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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

April 26, 2011

The F word on trial

Here's a news item that caught my attention
. It regards a British teacher in Australia who was fired for using the ‘f word’ as a topic during an ESL lesson but won the ensuing ‘unfair dismissal’ court case.

In my opinion, this teacher did everything right. Let me explain…

Students love slang

Most teachers know that students are unusually enthusiastic about learning ‘slang’, especially those words that carry weight that they’ve seen in movies. Some teachers have used this inordinate interest in the underbelly of the English language to bring the offending words into the classroom, giving a type of legitimacy to the normally uncouth. When done egregiously or gratuitously there is likely some juvenility in the teacher’s motive, that titillating pre-teen thrill of breaking socially-acceptable barriers. Webster, the teacher in this case, used it much more judiciously (although I thought that in Australia the word almost constituted a standard greeting!). To wit he:

- Used it only peripherally (20 minutes in a two-hour lesson), which is where slang, colloquialisms, and idioms belong
- Used it only upon request from his students
- Explained it only in his advanced class
- Offered some extended details about its actual social usage and function, including mis-use
- Wisely recognized that his students were overusing the term, quite possibly because they were copying what they had heard in movie scripts (where people resort to dramatic or shocking expressions far more than people in real life do)
-Told non-native speakers not to use it

Rough language- swinging and missing

The last point is crucial. Using rough or socially questionable language should be left to those with excellent control of the language. I don’t say this because I’m a prude (I’ve been in enough locker rooms and bars to inure myself to the force of the word) but because if you don’t use it perfectly, in the right time and place, with the right speed, intonation, and collocations you can put your foot in your mouth big time. It’s like, to draw an analogy with something I actually saw recently: taking a huge swing at a ball at a batting center, whiffing on the ball completely, and having your momentum be so strong that you actually fall down into the protective netting separating yourself from the ground. Which is longhand for saying you can look pretty stupid if you miss (I also recall a non-native English speaker vehemently telling a co-worker, “I do not receive that shit!” as another potent example).

Being out of your language league

Let me tie this in with something a little more extensive as far as English teaching goes. Verisimilitude. What I mean is this-
I’m sure you’ve had students who spent some time abroad, perhaps enough to tickle their Wernicke’s area but not enough to develop fluency. But… they still want to sound natural. Fair enough. So, they liberally pepper their speech with ubiquitous ‘gonnas’ and ‘wannas’ having learned that these reduced forms (suprasegmentals?) are commonplace (especially if you happen to be Bryan Adams). It stands out from the rest of their cautious, uncertain speech like a bongo player in a string quartet. As such, they come off sounding much more cavalier, even trashy, than they intend it to be. In other words, there is a time and a place for wannas and gonnas but it has to harmonize with their overall language skills in order to avoid them sounding like Forrest Gump addressing the graduating class of Cambridge University.

I’m willing to bet that many readers have had experiences in Japan where they used rough ‘n ready Japanese in a way that initially seemed appropriate (Hey, it even says ‘tomare!’ on the roads!) and yet were rewarded with looks of embarrassment (probably because you tried to sound like some Yakuza but you came off like a complete wuss- or English teacher- instead) or got the receiving end of that schoolmarmish ‘We do not use such language here!’ expression (where you’re not sure if the underlying violation was that foreigners are somehow supposed to sound extremely polite OR that you really went waaaay over the top) from your Japanese peers. The bottom line is when you’re not in complete control of the lingo you’re like a knife-thrower doing an exhibition after downing several pints with a bunch of Scottish football supporters.

Where do colloquialisms fit in?

Actually, I’m not a big fan of “teaching” colloquialisms at all (as I mentioned in my earlier reply to Kumiko Torikai). I don’t mind mentioning them or pointing them out when they appear in a wider context but, like Torikai, I see them as being too localized and narrow to be much more than filler in the Japanese education system.

Lest some readers take this as an endorsement of some formalized rigid version of English let me point out that I do support the pedagogical value of speech grammar- the non-canonical way in which all manner of native speakers arrange their spoken interactions, use ellipsis, employ pragmatics using environmental cues, engage in negotiation, backchanneling, repair and other dynamic strategies and other forms that distinguish the spoken from the written word. But novelty items, which I would classify colloquialisms as being, do not suit the agenda.

So there is a place for discussing the use of profanities in the classroom, if only to steer our students away from potentially putting their feet in their mouths or even getting a beatdown. This was Luke Webster was doing. As for Mercury College, who had employed Webster, well I'm sure he has a few choice words for them.

« A response to Kumiko Torikai's Asahi News interview | Main | A response to Tim Murphey's criticism of Japan's university entrance exams- and more on Kumiko Torikai »


The article caught my attention too, but I hadn't heard that he won his case yet. Nice commentary. I might also add to the "wit" part that he was teaching in an ESL situation at a college in Sydney, not in a place like Japan. Having some professional guidance in a widely prevalent but complex wordset in spoken English (especially in certain social areas) might be taboo but quite helpful when one is fully immersed in an English-language environment.

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