Taboo or not taboo: it’s all in the questions

Following on from my recent post about allowing the supposedly taboo topic of religion to emerge at the end of a class one day, a great post on Steve Brown’s blog and a discussion about taboo language over on the facebook page I run with my co-author Andrew Walkley, it felt like the time might be right to revisit a talk both Andrew and I gave a few times many years ago, and to adapt it into a post exploring the whole thorny issue of taboos in the ELT classroom.

As has probably become obvious to most of you, both Andrew and I have long had an interest in teaching spoken language and observing the things we talk about. To this end, we once ran an optional lunchtime course at our university on topics you don’t find in coursebooks – and the language that goes with them. We had classes on swearing, bitching, drinking, smoking, chatting people up – and, more importantly perhaps, telling men to get lost – pregnancy, birth, old age, suicide and death, more bitching about people (let’s face it, we don’t spend half as much time on complimenting people), sarcasm, politics, illegality and the like. The lectures regularly attracted 50-60 students – and they came from all ages and cultural backgrounds. Of course, in this instance, students were able to choose this particular course. They knew what they were getting, so you could argue that these topics shouldn’t be what is in a coursebook.

However, this does not actually counter the fact that these students we attracted came from very different cultures. Many of them did not smoke, drink, bitch, chat people up, get pregnant or commit suicide, but nevertheless, these topics were all things within their range of experience. Also, unsurprisingly when we consider these are first and foremost language students, what they were really interested in was the language.

When a student sees or hears a word it does not mean that they actually like or believe something. Nor does disagreeing with an idea mean that you can’t use certain language. The vegetarian cannot really describe himself without using the word meat, the atheist without the word God and, from a foreign learners perspective, you can’t really know what swearing is or what’s taboo without hearing or seeing the word fuck. For me, a fundamental principle is that words in themselves as things to know the meaning of are not actually rude, offensive or taboo. It is what we ask students about this language and what we require them to do with it that can cause offence or break taboos. Knowing so–called taboo words may actually be very important: take, for instance, my Iraqi student who thought nigger was a socially-acceptable way of referring to black people or my Japanese student who asked me after class one day what prick-tease meant! These students would’ve been done no favours by me being coy and skirting round the words.

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There are perfectly sound pedagogical reasons for including words like nigger, slag and spazz in, for example, an advanced textbook. An exercise might require students to sort them – along with other words like idiot and slob – into two groups: relatively socially acceptable / far more socially unacceptable. Students could then be asked if they have ever heard anyone using any of these words – and in what circumstances.

This makes far more sense than, for example, having students fill the words in in a gap fill or asking them which ones they would use and why. The former approach allows for students to say they themselves have used them, but does not assume that they have, whilst the latter operates on the assumption that they either have or would want to use them. As with much of teaching, it’s all in the questions we ask!

However, I am no longer innocent enough to believe that such exercises will ever make it into print – even in a second edition of INNOVATIONS ADVANCED, should one ever come into creation! There remain strong impulses among publishers to avoid any possibility of offence. This is something I’ve found in the process of writing our coursebooks. For example, in Innovations Intermediate, we wrote a text about making mistakes when learning a foreign language and this text featured two true stories that had been passed onto us by students whilst discussing the area of embarrassing mistakes in class – one involved an Italian student asking his English host family “Where shall I leave my shit?” – the old shit / sheet joke in action! – whilst the other happened to a Korean woman who was learning Spanish and who inadvertently asked for fried penis (polla frita) instead of fried chicken (pollo frito) on a trip to Madrid!

Neither story seems offensive or abusive to me – and both came up in class unprompted. I’m afraid, though, publishers don’t see things like this. Of course, I can understand why – and I have no interest in unselling books I’ve spent a long time writing – but the problem then is that in removing language and stories such as these from a book, the whole balance of register about what is acceptable or slang then shifts.

A similar parallel is the way the Labour Party swung violently to the right once the far-left Militant tendencies were removed at the end of the 1980s!

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As a result, things which seem perfectly anodyne, childish even, end up standing out on the extremes. Thus, we had a reworked version of the aforementioned text questioned by a different editor because it contained the word bum!

