Cleaning up speech!

Pooja Birwatkar

Examine the vignette below

A conversation between mother and teenager

Mother: Are you using abusive and taboo words like the ‘F’ word?
Teenager: Yes, I know most of them.
Mother: Where did you learn them? We never use these words in our home.
Teenager: School, friends. Everyone abuses. That’s the way people talk nowadays. It’s the way we address each other. We don’t use it for showing anger or such. It’s how we just generally bond.
Mother: Do you frequently use them?
Teenager: Yes, but I say only half the word. I never say the full abuse. I know it’s not right.
Mother: But this is not our upbringing. In our families we do not abuse. Can you not stop using abusive language with your friends, peers?
Teenager: Oh! But how would I then interact with my friends and classmates? I don’t want to be different. You have a choice. Either I say the full word or I say half so that I don’t disgrace the family. Make a choice.

The F-word is so normalized in communication that it no longer raises eyebrows, creates an awkward feeling or even disgust. Be it any expression of anger, frustration, failure, a happy moment, a joyful experience, pleasant surprise or excitement, the most common reaction begins with the ‘F’ word. In fact, it has become a part of universal language having gained acceptance due to being frequently used and heard and no longer leads to a rebuke or reprimand.

While educationists, parents, and society do not accept this, the reality is that by the time a child is ready for school, the language acquisition that has happened so far, along with informal modelled learning, has already led to the development of a vocabulary loaded with offensive taboo words. One often sees young children using these words in an adult-like manner in contexts similar to their experiences with these words and also to express a wide range of emotions. The general reaction of adults including parents and teachers is to condemn, shame, threaten and punish them without finding out the depth of the child’s understanding of these words. What we fail to comprehend is that such negative reinforcements contribute towards strengthening of the association of the word. At the same time, a constructive approach of making the child realize why the word should not be used would also not erase the word from the child’s word bank. It is etched for permanency and sooner or later will emerge in conversations. In this regard any attempts to censor children from a language they already know are futile.

It’s common observation that by the time a child enters adolescence, swearing and using abusive language becomes a part of their communication within educational spaces as well. These words have long been judged and forbidden to be used and hence their usage in schools is alarming. More appalling is the conversational ease of using them as part of the normal communication process.

When language is taught in schools, swear words are never a part of it. Where do the children pick these words up? Who is top most in the blame game – media, peers, family, and interactions with people known and unknown in their sphere? Probably the biggest contribution regarding this comes from social media platforms where abusing, trolling, and shaming are uncensored and highlighted as the expression of freedom of speech.

Gender disparity is quite prominent in terms of the selection of these swear words. However, recent trends indicate that the gender divides are slowly narrowing. Boys abuse. It is a natural behaviour and form of expression. Boys will be Boys’. Such notions stem from the pseudo notion of masculinity and under this guise they are overlooked.

Our education systems are so strongly rooted in ethical stances that they never openly acknowledge that abuses, swearing, and the F-word are heard in schools. Teachers hear these words often and react either with anger, threatening punishment, or sometimes simply ignore.

Honestly, language teachers in their course of building knowledge never inform students about such words. How can we even speak these words in classes? It will convey a wrong message. As teachers we believe we cannot let these words surface in the classroom. But, how long can such beliefs and reactions protect students, as sooner or later they will learn them through social networks and experiences?

What are parents, educators, and other adults to do about the problem of child swearing? It is clear that at some point children learn taboo language; however, the nature of this acquisition is unspecified by language researchers. In the absence of a good body of data about child swearing, obscenity law assumes that children are naive to taboo words and become corrupted or depraved when exposed to them; therefore, children should be protected from taboo words.

Teachers do not explicitly state the words… they never say it openly, parents and family do not discuss it… then how do we address the issue? Why do we shy from discussing them when it is clear that they are being used?

Mature language learners can benefit from classroom discussions devoted to examining the use and significance of obscene language, at least in broadly based contexts.

A few strategies
• If a student is heard using a taboo or forbidden word, do not overreact, but respond in a restrained manner with an intention to hear what the student has to say in his/her defence for the usage.
• Calmly and politely assert that the words used are unacceptable and should not be used.
• Do not lecture the individual student immediately as it singles them out. This may do more psychological harm to them as they are at a heightened phase of social consciousness and social image.
• Always keep in mind that the student may not be on the same platform regarding their views on these words and may consider them part of normal conversation. Everyone is using these words; I just said today, I didn’t mean the word. These may be the general reactive statements given. At these junctures just hear them out and close the matter for the time being. Later in a general discussion which has been crafted to address these issues, explain using well researched data so that it touches a positive chord psychologically, emotionally and socially with the students.
• Do not expect that short sessions like these will lead to complete transformation. There has to be deliberate yet positive interventions periodically enforced.
• Provide a list of alternative words which the students can substitute for abusive and offensive words. The teachers can creatively, with the students, make up words which are funny and nonsensical for the students to use. These words can be picked from language disciplines. These could be displayed across school notice boards with emojis.
• Periodic life skill and counselling sessions can be done by experts to help adolescents navigate the stress and storm period positively.

The author is an educator at Somaiya Vidyavihar University, Mumbai, specializing in the field of teacher education. She is passionate about research and ardently pursues it. Her areas of interest are constructivism, dialogic teaching, socio-scientific issues, diversity and inclusion in education and science pedagogy. She can be reached at

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