Empowering our Students Through Lexical Choice

This is an adapted version of the talk I gave at TEOSL Spain 2023. Be aware that I make reference to and give examples of vulgar language.

I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about one particular group that I teach. It’s a Cambridge Advanced exam prep group of eight teenagers varying in age from third of ESO to one 19-year-old. Most study English at school, but they all consume English language content: films, series, books, music and podcasts. All of the statements on the slide above are true12345.

They are certain to hear examples of vulgar language and cursing; slang and colloquial language; slurs used against minoritised groups. Yet none of this everyday language makes it into the language textbooks that they use at school or in academies. Why is this a problem? Because it’s like driving a car without a license. They hear this language but don’t realise that it can be problematic depending on the context. This is even more important with higher level speakers who speak naturally and give the impression of fluency than it would be with less proficient speakers. 

‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’

–Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus logigo-philosphicus, 1922.

Wittgenstein is, in my opinion, quite persuasive when he argues that my language limits also delineate the limits of my world. As my Spanish has improved over the years, I’ve seen and understood so much more of the Spanish speaking world. When I spend time back in my home country, I cannot help but wonder what it must be like for monolingual Anglophone residents of Cymru/Wales who don’t have access to the rich Welsh language cultural heritage. For me, language is real magic and so if you don’t have the language of the place where you are, you’re like a muggle at Hogwarts. Not only can you not understand it, you can’t even really see it.

For me, ‘the limits of my language’ extend as much to knowledge about language as to knowledge of the language. I first became aware of dialect and awoke my interest in linguistics when I left Wales for university. There I became aware of a specific otherness, my Welshness, for the first time. Of course, I had been to England before; I did already know that the road signs and cashpoints weren’t bilingual. But I hadn’t realised that my ability to say the famously long village name would be met with such awe in the college bar that I would be given a sheepshagger pin badge to recognise my prodigious talent. I’m also not sure that sheepshagger is a compliment. But I digress. Where I come from, to say “I’ll do it again” might be referring not to a repeated action, but simply a delayed action that you haven’t yet done. The Welsh word eto means both ‘again’, but also ‘even now’. Curiously, like hispanohablantes, we also often use the word ‘now’ in South Wales to mean anything but ‘now’. This was met with understandable confusion by my English friends and, on more than one occasion, frustration when I said, for example, that I would do the washing up now and didn’t move from the sofa. My world needed to extend and so I needed to push the boundaries of my knowledge about language in order to communicate more effectively in English with the English despite having grown up speaking English at home.

And so, if I’m a Spanish speaker from Madrid working in London, I might not realise that the direct translation of coño is not used in the same way in the English speaking world. My knowledge of the word, is the not same as my knowledge about the word. This is what I’m referring to when I talk about empowering our students through lexical choice. An impressive vocabulary isn’t much use without the knowledge of when and how to use that vocabulary. Knowing how vulgar language makes you sound can be very empowering or very embarrassing.

Conceptual Baggage

Sally McConnell-Ginet (2014)6 writes about conceptual baggage, arguing that it ‘is part of the significance attached to words, though it is not part of what those words or the speakers using them mean’ (p. 318). For a concrete classroom example of this, I’ll recall a lesson just before Christmas during my first term teaching in Spain. It was a moment that got me thinking about this topic of lexical awareness and lexical choice and how the wrong choice (or a student not knowing they have a choice) can lead to uncomfortable situations. It was a B2 lesson and I had planned the tasks around comparing Christmas traditions in different countries with as much emphasis on speaking as possible. My Spanish was limited and my knowledge of Spanish Christmas traditions was zero. A student was talking about his family’s Christmas Eve celebrations and then announced that they would be attending ‘the Mass of the Cock’. A perfect translation of La misa del gallo. However, this is not the term usually used in English where ‘Midnight Mass’ is preferred. Indeed, what he said sounded like something very different from what he had intended.

The Cambridge dictionary might list ‘rooster’ and ‘male bird’ ahead of ‘penis’ as meanings for ‘cock’, but I conducted a very unscientific poll of an unrepresentative group of English teachers which confirmed that, when that word is decontextualised, it’s that third meaning they go to first. What we see here is a literal translation that isn’t accurate: a collision between the correct word being chosen to represent what the speaker had in mind in their first language, but without being aware of multiple interpretations in the target language. The conceptual baggage a listener might bring with them to that conversation would suggest a very amusing interpretation of the mass.