Other words we have had fights and rows over include get pregnant and get addicted to drugs (both of which stayed), It sucks! (which had to go because of its apparently possible sexual connotations – go figure!), Damn! (which also bit the dust, to be replaced with Oh no! And this was despite our argument that Damn! in itself is an already softened version of what many of us would choose to say in the circumstances), burp and fart (the burping stayed, the farting didn’t!), You idiot! (it stayed, despite fears it ‘may be offensive in Scandinavia’, where apparently, the local version is used in the same way as You mong! or You spazz! is here in the UK – not that we were teaching Swedish, of course!! Nobody ever said such editorial meetings were logical!) and on the toilet. Long gone are the days when we struggled to sneak condoms and tampax into listenings covertly!

These arguments and the snipping of the censor’s scissors come as no real surprise. An incident that occurred a while back when Andrew was doing a version of this post as a talk should help to illustrate why. He was challenged by one teacher at the end of the talk and told that “some people” wouldn’t want any language like this in a class. He mentioned several instances where his own students had been more than happy to talk about such language, but was told, “Well, in London, that’s as may be, but in some countries they wouldn’t want to”. When he asked which countries and which students these might be, his nemesis simply countered “Some students” and then said an interesting thing: “Maybe it’s OK to talk about this language, but people don’t want their noses rubbed in it, (so to speak), they don’t want to see it written down.”

My personal view on this incident is that actually she herself – the teacher – was the one who wouldn’t want to talk about it. While publishers are most certainly driven by a fairly conservative forces – and are not about to change overnight – I feel that as teachers we have to begin to be more open in our discussions about what is acceptable to be taught in the class, and as teachers we need to be much more led by our students.

One common problem, as previously alluded to, is that teachers often do not let their students talk freely or away from tightly-controlled practice activities at all, whilst on other occasions they may actually be unwilling to provide seemingly taboo language for students – even when students themselves are asking about it or trying to express it (as I felt was the case with the facebook discussion mentioned above). As such, it seems important that materials at least leave spaces in which good teachers can exploit areas and get onto taboo topics briefly – if their students wish to take up the chase.

What I’d like to do now is to broaden the discussion of taboo out into thinking more about coursebook content. To do this, I’m going to look at a text which provoked a lot of heated discussion a few years back at INNOVATIONS’ editorial meetings. I think it usefully highlights the arguments publishers will put forward for editing out – and allows me to put some counter arguments.

We were writing a text for Unit 4 of our Intermediate-level book, a unit entitled Feelings, and our first draft included the following lesson and text:

Reading

Read the following text and see how the couple met.

Do you think they will stay together? Why / why not?

The day that changed my life

When I saw Abdullah on the news – Jim, as he was called back then – I didn’t recognise him to begin with. He looked really really thin and his hair was falling out. When I heard the reporter say his name, though, I looked a bit more closely and then I realised it was him. I just burst out crying. I was really surprised, because we were never really friends when we were at school together. He could be a bit loud sometimes and we were just very different, I suppose, but to see him there, looking so lost and alone, begging on the street!! Well, it was just so upsetting. It broke my heart, it really did!

The next thing I knew, I was ringing the TV station who’d run the report. I don’t really know why – I just did it on impulse. Anyway, they gave me the address of a hostel for homeless people. I went down there the following day and it was really depressing. It was filthy and the whole place stank! Half the people there were either drunk or mad – or both! One of the workers showed me to where Jim was sleeping. What really amazed me was that he recognised me at once and said “Oh, Fatime. It’s you.” His voice sounded so sad, but, at the same time – and I can’t really explain this very well – it was like I could feel something pulling us together. I really felt like it was Allah’s will. It has really strengthened my faith, and it obviously touched Jim as well.

I’d like to say that things have been easy for us since then and that love has run its true course, but life doesn’t work like that, does it? What happened to Jim when he became homeless was incredibly painful and he’s had to really fight to overcome his addictions. At first, my parents didn’t want anything to do with him and even since he’s converted to Islam, things have still remained tense. My mother says she’s not coming to the wedding.

