This happens to every ESL teacher. Students WILL ask you what vulgar words mean in English.
Ignoring them might work for a while, but it is best to approach the subject professionally and offer an explanation for the word or phrase or question. Here are 6 ways to broach the slippery subject and even turn it into an interesting conversation class.
Try These 6 Ways to Turn Bad Word Explanations into a Conversation Class
What the ****?
In English, especially in American English, we know it is a serious faux pox to use certain four letter words, even to the point where it is illegal in public media. They are powerful expletives though that attract attention, hence why we use them in common speech and why students want to know what they mean.
- Write the list of vulgar words for them horizontally on the board, and explain that they are very strong communication tools, yes, but usually carry a negative and even angry tone. Alternatively, a speaker can attract attention from creative speech.
- Task students to think of 3 words that rhyme with each vulgar word that have positive or humorous meanings like “duck”, “spit”, and “spell”. Place a box or hat under each vulgar word and have them write their three rhyme words on small papers and place in each box.
- Then, write common expressions like “what the ****” on the board and have students take turns selecting papers at random from the boxes and inserting their silly/positive words in the expressions.
You’re Such a…These mean names are heard on TV, movies, songs, and on the street. Students will ask you what they mean.
English speakers can be quite confrontational and get involved with nasty name calling either directly to someone in anger or behind someone’s back. These mean names are heard on TV, movies, songs, and on the street. Students will ask you what they mean. If they do, be prepared and explain that it is never nice to use these words, and would it not be better if we lived in a world where people only said nice things about others?
- Give students a homework assignment to open their ears and record five nice things people say to each other on the street or in pop culture if you do not live in an English speaking country.
- Provide examples like, “You’re such a sweetie!” or “She’s so bubbly!”
It will help them focus on positive aspects of colloquial language, and you will have a great conversation class the next week when they explain where they heard these words!
Pick a particularly vulgar word heavy dance song, better if it is one students know, and even better yet if it is one they hear on the radio often.
- Print the lyrics and play the song, asking students to circle what they assume are colloquial words.
- Then, go through the song and rewrite the bad words with less vulgar words that have a more lighthearted connotation after explaining what they mean. Ask students first what they think the words mean. Older teenagers are probably just trying to embarrass you by asking what they mean, so embarrass them instead!
- Play the song again and have students sing/read along with the new language.
This activity will result in an engaging conversation and vocabulary lesson.
Show a clip from a popular “R” rated movie with bad language, like a gangster film, preferably one they have seen.
- Download and print a transcript of the dialogue and show the clip with subtitles.
- Have them circle the bad words while watching.
- Then discuss how those words were used in the film by the speakers to relay meaning, add significance to speech, etc.
For your older teens or young adults, embrace the swear words and teach them how to use them properly in conversation. Write down commonly used swear expressions, like “what the hell” and “that pissed me off”, on papers with definitions on the back, and have students in pairs come to the front of the class and draw one each from a box. Ask them to try to use the phrases in a quick dialogue together. For example, they could say:
- “What the hell? He didn’t give you a birthday present?”
- “No! It really pissed me off.”
Students can work in pairs or groups to invent a dialogue at their desks first if you think they will need more time to consider the phrases.
You Tell Me What It Means
Alternatively, embrace the swear or colloquial words by asking students to write down three that they hear on the street or in music/on TV for homework and to try to discover what they mean by asking other English speakers they know.
- Have the students put the words on different papers with the definitions on the back, and ask them to place them in a box when they enter class that day.
- Students can take turns picking words out of the box and reading the definitions. If the definition is wrong, correct it.
- Then, ask the student to try to use the word in a sentence appropriately. If she cannot, find out where the contributor heard the word and what type of reaction the definer of the word had when she asked him/her about it!
It can be an embarrassing moment for you or for your class when students ask what those four letter words mean.
Now you can turn it around into a fun activity that engages their English learning skills and helps them practice conversation! The oral power that makes these words so popular can help energize your class and engage your students.