Vulgar Language

This brings me to vulgar language and Geraldine Horan (2013)7 who remarks: ‘Given that the cursing and swearing play an important role in communicating emotions and attitudes and can be found not only in casual spoken utterances, but also in song lyrics, literature and theatre, their absence from FLL would seem to constitute a glaring omission (p.284).  She suggests, ‘that language learners need to know how to express, and this involves an awareness of the lexical fields from which swear words are drawn, as well as an understanding of the severity of the expressions used’ (p.285-6). She also argues, persuasively in my opinion, ‘that whether a language learner chooses to swear, or even avoids swearing, she or he should at least be aware of the patterns, contexts and repercussions of swearing’ (p.286). I’d go further, actually, and say they should be aware of patterns and repercussions of not swearing in certain contexts. 

Furthermore, Timothy Jay (2000)8 argues that learners need to be able to recognise when such language is being aimed at them. In other words, when language is being used in such a way that might be intended as aggression. Jean-Marc Dewaele’s work on swearing and multilingualism suggests that without a knowledge of vulgar language, native speakers might perceive a non-native speaker’s language as ‘bland’. Indeed, language learners might themselves feel frustrated that they cannot express themselves as forcefully as they would in their native language(s) (Dewaele, 2004, p. 2059, 10).

If our students are unaware of the impact a word might have on a monolingual native speaker of English, or the effect that a certain context (church, court of law, and classroom) might have on the appropriacy of that word, how can they be expected to make a choice about whether to use it? As a thirteen year old, I can remember being shocked at the liberal way German exchange teenagers used English swear words like ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’ as if they were interchangeable with ‘oh dear’. While those German teens had no idea how their use of vulgar language would be heard by British listeners (my parents included), it’s also true that cultures experience vulgar language differently. The English c-word is extremely taboo in the USA and is rarely heard in the UK; on the other hand, while suffering from a nasty infection, I was once greeted by my optician with ‘coño’ as he looked at my swollen eye. And so, a couple of times a year I have to point out to a group of students that whilst I have no personal problem hearing or using the ‘f-word’ in general, it doesn’t have a place in the classroom. Context, then, is all.

Many or most language learners – of all ages – experience an early desire to master the swear words of their target language. I’ve been met with a lot of fascination about my ability to speak Welsh, and of the many questions I’ve fielded about that ancient tongue, there have often been questions about how to swear. Similarly, learners have a fascination with how to refer to the more private parts of the body, or private activities one might do with one’s body. At the age of 36, I remain highly entertained by the fact that the difference between saying bread and a slang term for penis in Portuguese rests on a nasal vowel that I haven’t reliably mastered yet.

The institution of classroom has quite particular conventions of appropriacy, and in the case of the EAL classroom, this means learners are shielded from a huge variety of real language in use, not just taboo language.

(Guo, X. et al, 2016: 7)11

In the language classroom, through omission, we shield learners from real language. The discussion of the decontextualised sentences in grammar activities is well-rehearsed. Duolingo insists on making me practice sentences about a shark not having a house, but this leaves me stranded and surrounded by metaphorical sharks when I enter a Portuguese conversation. I’ve never seen en plan in a Spanish textbook, but the characters of Elite can’t get through a single conversation without using it multiple times.

What is certain is that our students are going to encounter vulgar language in many authentic language situations. It’s also highly likely if not certain that they would like to learn about this type of language. The question facing us as classroom practitioners is how to respond to this reality. This is a question I return to later.

So, as an example of the type of activity we might do with students to highlight the problem of conceptual baggage, I’ll recall the “maleness” of the English word surgeon. I thought this was a pretty well-known riddle, but every time I see it discussed, not everyone manages to spot what it reveals. Interestingly, this is exactly how McConnell-Ginet (2014) exemplifies conceptual baggage: ‘An example […] is the assumption that a surgeon is male: maleness is not part of the meaning of surgeon nor of what speakers mean when they use surgeon but it is nonetheless frequently inferred by hearers when speakers utter surgeon to talk about someone’ (p.318).

Employment is a particularly good topic area for raising awareness of specifically gendered ideas about certain jobs. Similar riddles could be constructed to exploit assumptions students may make with words like ‘police officer’, ‘judge’ and ‘nurse’ to name but three examples. Pairs of words like ‘doctor/nurse’ and ‘pilot/cabin crew’ work well too. Even with degendered terms like cabin crew, rather than air stewardess, and police officer for policeman, old-fashioned associations still linger.