We’ve had a lot of support from people who’ve seen our story in the papers, but we’ve also had lots of hate mail too. Also, the media have actually put a lot of pressure on us. I know Abdullah doesn’t see it this way, but even now it still makes me angry the way the papers and the TV people treat people. I just think back to that first story. Here was this completely broken man, living on the streets. They came along and did their story on him, and do you know what they gave him? Ten pounds and a cup of tea! That’s it! And then they got back into their big cars and drove off, leaving him to go back to that awful hostel. They do these stories, but none of them really care about people. I can’t forgive them for that.

Anyway, despite all that, we’ve managed to survive together. He’s a good man, and I love him with all my heart.

Now go back and underline any expressions which are new to you. Underline only whole expressions – not single words!

Compare what you have underlined with a partner. 

2   True or false

Decide if the following statements are true or false. Why do you think so?

a  Jim was living on the streets when he first met Fatime.                  T / F

b  Fatime thought carefully before ringing the TV company.                    T / F

c  Jim changed his name to Abdullah because he became a Muslim.                 T / F

d  Some people got angry when they read about Fatime and Abdullah.      T / F

e  Abdullah and Fatime agree that the media sometimes treats people badly. T / F

3   Speaking

Is there much homelessness in your home town? Why? How do you feel about it?

Do you ever give money to people who are begging?

Do you agree with Fatime that the media sometimes exploits people?

Do you know anyone who’s found religion? What happened?

Why do you think people sent Abdullah and Fatime hate mail?

Our editors were immediately touchy about the text and warned us that describing a Muslim as homeless could be offensive. When we pointed out the very obvious fact that when Jim was homeless, he was not actually a Muslim and that after he converted, he actually got his life together, we were then told that it was best not to run the risk of any Muslims possibly finding it offensive. We countered this by pointing out we’d both done versions of the text in class with students from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia and so on and no-one had ever found it even remotely offensive. Indeed, if anything, the opposite was true. One of my Iranian students had once come up after class and said how nice it was to see a positive story about Islam in class! Nevertheless, amongst our editors, some of whom had never taught – and had possibly not even met many Muslims – the stereotype of the touchy Muslim prevailed.

We were then told the text may cause arguments in class and that whilst we, as experienced teachers, could deal with this, some younger, less experienced teachers might not be able to. That’s what photo-copiable materials were for, we were told – to allow teachers to bring touchy subjects into class if they wished to! Yet again we countered: what was there in the tasks that could possibly lead to a row? And anyway, even inexperienced teachers are skilled at dealing with conflict in their day-to-day lives outside of class. We all come to class with years and years of experience of conflict management and avoidance. On top of this, if we fail to allow the odd conflict to develop in class, we deny ourselves the opportunity of ever learning how to get better at channeling it and turning it into language-teaching opportunities in class.

As a last resort, we were told we were pushing a political agenda – as if censoring and whitewashing were somehow apolitical activities! In the end, we compromised – or sold out, if you prefer (!) – and re-wrote this text as the tale of a rich girl who falls for a poor boy from a broken home with a jailbird dad, despite her parents’ better instincts!

Does it really matter that texts such as this – and words like tampax and fart – end up being edited out of classroom material? Well, in some ways, yes, it does. If we end up with materials in which even everyday words like pregnant have to be argued over, then we run the risk of denying good teachers the chance to ask students questions like ‘Do you know anyone who’s pregnant at the moment?’ and thus denying any students who might want to ask how to say have an abortion.

Despite all of this, I do also believe that a duty lies with us as classroom teachers to get at language like this through our interaction with our students and through letting them dictate where the class goes from time to time.

Below are five examples of language either Andrew or I have ended up writing on our whiteboards, giving students the things they themselves were trying to say.

1.      We were driving home from the north of the country to the south and we got ambushed by some guerrillas. They started shooting at us. I thought I was going to die, but some soldiers came to help us and there was a big fight and then the guerrillas ran off. A friend of mine got killed.

2.      I once passed out on the train home. I’d been drinking with some friends and I got really pissed and I passed out and missed my stop and ended up in the middle of nowhere. It was the middle of the night, so I had to call out my parents to pick me up and take me home. Before they got there, I passed out again in the street and when I came round I was in the car. I was convinced I was being abducted or something and so I started screaming at the driver to let me out of the car. It took my dad a couple of minutes to convince me it was him.

