Is There a Place for Profanity in the Classroom?


Last month I made the decision to offer a YouTube lesson on swearing in English. I managed to say quite a lot in a 15-minute lesson without saying any strong curse words. So what exactly did I teach? Alternatives. It’s more a lesson on how not to curse.

There are quite a lot of online lessons that address the topic of swearing. That’s a good thing, in my opinion, because learners are then free to draw conclusions and also choose the models that fit their own speaking style. Learners may put me in the same camp as Mr. Rogers or Mary Poppins rather than someone with a stronger “cool” factor, like Kevin Hart or Robert De Niro, but collectively the numerous lessons on cursing from different teachers illustrate a range of options.

I admit that in anger I fall back on words like “dang” and “freakin'” quite a lot. I also succumb to sarcasm. Putting on my teacher’s hat, I’m generally pleasant and I use polite but friendly speech. I can’t recall ever swearing in the classroom, traditional or virtual. It’s not just my style, but that doesn’t mean I think profanity has no place in ESL studies.

A few months back, I spoke to a colleague about cursing. He teaches adult business courses, and the students have expressed interest in this topic. They not only want familiarity with cursing, but they also want to learn to curse naturally in English. To ignore their interest and their questions would leave them without a trustworthy source to get answers and clarify any doubts. This doesn’t mean whole lessons have to be devoted to slew of obscene words. But incorporation of films, TV shows, and song lyrics with profanity might be the way to go. Exposure, context, pronunciation…it’s all there.

Of course, in a school setting a common understanding must exist in all spaces. First, is there a policy set by the administration and adhered to by the staff? What is permissible? For example, in higher ed or adult ed, are there any restrictions on R-rated movies? And in the classroom, what are the ground rules for cursing? Does every teacher welcome this kind of talk in their classroom? How and when can questions about offensive language be asked?

One YouTube viewer recently questioned why anyone should bother with the effort to learn alternatives such as “Oh my gosh” and “Geez maneez.” The learner wondered why people can’t have thicker skin and and just “deal with it.” I decided to meet the request to “give one good reason” to use the alternatives I presented. My argument is that there’s a time and a place for everything. I wrote that just as we clean up and look nice for a wedding, a funeral, a date, or a job interview, we should have the sensitivity to “clean up” and adjust our behavior and language for certain situations.

Another viewer wrote that “everyone” swears. I have to disagree with that, and I did. All people express their anger, but not everyone does it the same way. I have a few American friends who never swear, as in never. In over twenty years, I haven’t heard them drop a single f-bomb. I only hear them utter lighter alternatives: cripes, heck, etc. Some people I know swear like a truck driver even when they’re in a great mood. Most people in my circle swear, but it’s mainly the occasional sh– or da– when coffee spills or when car keys get lost.

I think the danger for some is to remain in a small social circle where exposure to other topics, views, and mannerisms is severely limited. This can leave one with a skewed view of what’s normal. What’s normal varies. If we’re teaching communication, then we must promote the need for sensitivity to the norm in any given environment. Understanding goes both ways. Those who swear like a sailor should tone it down for a first-time meeting with a client or future in-laws, and those who raise their eyebrows at the mere mention of an a$* need to be more tolerant and less judgmental.

As a teacher, I’ll continue my way of speaking and model American English without strong cursing, but I want students to know I’m ready to answer any question, even if it’s about WTF, LMAO, or a reference to a body part not normally discussed at the dinner table!


Photo credit: Man, Cartoon, Person, Error by PenClipcar-Vectors. Retrieved from the Public Domain at

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