This kind of activity can work well as an opening task. I use it when I am about to begin a topic on jobs and have us open the conversation about gender stereotypes in employment. Another task can be to distribute a set of images of people, as diverse as possible, and ask students to match them to the job they think they might do. Then, see how many white men in suits have been matched to judge/accountant/doctor compared to women of colour. This is a powerful way of showing students that the words we use can have strong connotations and can make us think about the world in a very unrealistic way. 

If you use textbooks, there are two further activities you can do along similar lines: first, copy the page you want to use but blocking out the images and ask your students to photo edit the page. You could do this by offering them a selection of images, or asking them to find the images they want to use online. The second, which could be done in isolation or as a followup to that previous task, is to ask students to critique the images that have been selected for a page in their textbook. This also helps students develop their visual literacy skills.

When is a NEST not a NEST?

I have also been thinking about how we talk about speakers of a language and the privilege that is accorded to so-called native speakers. Native speakerism is a whole topic in and of itself, but sticking to my theme, I wanted to talk a little about how we refer to speakers of a language and then how this applies in other ways.

Where I come from, there is a growing interest in learning Welsh. There, in that context of people learning a language that perhaps their grandparents spoke, but which their parents didn’t (which is my case), there is talk of “new speakers”. If we oppose language learner and new speaker, and look at that pair through a Freirean lens, we can see the former term being associated with deficit, of having study to do and concepts to learn before they can use that language. The latter, however, sounds like a speaker with their own agency, but who is perhaps not yet very confident or fully proficient. Rather like someone who has just passed their driving test. If we push a little further, perhaps we can talk of fluent speakers (who might be native or non-native, whatever that distinction really means). Thus, the answer to the question of when a NEST is not a NEST is simply when they are a fluent speaker. I thought I was happy with this understanding, but then I was listening to a Welsh language podcast which touched on this very topic. The interviewee was arguing that no-one is a 100% fluent Welsh speaker as new words come into use all of the time; instead, he suggested that we are all somewhere on a continuum of fluency. According to that line of thinking, it becomes even more nonsensical to draw a line between natives and non-natives.

This is a case-study, I suppose, of the semantic differences between pairs of similar terms; differences which can reveal a lot about the speaker’s intention. Ask your students whether they’d prefer to be referred to as learners or new speakers of English. Thus, while I have used the example of linguistic discrimination and the false assumptions that surround the issue of native speakerism in English Language Teaching, contrasting “synonyms” in this way can shed light on the deeper meanings, the negative conceptual baggage, that some terms have and encourage our students to actively choose the words they use.

When we are teaching vocabulary, therefore, I suggest that whenever we come across a term that has synonyms or near synonyms which are variously loaded. Those synonyms and the relevant contexts and meanings should be taught too. Let me give you an example, probably most relevant to C1+ groups, that I was asked to consider recently: handmade vs handcrafted. To me, they are near synonyms. But they aren’t precisely the same. I’ll add artisan to that pair as well. They have different feelings and depending on the context, handcrafted and artisan can come across as plainly pretentious. What about homemade? An interesting point was made by a colleague at the presentation, that homemade cake sounds delicious, but they wouldn’t buy a homemade guitar.

With more advanced groups, we can ask them to discuss the terms, but we can do something similar with less advanced groups by providing students with the terms in a context that reveals their slight differences and ask our students to discuss, what they think the differences are.

Of Prepositions, Nouns and Adjectives

To people living with, living with, living with… not dying from disease!

‘La vie boheme’, Rent by Jonathan Larson

Consider the following sentences:

  1. He’s autistic.
  2. He’s an autistic.
  3. He’s a person with autism.

These three sentences are semantically very similar, but pragmatically they are strikingly different. Of course we know this, but (how) do we teach and explain this to our students? Collecting a prize at the FECEI Premios Top last month, Serena Durán Sela spoke about the importance of the preposition ‘with’ and how this stops us from identifying, for example, a person as being Down’s syndrome.

The quotation above on the slide comes from the song La Vie Boheme from Jonathan Larson’s hit Broadway show, Rent. It powerfully repeats ‘living with’ and emphatically denies ‘dying from’. It opposes living and dying quite transparently, but also more subtly, opposes two mindsets: one which sees people diagnosed as HIV+ as active agents involved in living, the other sees them as passive victims. 