3.     AIDS isn’t just a gay disease. I think straight people can get it, can’t they, if they don’t practise safe sex or have anal sex or whatever.

4.      When I go to an important meeting, I should eat onions beforehand. Then, when someone says something I don’t like, I could fart and stomp out of the room.

5.      They were shagging

None of the language in 1-5 came directly from a discussion of the taboos themselves. It is also worth noting that the students trying to express the meanings above included a Somali Muslim (1), a young Japanese woman (2) and a middle-aged Chinese female civil servant (4). What follows is a brief summary of the starting point for each and how we worked together with our students towards the production of these final statements.

1. This was an Elementary class. One Chinese student was late and tried to explain – in very broken English – that he’d had problems getting on the tube because it had been really packed, and that, once on, he thought he was going to die because it was so full! Andrew paraphrased this, and noticed the class seemed particularly taken with the phrase ‘I thought I was going to die’, so asked them to discuss a time when they’d felt like this in pairs. The Somali student volunteered this story. He was asked if he wanted it re-written and up on the board and he said Yes, as he knew he’d want to re-tell it later.

2. The word ‘passed out’ had come up in a text. I’d explained it and then just quickly asked the class in pairs to talk about any time they’d passed out or seen someone passed out. This was one of the stories that emerged.

3. A Taiwanese civil servant in his mid-forties ventured this opinion during a very heated whole class debate sparked off by one Iraqi student asking, “Aids is caught by kissing, isn’t it?” We had arrived at this point after reading a text on Health and Illness which included the word ‘infection’. One student asked what it meant and then another asked what the difference between ‘infect’ and ‘transmit’ was. This led on to, among other things, ‘sexually-transmitted diseases’, which sparked the whole thing off.

4. The class had read a text about The Anti-Onion League – a web-based organisation dedicated to the downfall of the onion!! Among the reasons listed for why onions should be avoided was the fact that they give you wind. One Chinese woman in her fifties, a senior civil servant, became quite animated at this point and produced this gem!

onionface

5. The lexical item ‘I got woken up’ had come up in an exercise, and one student asked about it. I explained it and then asked the class what kind of things they might get woken up by – the usual suspects came up: a car alarm going off, the phone ringing – before a Korean man said he’d been woken up recently by the people in the next room – they’d been shagging!

At this stage, it is important to reiterate that I am NOT advocating the kind of confrontational exercises in student-baiting so popular amongst the recently-qualified, wherein learners arrive for their morning lessons only to be assaulted with questions like “So what do you think about abortion, Chie?” or “Hussein, how do you feel about Islam’s terrible record of human rights abuses towards women?”

The key point here is that all of the taboo-breaking and boundary-pushing utterances in 1-5 arose from actually very innocuous exercises or texts and arose without any undue prompting from the teacher. Rather, they came into being simply because students wanted to say them – and, as a teacher, I was happy to help them do so.

Hopefully, this post will encourage some more of you out there to feel happy doing something similar the next time the moment arise in your own classrooms! If, that is, you’re not doing so already.

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12 responses

  1. Do you know the book ‘Taboos and Issues’? It was photocopiable lessons on the things left out of the coursebooks. It must be over 10 years old now. I remember one school we worked in had it and it was a ‘I’m not sure what I’m doing in my class which starts in 10 mins, I know, I’ll do something from Taboos and Issues’ kind of book. I thought a lot of it was fairly tame but looking back maybe it was fairly impressive that they got these things printed, and it did give some scope to test the waters with a class and then you could push things on. Maybe we need an updated edition of it?

    1. Hi Jo –
      Thanks for writing.

      Yeah, I do of course know TABOOS & ISSUES. It was an early LTP photocopiable and I’ve used it on occasion.

      My issue with it is that it kind of FORCES taboos into the classroom ands comes from, I think, some kind of neo-liberal notion of ‘educating the savages’!
      I would argue that taboos – and more specifically the language we use to encode and discuss them – are part of everyone’s daily experience, wherever in the world they may live. As such, we should treat taboos firstly as normal – albeit marginal – occurrences in conversation, and secondly as items of language of interest to those in the language classroom. What follows are some of the implications of such a view.

