What Are We To Do About Vulgar English?


I was first alerted to the problem that vulgarity poses to the language teacher when I was involved in coordinating a very large, British Council run, summer programme in Hong Kong for Form 6 and Form 7 students. It was hoped that these programmes would help to improve the students’ all round fluency in English prior to starting their university courses. As part of this course we had prepared a large number of reading packs for self-access use. Each pack contained several articles on the same or related subject, culled from leading British newspapers and magazines. It had been recommended that students would be interested in personal relationship material. As we were dealing with 17-19 year olds it was felt that any normal reading material suitable for the average grown up (the word ‘adult’ has been hijacked) would be suitable. So Cosmopolitan was in but Penthouse was out!

One day, one of the teachers steamed up to me in a fury. What did I think I was doing putting him in such an embarrassing position? The problem? Well, in one of the packs there had been an article on condoms – different colours, shapes, textures and so on. Now, my opinion was this: In an age where sex education is considered an important component of secondary education, and as these were people – young men and women – who were about to go out into the world, it was a totally appropriate subject matter. And if they weren’t interested in the material they needn’t choose it. This was not the teacher’s opinion. He did not think that it was suitable, in particular, for a young male teacher to be placed in a position where he might be asked by a teenage girl what a ‘blow job’ was.

At that time, I was not sympathetic to the teacher. I argued strongly that in today’s climate and in the context of a robust Cantonese culture that is not shy about these things, a simple straight forward factual explanation was perfectly in order. It would be a good way of distinguishing between slang words and the standard term ‘oral sex’ – and also a platform for a discussion on register and context. He did not agree.

Interestingly, and very pertinently for the point I want to make, only months later, Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky came to public attention. Oral sex was a subject we all had to confront every morning when we read the newspaper.

So, my first point is this: we cannot separate language from real life. And this real life – in the context of ‘The West’ – has become highly sexualised. Nowhere is this more obvious than on television. Take a look at the huge international successes of Friends (remember those long agonisings over Ross’s lesbian wife?) and Sex in the City (described in my newspaper as a post-feminist statement about the lives of single women in contemporary urban America). Friends is currently a morning show in Britain and my 14 year old son watches it avidly before going to school. It is as normal as wallpaper. I believe that this is probably equally true in Japan, France, Germany, Argentina, Russia, Italy…and indeed in almost every non-Islamic country in the world.

Real everyday English has, over the last few decades, become more and more sexually overt and that this has had an impact on the language. It has been a slow process since the gamekeeper, Mellors, in D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterly’s Lover, taught Lady Chatterly the meaning of the f-word up through the 60s when I was at university and a friend admitted to me that her mother had had to ask her the meaning of this four letter word beginning with ‘f’ that she saw painted on walls everywhere and continuing on up to the present time when an international company (French Connection) can take an executive board decision to re-brand the company so that its name is an acronym of this very same word. What was previously unmentionable, crude, raw, earthy and aggressive has now become naughty and sexy and potentially very profitable. The world is changing.

And this changing reality has an impact on us as teachers – and, more relevantly, on our students. We cannot avoid it. Nor can they. How we deal with it – or should deal with it – will be a matter of deep, and no doubt highly-charged, debate.

Let us now approach this subject from another angle. Let us ask ourselves why our students are learning English. For the most part they have no particular interest in British or American culture. They are learning English because it is a tool. It is the means by which they hope to get access to information about the world and to texts they need for their studies. It will help them (if they plan to go into business) to negotiate contracts. It will help them (if they are pilots) to understand landing instructions.

Over the last 20-30 years that I have been teaching, the shift has been very strongly away from English as the language of a people who have a literature and a culture to English as a tool to facilitate a particular job-related objective. This has made teachers adept at analysing functional needs and teaching the language skills required. English has, to a certain extent, become a de-cultured lingua franca by which Japanese communicate with French, Germans with Portuguese, and so on. It can therefore be argued that it doesn’t really matter what is happening in the cultural dynamics of the USA or Britain. This can be ignored.

It is relatively easy for teachers to come to this conclusion because we often find ourselves – if we are native speakers – living for most of our lives as outsiders in other cultural contexts and so we become, to a certain extent, de-cultured ourselves. If we are non-native English speaking teachers then we are even further removed from the background culture that is the mainspring of the language. We are all therefore happy to teach a standardised approximation of real English because we do not feel the conflict inside us – and because this approximation is so very close to the real thing that for most practical purposes it makes no difference. And as long as the Korean and the Italian are taught the same standardised version all should be well.

The problem arises only when reality intervenes. Let us imagine a fictional Thai businessman who has been taught English for describing his products in a positive way, for making suggestions, for politely disagreeing, for making counter proposals, for confirming details and so on. Now let is put him on a plane to Manchester or Chicago or Sydney. He has arrived at his destination. Let us say it is Saturday night and he is looking for somewhere to eat. Somehow he gets into a dispute with a taxi driver or a drunk. Should we have taught him to cope with verbal abuse? Or let’s say he goes to watch a film. The dialogue is full of phrases containing the f-word. Is this something he should have been prepared for? (Before 1970, this word had never been uttered on the big screen. Now what movie for grown ups does not contain this word?) Perhaps he is delighted to overhear in a pub a real conversation in which he hears the f-word used again and again as an adjective (to add emphasis to the message). ‘Ahah!’ he says to himself. ‘This is the real language. I must do the same at my meeting tomorrow. I will show them how good – no, wait, how f…ing good! – my English is.’ Oh dear!

