Taboos in the TEFL classroom


Most native teachers are aware of what is taboo in their own country and their own classroom but if you are abroad and in a country you are not familiar with, it can be easy to put your foot right in it.  So how can you manage taboos in the TEFL classroom, both the obvious subjects and the ones you may not be aware of?

What do most people understand as taboos?

There are some obvious candidates – swear words, torture, sex, drug abuse, obscene gestures, incest, cannibalism, religious belief, death, alcohol, gay rights, nudity, suicide, racial abuse, pregnancy, polygamy, depression – the list goes on and it is easy to see that to a person in the UK, some of these things are taboo but some are not so taboos are all about context.

Taboos vary from culture to culture and from country to country, for instance, homosexuality in the UK is a subject many people are comfortable with but in other countries, this would be a clear taboo.  Taboos also change and what was once a taboo may now not be a taboo or its status may be in a state of alteration.  So, as a TEFL teacher in a foreign country, your main interest is going to be, what language is taboo and which are the taboo subjects?

Teaching taboos

Most people remember in their school days way back when that the first words they learned in a new language or looked up in their Collins language dictionary were the swear words so:-

  • Is it right to teach taboo language to English learners?
  • Is it right to use taboo topics in the classroom as a language vehicle?

There is no one universal answer to either of these questions.

What would be the relevance of teaching taboo subjects?

When a TEFL teacher teaches language, it is usually not just a question of words but of a whole culture which is being imparted.  Students are as keen to learn about the UK as they are keen to learn to speak English so the cultural input is always significant, the great question is, should taboos form part of that in order for the picture to be accurate?  Some would say, yes.

The thing is that most students are not usually learning English for purely academic reasons; they learn because they want to work in the UK or study here or do either of those things in another English speaking location.  One might argue that it is an essential part of their education to understand taboos and know when something is appropriate to say and when it is not.

It can be dangerous for English students not to understand the cultural taboos they will encounter in either the UK or other English speaking countries so arguably, they should have a good understanding of taboos, both cultural and linguistic, as an essential part of their education.  Not understanding areas which are taboo can be dangerous.  Learners in the modern world are constantly being confronted by taboo subjects in their own language and culture and educators have a duty to guide them through this, why should TEFL be any different?

Handling taboo topics in the classroom

You can introduce taboo elements as they impact different TEFL modules so as you go along or, you can devote a couple of sessions to exploring cultural taboos and make this a two-way process.  Teaching sessions which explore cultural and language taboos both in the UK and also in the culture of the students you are teaching can be very informative and educational and, as with all things, taboo, it will generate more than a little passing interest!

There isn’t a TEFL module in your coursebook or a handy worksheet on taboos so it may be that you have to figure out to deal with it yourself.  The most important thing is that whichever culture you are talking about, you are respectful and sensitive.  From a language learning point of view, taboos are a rich vein of classroom opportunities:-

  • Introduce slang and colloquialisms
  • Talk about different dialects which involve other words for the same thing and perhaps the concept of customs
  • Discuss euphemisms and double meanings
  • Debate the importance of body language
  • Political correctness, a very big thing in the UK at the moment, discuss the evolution of this and how the UK has changed in say the last fifty years

Discussing sensitive topics with your students will involve a variety of different and valid language skills:-

  • The art of explanation
  • The use of language which is sensitive and respectful
  • How to disagree without being rude
  • Justifying or explaining an opinion
  • Negotiation

Remember to discuss the impact of the mirror taboos in the country in which you are teaching – if they exist.  If not, talk about other taboos or behaviours which are not acceptable in your host country and why they are not – you could learn something!

The arguments against

Some teachers would argue that taboos are a no-go area and that to introduce them in the classroom carries enormous risks of offending the students which may not always be readily apparent or understood by the teacher.  And that offence can be very profound.  Some TEFL teachers would argue that provoking an emotional response from the students is not within their remit and is inappropriate and unhelpful.  It can be easy for a taboo subject to cause sufficient offence and distress to even provoke problems between the students.  Of course, sometimes, it can be impossible to avoid taboo subjects and so always be prepared to handle tricky topics in case they catch you out even if you were planning to avoid them.

Rather ironically, taboos demonstrate more than many other subjects, the level of cultural exchange which is what actually makes TEFL such a rewarding and interesting job.  Discussing taboos will generate real passion and communication in the classroom and could be one of the lessons when you see some of the highest levels of engagement from your students.  For educational resources to help further your teaching career, the British Council website is an excellent source of good material.