      I have no real interest in having my students actually DISCUSS whether or not they think abortion is a good thing or not, or whether they support gay marriage (indeed, in the past, when I have done, I’ve generally just been depressed by the realisation that my worldview is patently far more liberal than the vast bulk of my students’!) – and I don’t think it’s my role to either push them towards any particular conclusions on those issues or to turn it into something of potentially explosive capability.

      What I DO think is my job, though, is to ensure they they know vocab like: had an abortion / had a backstreet abortion / abortion used to be illegal, but they decriminalised it in 1967 / same-sex couples still face a lot of discrimination / they were the victims of homophobic abuse, and so on.

      If comments get made whilst teaching such language – or if such language gets taught IN RESPONSE TO such comments – then I see no problem in stating my own thoughts on whatever issues arise, but it seems a bit naive to me to expect most classes to really go for such topics when they’re turned into whole classes!

      By the way, the book is still available, for those who don’t know it – and it is worth a look:

      http://www.amazon.co.uk/Taboos-Issues-Photocopiable-Instant-Lessons/dp/1899396411

  2. Hi Hugh,

    Yes I get what you are saying. ‘Taboos and Issues’ I mention more in the context of the lunchtime sessions you mentioned running, as I feel some of the topics were similar? I don’t remember it being particularly ‘educating the savages’, more let’s talk about something different. But it has been a few years since I’ve used it so my memory is hazy on the details…

    To be honest, I struggle to think of many teachers I have known in my career that shy away from teaching phrases like you describe when issues arrive, and indeed many who relish it and take pride in the risque language they write on the board. In fact, I think it is almost a rite of passage for new teachers to come out with the original idea to have a whole class dedicated to swearing! I’ve also had a few students in my time who have sworn like troopers and I’ve had to had a word with after class to ask them to tone it down as I see the shocked faces of more sensitive students (or just that everyone else started laughing when they spoke!). Not that I have a problem with swearing, but a class of any kind has never seemed the right place for effing and blinding all over the place. It’s all about being aware of context and audience I suppose. I’m also conscious of trying to judge what students might feel comfortable in saying, and what is the most useful to them when giving them vocab they need (your example 5 made me laugh, I can’t imagine saying ‘they were shagging’ I’d feel like I was in an Austin Powers movie! I’d just say ‘they were having sex’, for me that would have been a more useful and versatile phrase to teach)

    I think it is a shame that perhaps coursebooks don’t open up opportunities for this language to come up more, and that editors are overly sensitive about it (after all if a teacher thought their class would have a problem with a particular text, etc they could easily skip it or find something else) but, actually I think these things do just come up any way and the vast majority of teachers are savvy enough to deal with it in the best and most useful way with their class.

    1. Yeah, I guess there’s also that ‘let’s talk abut something different’ angle to it as well, true, but my point was that really these are things (a) we don’t actually often talk ABOUT – with all that that implies – more just mention in passing en route to somewhere else and (b) they may perhaps tend to get used most by younger teachers who are still struggling to come to terms with the fact that most of their students are more conservative than they are – and who want to provoke their students a touch as a result.

      Hope this doesn’t sound like I’m dissing it, because it was obviously a fairly groundbreaking piece of work.
      No denying that.

      I hear you on the teachers who take pride in teaching what could be seen as risque language and revel in the cool cache that buys you at a certain time in your life.
      I may well have been guilty of that myself in an earlier incarnation until I worked out that ‘swear words’ were actually just words, and that as a language teacher, it was my job to help students learn more about words – of any kind – and to clarify when – and when not to – use them, etc.

      In terms of swearing in class, for me it really depends on context. I had a bemused Upper-Intermediate Japanese student once ask me if it possible for an annoyed teenager to say For fuck’s sake – in exasperation – to their parents and when I said yes of course it was, they then told me that they’d used this expression in a role-play in a previous class and had been told off by the teacher for doing so, which seemed unreasonable to me. I would’ve thought that was a role-play performed quite splendidly, to be honest! In the same way, if a student says something like “If things don’t change, then honestly I think Spain is fucked” – as one of mine did recently – this also seems fine, given the context (55% youth unemployment, anyone? No, I thought not!!)