I have never believed that we can lobotomise the English language by cutting the nerves between one area and another. Of course we can prepare students who have a need for a specific jargon in a predictable set of circumstances – but not alone, as an isolate, disconnected from the real English that is a living, changing phenomenon – and which is as culturally-influenced as any other language.

Let us consider the sad story of Hattori Yoshihiro, a 16-year-old Japanese high-school exchange student in Baton Rouge, Louisiana who, on October 28, 1992, was shot dead while trick-or-treating because he didn’t understand the slang meaning of ‘Freeze!’. He didn’t understand – no-one had thought to teach him – that it didn’t mean ‘cool’ or ‘cold’ – it meant: I have a gun in my hand pointing at you and I want you to stop moving because if you don’t I will shoot.

If this can happen with non-vulgar slang, what are the dangers of misunderstanding the increasingly common use of vulgar slang?

We can call it Survival English, if you like, or English Slang for Advanced Students, but the area of the vulgar should not be ignored. To do so is potentially to put students at risk.

There is of course the other problem that a student of English uses vulgar English in a way he shouldn’t, even unwittingly, and this too could have dangerous consequences. This is a problem even for native speakers as the following story shows. A British woman was recently accused by the American mother of a crying boy of sexual harassment. Her crime? She had, while trying to comfort the boy, told him to keep his pecker up. One language, two meanings.

Sadly the fruit of the tree of knowledge comes at a high price, the loss of innocence.

I don’t think there will be much disagreement that the world in general – and the English language in particular – has become, and is continuing to become, more vulgar. There will, however, be disagreement as to whether we, as teachers of English to adult students, should take this vulgarity into account when designing courses or lessons for these students. It may seem that I will be an advocate for doing so. But, in fact, my position is less clear cut. There is another dimension to the problem that we have only touched on in passing.

So far I hope I have demonstrated that English has become more vulgar and that adult language students can be placed in at best embarrassing or at worst life-threatening situations if they are not prepared. They need to learn, or at least have some acquaintance, with this area of language.

However, a central question remains: should we as EFL/ESL teachers teach vulgar language?

It may seem obvious that if students need to learn something then teachers need to teach it. However, my own views are now rather less robust than they were all those years ago when that angry teacher demanded to know why I had put him in such an embarrassing situation. I now recognise that cultural sensitivity must also include the fact that the role relationships of male-female, old-young, teacher-student are all highly defined in most cultures with clear prescriptions as to how each should behave and equally clear proscriptions as to how they should not. A teacher is not a sexless, ageless imparter of knowledge. The language in question is still formally taboo. It is therefore probably not appropriate for a 30 year old male teacher to teach a 17 year old girl the meaning of ‘blow job’.

The problem then for this girl student is that she would like to know the meaning of a word but although it is recognised that she has every right to learn the word, and that it is entirely appropriate for her to want to do so, it would not be appropriate for the teacher to tell her. To resolve this conundrum, the teacher might refer the girl to a dictionary but the dictionaries aimed at the EFL student do not define this word. He might then refer her to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, a major and important reference book which does indeed define the word but not in a clear way. It will tell her that the word blow job means fellatio. This does not take her very far forward but she perseveres and looks up this new word in the Chambers dictionary and there finds the explanation she is looking for, albeit in a rather abstract form of words.

But the area of the vulgar does not only touch on sexual language. Nor is it a black and white arena in which language is either vulgar (unacceptable) or standard (OK). There are gradations. There is the formal/standard word (erg. woman), then there is the ‘nice’ word (erg. lady), then there is the mildly vulgar (erg. biddy, dame) then there are the more vulgar terms which you all know but which I suspect the editor will not allow me to put in print. That is one of the complications. How can we teach students this sense of gradation without dealing with the words at the vulgar end of the spectrum? Secondly, the acceptability of words changes. I am sure it was not considered acceptable 150 years ago to refer to a girl as fetching or a boy (or indeed girl) as spunky. Now, neither word would cause even the slightest blip on most people’s mental radar. We can now talk about arrangements being ‘cocked up’, about houses being ‘tarted up’, about girls being ‘knocked up’, about going for a ‘piss up’ even though it is ‘pissing down’ without raising too many eyebrows. It is possible that the same thing is currently happening with the f-word. In a few decades it might be normal to say it without embarrassment in public among mixed formal company. (Of course, you may disagree and say that’s a load of crap.)

It seems to me that this area of language is currently occupying a no-man’s-land. It is necessary and yet it is avoided. It needs to be learnt but there are strong obstacles to teaching it. It was to cut through this tangle that I wrote my book Vulgar English & Sex Slang. After all, one can argue, it is for students to decide for themselves whether or not they wish to inform themselves of this area of language. Give them a book and let them get on with it. This is certainly one answer to the problem.

Exploring this jungle of vulgar words and phrases, it soon becomes clear that there is not one English but several Englishes (black, gay, student, working class, American British, Irish, Jewish etc). The vulgar has become an arena for play. This is what the company, French Connection, understood when it launched its fcuk brand. But is this a game that only we can play but which we restrict – in a slightly patronising way perhaps (by saying ‘It’s not culturally appropriate’) – others from appreciating? Perhaps we should have courses called: The Joy of English.

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