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Sunday, 5 October 2014

You can’t say that in class!

As an EFL teacher, you will constantly be aware of how you speak and what you say to students. You may also start filtering everything you say in everyday language, as you beging to realize the importance of language, and how easy it is for misunderstandings to occur.

Still, no matter how carefully you choose your words, it is almost inevitable that you will say something that gets taken out of context or just “doesn’t come out right”. A good, sucellful lesson can turn sour very quickly if you say the wrong thing or say something that is taken the wrong way.

One way that teachers can get themselves into trouble is by falling back on ‘easy’ language. There have been cases where teachers have told unruly teenagers to ‘stop acting crazy’, or asking someone who makes a humourous error ‘are you crazy?’. While these are completely innocent expressions, parents have complained about this because they feel as though the teacher is calling their child “mentally ill” which clearly has a different meaning.

There have been problems where teachers give students “English names” because their names in their native language are too difficult to pronounce or remember. In some cases, the name that the students are given has a negative connotation in the students’ L1 or perhaps they simply don’t like it. A good way to handle this is to give students a choice of a few different English names.

There is also the problem with ‘cursing/swearing’. Due to the amount of different dialects in English, there are plenty of cases where words may be inappropriate to one person and absolutely fine for another. It is not uncommon for students to learn expressions like “oh my god” or “damn it” which can be considered blasphemous for some conservative Christians, yet are perfectly acceptable for other people. The first thing you can do to help yourself provide language appropriate lessons for your students is avoid words that you personally feel are sensitive.

This does not mean that ‘swearing/cursing’ should not be talked about and addressed when it comes up in class. In fact, if students are sensible enough, examining these words can help students understand the weight of them. As long as your school and students (and students’ parents, when appropriate) are ok with you presenting a lesson on ‘taboo language’ or ‘bad words’, it can be highly engaging for students and useful for generating/studying authentic language use.

This is very similar to teaching slang. While slang is considered incorrect in any formal assessment situation, it makes up such a significant part of our natural language use that it is practically impossible to avoid when teaching students from pre-intermediate to advanced levels. Once again, get the permossion of your school before dedicating a lesson to this, as students may have other priorities that should be dealt with before teaching them slang. You do not want to be in the middle of an unscheduled slang lesson when the school director happens to be walking past.

Problems like these mentioned in this article can often be avoided by spending some time learning about the country and the students L1. By learning some local language you can avoid using English words that don’t translate directly and sound negative. You can also avoid using words in English that sound like ‘bad words/cursing’ in the students’ L1 (try telling a class of Korean students that you ‘like Mexican food, especially salsa’ and they will crack up!). Pay attention to your students and watch their reactions. If they feel as though you have said something ‘bad’ they may feel too embarrassed to say anything. It is always up to you what words you say.

Using negative expressions when students make errors can be an easy habit to fall into. It is a challenge for every teacher to write positive sounding report cards for students who misbehave, and don’t show signs of improving. These students’ parents want to know how well their child is doing, rather than hear about how ‘bad’ they are. A simple way to provide constructive crtiticism is to completely avoid negative words such as “no” and “not”. Rather than say “Student (x) doesn’t listen in class”, it is much better to say “Student (x) could achieve much more if he/she put in more effort in class”. While this may seem like a shallow veiling of negativity, it is far more positive to hear and gives the student a goal rather than simply stating something ‘bad’.

Also, if you feel as though you ‘can’t say anything right’. Or you have trouble keeping students under control without resorting to bad language, don’t forget that your colleagues and school can help and will undoubtedly find another way of saying what you want to say. Be mindful of your language and your students’ emotions. It is fine to be playful, but it takes two people to have a conversation. In any spoken situation it is the responsibility of the speaker and the listener to form an understanding, and never forget that while English may come naturally to you, students may not always recognize the context of what you say.

Have you put your foot in it, and said something you regretted in class? We would love to hear your stories in the comments section below.

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