      As for things like THEY WERE HAVING SEX over THEY WERE SHAGGING, fine.
      I have no issue with either one.
      I seem to recall the student actually acted out the grunted noises, one student said “Ah! Fucking!” and I probably ‘softened’ it to ‘shagging’, but I suspect you’re right and in retrospect feel that if I were to do that class again, that’s the better option. I guess we all teach things that later we reflect on and realise we could’ve done in a more useful / higher frequency way.

  3. Hi Hugh,
    Thanks for mentioning my own post in here. I think the point you make about bitching is quite telling. Most coursebooks are full of language for describing people in a positive way, but there are very few materials that focus on how to insult or speak badly of someone.
    There are huge areas of very important and useful language that coursebooks just refuse to include. Your Somali student (like many of mine) knew he would want to tell that story again, so he felt it was something he really needed to learn. It was motivating for him as a result – I bet he copied it down and can still tell that story now.
    I’ve heard teachers say that they don’t meed to teach swearing as the students always manage to pick it up anyway. However, in my experience, English students tend to be really bad at swearing; they either do it too often (my Malaysian 7 year-old kids were always saying “Oh shit!”) or they are too quick to go straight to the strongest ones. Knowing when it’s OK to use which swear words is a tricky skill and is well worth teaching.
    There’s an interesting discussion going on on Nicola Prentis’s blog about publishers and writers – http://simpleenglishuk.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/the-cult-of-celebrity-in-elt/ . It’s mostly about why/whether publishers prefer to keep employing the same tried and tested writers, but there’s also talk that publishers recognise a need for change. I wonder if this might include a more realistic approach to (what they call) taboo language.

    1. It’s also interesting in terms of the CEFR, much of which is focused on helping students deal with problems.

      Publishers – and some teachers – often see this kind of thing as being unnecessarily negative, but the truth is that there’s far more say about things we don’t like or things that go wrong. If you ask what someone’s like and I get on with them, I’ll probably just tell you they’re nice or great, but if we DON’T get on, there could be any number of reasons why and it’s good to have the language to be able to voice that kind of thing, should you wish to do so!

      The Somali student was actually Andrew’s and yes, he did copy the story down as did the rest of the class. A week or so later, Andrew heard one of the Chinese guys talking to a Japanese student in the canteen and, whilst pointing at Abdi, the Somali lad, recount the tale almost word-for-word, which just goes to show the motivating nature of language input derived from stories the students themselves come up with.

      The idea that we don’t need to teach swearing because it’s learned outside of class is just ridiculous. The reality is exactly what you say: students often overuse things – my Italian lads, for instance, frequently use the word CUNT because it’s more commonly used in Italian and thus presumably feels natural for them (rather than it being something they’ve learned from exposure!); they also often don’t know how to say / use other common things – and sound comic as a result. This is like the He’s a Devil comment on the facebook page I linked in to, where something like He’s a knob / dick / prick / wanker would be far better! If students have trouble using words – and as you say, swearing is particularly complicated in sociocultural terms – then yes, it’s surely worth spending a bit of time on in class.

      I’m frequently amused – and sometimes amazed – on overhearing groups of non-natives bond via swearing. I’ve heard it in everything from conversations between English and German football fans in north London pubs to business people in Belgian hotels having post-conference drinks.

      I’ve seen that Nicola Prentis post and will eventually get round to commenting on it.

      It’s good that publishers do seem to be aware of the need for change – and some of them have been better at taking this on board already than others, in my experience – but I still don’t think any mainstream material will be allowed to get anywhere near any of this stuff, sadly.

      If nothing else, though, discussing these matters may help teachers feel more confident about dealing with things as and when the need arises.

