Taboo in the classroom

In this article I will review the arguments for and against teaching taboo language and using taboo subjects, then look at some practical ideas for teachers who decide to use this area of language.

Taboo in the classroom - methodology article


  • What are taboos?
  • Why deal with taboo subjects?
  • The arguments against
  • Some acceptable approaches
  • Conclusion


What are taboos?
Swear words, gay rights, torture, sex, one-parent families, drug abuse, divorce, political freedom, obscene gestures, incest, cannibalism, religious belief, death, alcohol, nudity, suicide, racial abuse, AIDS, terrorism, pregnancy, abortion, polygamy, depression, rape, democracy…

Taboos can be found in words, gestures, topics, social and cultural behaviour, body language and personal space. The Oxford English Dictionary defines them as 'Prohibition…generally of the use or practice of anything'
and in linguistics as 'A total or partial prohibition of the use of certain words, expressions, topics, etc., esp. in social intercourse'.

Importantly for teachers, taboos vary from culture to culture. For example,the subject of how much you earn is taboo in the UK but not in other cultures, whereas homosexuality is a subject many British people are comfortable with, but a clear taboo in many other countries. Taboos change as societies change, so topics such as divorce and depression and illnesses such as cancer and AIDS may not be as taboo as they used to be (interestingly, almost no universal taboos have ever been identified, but many are shared by almost all cultures - incest, patricide and cannibalism are three examples).

Both the Oxford Dictionary definitions above are relevant for us as teachers, as we can ask two questions based on this idea of taboo language and taboo subjects:

  • Is it right to teach taboo language to learners?
  • Is it right to use taboo topics to teach language?


Neither of these questions have a simple answer, or one that people agree on. 

Why deal with taboo subjects?

  • When we teach a language, we must teach the cultures in which it exists. Taboos are a key element of every culture, so we must teach them too.
  • Learners rarely learn a language for purely academic reasons. They learn so they can communicate with others who speak the language. In order to do this well, they have to know what language is appropriate and what is not.
  • Learners who need English to live and work in a country where it is the first language have to understand both taboo language and taboo topics, as they will encounter both. Not understanding taboo areas is dangerous.
  • Learners in the modern world are constantly exposed to taboo language and topics. As teachers we have a responsibility to guide them through this.
  • Using taboo topics to teach language can be highly productive, as they often generate high levels of interest and involvement in learners.
  • When we teach learners about the taboo language and topics of our culture, we share something special and unique, something they do not see in coursebooks.
  • Taboos are a rich area of language. Thinking about taboos means for example thinking about euphemisms, slang, formal and informal language, double meanings, body language and politically correct terminology. Discussing sensitive areas means using skills in negotiation, agreeing, disagreeing, explaining opinion, justifying, etc.
  • Multilingual classes are multicultural classes. Discussing the taboos of learner cultures together means real communication of genuinely motivating topics.


The arguments against

  • Taboos are taboos for a reason. They are areas of language and topics which are prohibited by a society, and when we use them in a classroom we run enormous risks of offending our learners in the most profound ways possible: religious and political belief, sexuality, morality.
  • Taboo language is extremely difficult to use correctly and appropriately. By teaching learners this kind of language we are giving them a loaded gun but not showing them how to use it safely.
  • Our work as teachers is not to provoke extreme emotional responses from our learners, although we may think that a provocative role is the right one. Our work is to teach the systems and skills of English. There are many effective ways of doing this apart from exploiting areas that learners would never discuss, not even in their own language.
  • Taboo topics provoke extreme reactions and in a classroom these kinds of reactions can cause problems, no matter how well we think we can manage the activity. A discussion can turn into a conflict in a moment.
  • There are few classrooms in the world where nothing bad has happened to any of the learners, or the teacher. Many have had experiences of areas we classify as taboo, such as death, issues of political freedom and divorce. Discussing these may be involving, yes, but in the worst way for someone in your class.
  • When you decide to use taboos, you should ask yourself why. Is it because they support your aims for the class better than other material, or just because they are taboos?


Some acceptable approaches
Even if you are against teaching taboos or using them to teach language points, there may be ways of exploiting this area. Below are some ideas:

  • Looking at how taboos are managed in a culture, e.g. euphemism, innuendo, double meaning, formal and informal equivalents.
  • Discussing what is appropriate and what is not, both at a language and content level. For example, is it right to ask questions about taboo topics when you meet someone for the first time? Which ones are okay and which not? Who can ask those kinds of questions? Is this language vulgar and impolite?
  • Thinking about body language / gestures / personal space. What is acceptable in each learner's culture?
  • Looking at modern slang and informal language - rich, challenging and always changing.
  • Looking at politically correct language.
  • Learner-led discussion. Learners who feel free to express themselves will often start a discussion on an apparently sensitive area if it is important to them. Our role is to facilitate discussion, guide and ensure that there is no negative impact on other learners.
  • Talking about your own society's taboos and your own feelings about these (if you are teaching abroad, in another culture). Even if this is not successful, it may offer you some insights into what you should be asking your learners to do.
  • Looking at taboo language in context, e.g. literature readings.



  • Is it right to teach taboo language to learners?
  • Is it right to use taboo topics to teach language?


Before you give an answer to the two questions above, you need to think about your own classes. If you feel your learners' needs are best met by teaching them taboo language, then it is right to look at it. Similarly, if you feel that the best way your learners can achieve the learning aims of a class is by looking at taboo subjects then they can become an important resource. But I feel you should take a long hard look at what you are asking your learners to think about, and respond to, before you make the decision to take taboos into your classroom. It may not be worth the risk.

Further Reading
Wikipedia: Taboo
Taboos and Issues by Leather, ELT Journal 2003
Breaking Taboos by Guy Cook, ETP April 02
Taboos and issues, Richard MacAndrew and Ron Martinez, Language Teaching Publications, 2001.
Discussions A-Z, Wallwork, CUP.
Dangerous English 2000!

Written by Paul Kaye, Teacher, Trainer, Materials writer

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