Language use positions other people. When I use usted, I position the listener with some distance from me, a respectful distance; when I say ‘Open the window!’ the listener is much closer to me, they are much more familiar. If I use the wrong approach, I can sound quite rude. Language can result in us sounding much more than simply rude.

Let’s take, as an example, the PET photo description task. Let’s consider the type of thing I’ve heard many times:

I see a boy. He is black. I see a black boy.

And I cringe. Because in the photo there is a man and there are derogatory, racist overtones to using the word ‘boy’ in this way. A quick Google search will tell you that the use of ‘boy’ was at the heart of a workplace discrimination case in the US Court of Appeals as recently as 2011. 

Identifying someone’s blackness in a photo, might be an easy sentence for the student to produce. However, I suggest that it’s not a particularly useful sentence for real life application. I’d argue that we should be directing students away from describing photos for PET in such a reductive way, because it’s not a particularly useful strategy in life. There are far more interesting things about people than their skin colour, and in a PET exam the adjective ‘black’ isn’t getting you any points.

Adjectives function much more freely as nouns in Spanish than in English. I was teaching a 1:1 lesson with a middle-aged woman that I’d come to know quite well over time. I asked how her weekend had been and she told me that she had gone out with “the gays”. Another cringe moment. I knew her well enough to know that she was referring to her friends; I knew her well enough to know that she wasn’t being disparaging. I can’t help how it sounds in English.

If you hear someone say ‘I like the look of that blonde’, you know the gender of the speaker and of the person who is blonde. You also know that the speaker isn’t speaking about the blonde with respect. This talk was about empowering students, through lexical knowledge, and potentially achieving social change. I don’t tell my students they can’t say sentences like this. I’m not arguing that our students can’t say this sentence. In fact, in order to fit into a specific anglophone social context, our hypothetical student might want to refer to someone in a bar saying ‘That blonde is a hottie’. But they need to know how this utterance makes them sound in order to choose to use that construction; they need to know how that sentence sounds in order to choose if that’s how they want to be perceived. Choice empowers us; language knowledge helps us to push those limits to our world.

Planning Activities

Earlier, I mentioned using riddles and puzzles to open our students’ eyes and make them think. Depending on the level, maybe we can use a discussion task: I’ve just begun a unit on the environment with my B2 teenagers and so, for example, I asked my students to talk about the difference in meanings between climate change, climate crisis, climate emergency and climate chaos. What’s the difference between global warming and global heating? What about renewable energy versus clean energy versus green energy?

Have students pay close attention to the shades of meaning between terms — I often use the metaphor of colour here and say that these words might all be blue, but it’s not the same shade of blue. Then your students can read or listen to authentic texts where the different terms are used. Ask students to interrogate how the terms are used, who is using them and why they might have chosen those terms. In the same way that I want my students to learn to choose and discriminate between similar terms to be more precise in their expression, I need them to notice that other speakers sometimes carefully choose words and it’s not always to be more precise! What does the speaker want the listener to be thinking about and why? What’s their agenda? 

As another example, during the covid-19 pandemic, I was fascinated (and baffled) by the way UK rules and guidelines consistently referred to a ‘face covering’. I’m not sure I know why this term was used rather than ‘mask’, but I know it was done for a reason. To my mind, a face covering doesn’t refer to what we in Spain call mascarilla. Perhaps that was precisely the reason for the choice. We might not always be able to identify a specifically different meaning, but by inviting our students to think about differences in meaning, we start to train them in this way of thinking. We train them to notice that there are different possible meanings to the lexis they choose to use and the lexis that others choose to use.

Emergent Language

There’s a time and a place for everything. Earlier I recognised the certainty that our students will encounter vulgar language in many authentic language situations and I suggested that it’s also probable that they would like to learn about this type of language. So I posed the question of how to respond to that need.

In a word, carefully.

Aside from specific groups, probably adults and/or more advanced learners, I wouldn’t plan a specific lesson around vulgar language. Instead, I choose to make use of spontaneous critical moments that arise organically. Such as when a learner inappropriately makes use of an expression like ‘motherfucker’ when getting an answer wrong. That’s a great opportunity to unpack why both the context (the classroom) and the situation (one wrong answer) make that choice of word inappropriate; the force with which that frustration would be understood; and how listeners might perceive the situation. The same is true of such moments when a learner uses the ‘n’ word after hearing it used in rap lyrics, not realising the history nor specific contexts of use. And likewise with other abusive terms for minoritised groups.