  4. I remember students being really grateful that I taught them cunt and wanker so they’d know that if someone said it to them, it wasn’t something to smile politely at them for. On my MA course a tutor suggested it wasn’t nice to teach these words as if most people spend their whole lives wanting to be nice.
    One of my most successful speaking lesson topics is things that irritate you…and the language that goes with that feeling – the polite stuff just doesn’t cut it. But I don’t see it ever being in course books either. I’d rather plant the triggers with the topics anyway and then give them the tools to express it. With that topic I’ve already got a clear idea in my head of what is likely to come out of it.
    You can never tell what’s going to offend anyway. Heated discussions can come out of the most innocuous seeming topics. Religion does seem to be best avoided to me though, although your story did only have the religion as a background not the focus. Which has to be true seeing as the story was able to be changed so radically but keep the same plot essentially. I can imagine that in a mixed class though, someone would say something about the conversion and it would all get out of hand and the anger levels would get past the point that anyone cared whether they were using the right vocab or not.

    1. Ah, the curse of the nice!

      There is a definite strain in TEFL towards only being nice as though life were one long garden party with cucumber sandwiches and lashing of home-made lemonade as opposed to something in which it’s quite possible for a Japanese student to be sitting at a bus stop and to have a white van stop in front of him, the driver of which tells him to fuck off back to China. On hearing China, he decides to politely correct this and point out he’s Japanese, not Chinese, whereupon said driver leaves white van, punches him in the face – breaking his nose – and tells him to fuck off back to Japan then.

      So yes, receptive awareness of abusive language and the like can clearly be quite handy!

      We did quite a nice exercise, even if I do say so myself, in Innovations Upper-Intermediate on things that annoy you, but even there we didn;’t manage to get away with One thing that really pisses me off is . . . . I justify this to myself with the knowledge that if a coursebook contains One thing that drives me mad is . . . then the teacher who wants to can add the former expression in anyway!

      You may be right about what might possibly happen with that text.
      That’s certainly the way editors see it – if there’s any risk of anyone possibly saying anything potentially inflammatory in response to your text, then it gets cut.
      I guess I tend to feel that if your class does have students who would use a text about a homeless junkie who sorts his life out after converting to Islam as an excuse to rant about Muslims, then they’re going to do that anyway sooner or later. if they’re carrying all that hostility around inside themselves, it’ll seep out somewhere or other, and the teacher will have to develop strategies for dealing with it! Arseholes are arseholes, if you’ll excuse my French, and will be so whatever we put in front of them.

  5. Hi Hugh
    Like you, I’ve had my run-ins with editors about what words can be used in a coursebook, and, probably like you, I’ve given up most of the arguing. But not all. It’s maybe not so surprising that words like ‘bum’ are considered taboo, but the fact that a text which mentioned a rabbi was deemed too ‘risky’ got me really riled. Editors are in thrall to sales reps who give them feedback on what may or may not offend. But there can be an amusing side to it, too, on occasion.
    Apart from needing to avoid any jeopardising of $ALE$, my impression is that most editors are also very sensitive to notions of political correctness. Some years ago I wrote a dialogue which an (extremely good) editor queried: the lines I had written were, according to the editor, too sexually stereotyped. Interesting, I replied, the characters are only called ‘A’ and ‘B’, I didn’t indicate their sex, but I had imagined this dialogue as being between two men, not between a man and a woman. Hah!
    Philip

    1. Hi Philip –
      Thanks for finding me here and taking the time to both read and post.
      It’s always fascinating to hear how other authors have been affected by these issues.
      The A / B dialogue tale is indeed indicative of a kind of extreme over-caution that’s become commonplace, not only in TEFL, but in the world at large, where we live in ever more risk-averse times.
      I’m all for avoiding offence and have no desire whatsoever to set out to rattle particular cages with my writing. Where would be the point in that?
      However, I just refuse to accept that certain things – such as a rabbi or a homeless man who converts to Islam – could possibly cause offence. Which doesn’t mean we didn’t back down in the end, of course, or that – I suspect – you didn’t!
      But it’s good to know there are others out there who still pick the odd fight about these matters and try and push things slightly more towards the real world!

  6. […] In the workshop I used an example of an activity that was rejected by a publisher. Read more about that experience: Taboo or not taboo: it’s all in the questions. […]

  7. […] of you (if not all) are familiar with ELT parsnips. There’s a great recent post by hughdellar here. I’ve enjoyed it […]

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