Why aren’t we teaching one of the most common aspects of language?

“Are you good at shoeing horses?
No, but I once told a donkey to fuck off, and it did.” – Bob Mortimer.

So the other day I was teaching online and had this slide as an introduction for the lesson.

Not all of that is strictly true by the way

That’s right, fuck.

This was my warmer to a lesson taken from Taboos and Issues, from McAndrew and Martinez, which is a fantastic book to bring up topics that generally don’t appear in coursebooks, I use it quite a lot when teaching classes that are generally B2 and above.  To quote a boss of mine, ‘it’s because coursebooks are so middle class and twee’.  But swearing is just a part of everyday life, so why is it not covered in the classroom?

PARSNIPs has all but gone the way of the Dodo and for the most part it is ignored these days, but what about the taboo of swearing, and is it even a taboo? 

In research studies, Dewaele discusses the strength of swear words in L1 which do not carry the same effect in L2. Anecdotally he claims that swear words can sometimes be the first words an L2 learner picks up outside the classroom, yet they do not figure in any textbook or coursebook and consequently language learners have a very limited knowledge of these words. The author also thinks that more authentic material should be used so learners can familiarise themselves with such vocabulary(Dewaele, 2004). A follow up study to this was carried out which tried to ascertain whether emotional prompts generated a greater number of words than non-emotional prompts in Spanish EFL students. It found that some words in L2 were much more familiar than others, for example happy and sad were some of the most familiar terms to Spanish EFL students, however they were unable to show much knowledge of pride and guilt(Catalán and Dewaele, 2017). 

Bress also acknowledges these issues of swear words and taboo subjects in his classes, especially in regards to rude students. Instead of always disciplining students when rude, he encourages awareness and praises students when they are genuine. He points out that sometimes something needs to be called out, and other times when it should be praised (Bress, 2008).

Swearing is also seen as a constructive response to handling pain(Stephens, Atkins and Kingston, 2009) as well as alleviates social distress(Philipp and Lombardo, 2017) so if it has its uses, why isn’t it taught in some constructive manner?  There is actually calls in research for it to be taught more in foreign language learning(Horan, 2013), so are we too scared to get it wrong and offend literally everyone, or is it simply that it might be seen as bad for business?

In Ireland, swearing is a bit different, I think Tommy Tiernan sums it up best.

“The English language doesn’t suit my soul.” What a brilliant phrase.

Even RTE carried out a documentary on swearing last year and how we as a people use and see it.  It’s not as taboo here as people make it out to be, and when done correctly, it’s almost artistic. You can watch it on the RTE player here.

In fact one of the greatest ever exports from Ireland, Father Ted, helped to normalise terms used it in.  Feck was able to be shown pre-watershed, as it wasn’t seen as a swear word in the UK.  But if we were to call people ‘ye gobshite’, ‘ye fecker’, ‘ye gowl’ or ‘ye eejit’ …. None of them are really negative, that’s generally terms we used for our friends.  But if you came to Ireland, and English was your second language, you’d think we hated every single person we run into.

The Irish Language itself doesn’t have swear words the same way English does.  It wishes bad things upon people instead, and just like Spanish or French, there’s an extra added ….class to it, as pointed out in the second Matrix movie.

Say that out loud to someone in France. You can silence a room.  Trust me, I’ve tried.  …and quickly left said room…

Irish swearing has a delightfulness to it, Droch áird chúgat lá gaoithe means may you be poisoned on a windy day.  Go ndéana an diabhal dréimire do chnámh do dhroma is may the devil make a ladder from your spine, and Imeacht gan do thuairisc ort may you never be heard of again.  The Irish Times has a great list of phrases used from a bygone era of how people used to swear at one another.

Let’s be honest, this aspect of the ‘living language’ is a hell of a lot more common than the need to write in the passive or have a grasp of clauses of concession, surely there needs to be an awareness of how people express themselves in any given setting?

Just a thought.


Bress, P. (2008) ‘Rude students’, ET Professional, November, p. 16.

Catalán, R.M.J. and Dewaele, J.M. (2017) ‘Lexical availability of young Spanish EFL learners: emotion words versus non-emotion words’, Language, Culture and Curriculum, 30(3), pp. 283–299. doi:10.1080/07908318.2017.1327540.

Dewaele, J.M. (2004) ‘The Emotional Force of Swearwords and Taboo Words in the Speech of Multilinguals’, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 25, pp. 204–222.

Horan, G. (2013) ‘“You taught me language; and my profit on’t/Is, I know how to curse”: cursing and swearing in foreign language learning’, Language and Intercultural Communication, 13(3), pp. 283–297. doi:10.1080/14708477.2013.804533.

Philipp, M.C. and Lombardo, L. (2017) ‘Hurt feelings and four letter words: Swearing alleviates the pain of social distress’, European Journal of Social Psychology, 47(4), pp. 517–523.

Stephens, R., Atkins, J. and Kingston, A. (2009) ‘Swearing as a response to pain’, Neuroreport, 20(12), pp. 1056–1060.

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