Let’s take older teens or young adults, and you still might want or need to talk to your DOS and/or students’ parents. You might also want to make the class or activity elective. In any case, there’s no need to impose the issue on your students, because we know it will inevitably arise organically. Let’s imagine that a student has got an answer wrong and in frustration says ‘fuck’. In that moment, you can do that brief unpacking that I already described, but I’d also suggest that you ask the students if you’d like them to follow up and if so, there are two activities that I’d suggest. First, repurposing the line that we use for adverbs of frequency as, instead, for strength of vulgar word. Ask students where they think those words come in strength. A further, and perhaps a followup, is to ask them what contexts they think the words can be used in generally speaking. You can also ask them what might be both the effect and consequence of using a word in an inappropriate context.

Perhaps give students a range of contexts (lunch with friends, lunch with older family members, classroom/university seminar) and ask what, if/any of the terms under discussion are acceptable? What can’t you say? What would be the effect if you did say them? How is this different in Spanish?

The point to remember, is that we are teaching about vulgar language; I’m not teaching my students to swear. After all, I don’t need to. And in addition, we are exploiting organic opportunities and responding to students’ needs not creating them. As has been argued, ‘classrooms are sites for resolving issues’ (Guo, 2016: p.6) and the issue of vulgar language is one that I’d much rather we resolve in the safety of the classroom than in the open waters of real life interaction.

Teaching Choice and Empowering Students

I’ve used the examples of gender, vulgar language, native speakerism and the environment to argue that we absolutely must teach our students that they can make choices when they speak. When I teach the passive voice, I always point out that one of the uses is what I call the “political passive” — for example when a person in authority says ‘decisions have been taken’ — and that this usage is no accident and is very much a choice by the speaker or speech writer. By teaching students that they don’t have to use the term ‘non-native speaker’ if they would prefer to call themselves a ‘new speaker’ of English, we empower them and give them agency over the lexis they use. Knowing whether and how to use vulgar language gives them the power to choose not to use it or to make their expression more forceful. Being aware of how they come across if they reduce people to their adjectives, empowers them to decide how to present themselves. 

Looking at the Cambridge guide for assessing writing, the word ‘precisely’ sneaks into the descriptors for vocabulary for a band 3 at C2 level; I’d argue that you can only be precise with your vocabulary if you are making a choice. 

So, to return to my theme. My aim was to talk about how we can empower our students to make lexical decisions, by teaching students about vocabulary, and by teaching students about choice. That they can make choices in the way they talk about themselves and about others, but equally importantly that they can notice when someone else is making a choice by talking about migrants as a ‘swarm’ or referring to covid-19 as ‘Kung Flu’. If they can make and notice these decisions, they will be more likely to feel empowered when using the English language.


  1. https://www.epdata.es/datos/uso-jovenes-internet-datos-graficos/271
  2. https://www.epdata.es/datos/uso-jovenes-internet-datos-graficos/271
  3. https://www.epdata.es/datos/uso-jovenes-internet-datos-graficos/271
  4. https://es.statista.com/grafico/28879/porcentaje-de-poblacion-que-ha-participado-en-redes-sociales-en-espana/
  5. https://www.ontsi.es/es/publicaciones/uso-nuevas-tecnologias-menores-Espana-2022
  6. McConnell-Ginet, S. (2014). ‘Meaning-Making and Ideologies of Gender and Sexuality’ in
    S. Ehrlich & M. Meyerhoff, eds. The Handbook of Language, Gender, and Sexuality, 2nd ed. Oxford, Blackwell, 316-334.
  7. Horan, G. (2013). ‘You taught me language; and my profit on’t/Is, I know how to curse’: cursing and swearing in foreign language learning, Language and Intercultural Communication, 13:3, 283-297, DOI: 10.1080/14708477.2013.804533
  8. Jay, T. (2000). Why we curse. A neuro-psycho-social-theory of speech. Philadelphia and Amsterdam, John Benjamins.
  9. Dewaele, J.-M. (2004). The emotional force of swearwords and taboo words in the speech of multilinguals. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 25(2-3), 204-222. doi:10.1080/01434630408666529
  10. Readers might also find this paper interesting
  11. Guo, Xuhong & Liyanage, Indika & Bartlett, Brendan & Walker, Tony & Díaz, Adriana. (2016). Uncertainty and reluctance in teaching taboo language: A case study of an experienced teacher of English as an additional language. (available here).

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