched into a loud diatribe in English about how I was trying to learn her language and she shouldn’t be so rude to a customer. In the end, after I had shouted for a bit and got the attention of many of the other customers and staff, she wrote another order for me. I had got what I wanted, but I left feeling frustrated. Would I have been more satisfied if I could have defended myself in French?
Defense in the Face of Rudeness
I left Warters’ session with the impression that, though I have no intention of teaching my students how to provoke a fight or insult someone, it might be a good idea to teach them some English phrases they can use when they are faced with rudeness from others. As Mugford points out, “teachers need to take the lead by preparing learners to communicate in pleasant, not so pleasant and even abusive interactional and transactional situations.” (Mugford, 2008, page 375) After his session, Warters told me the story that prompted his interest in this topic. He had a student who had been called a racial slur. She was upset and wanted to know how she could have responded. He suggested language like, “Who do you think you are?” Based on this conversation, he and I agreed that perhaps “Teaching Students to be Impolite” is a bit of a misnomer; perhaps a better description would be “Teaching Students how to Defend themselves in Rude Situations.”
I am still not sure if I am totally on board with teaching this kind of language to students explicitly. I mean, taking the high road and simply walking away is so much nobler than hurling angry words back at one’s insulter. However, if we don’t equip students with defensive strategies, are we not disadvantaging them in some way? I don’t know. Do you?
Mugford, G. (2008) How rude! Teaching impoliteness in the second-language classroom. ELT Journal, 62(4).
Warters, M. (2011) There is (no) need for that! IATEFL, Brighton, UK.