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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Words on Wednesday: Teaching Political Correctness

One of the topics we have to cover in the A2 year of English Language is Political Correctness, as part of the broader topic of how and why language changes. It amazes me, the extent to which seventeen year olds seem to have been raised on the Daily Mail diet. It's always a far harder task than you'd think to get a class to accept that maybe - just maybe - there have been some good things that have come out of the PC movement.

But then there's the perennially popular topic of swearing, which can be beautifully aligned with PC to open up the idea a little bit. Swearing reveals something about taboos and a simple survey, asking people to rate words according to their acceptability, can be most effective in reminding students of the need for PC language. Once they've made the connection, students are never really surprised that their grandparents/elderly neighbours etc find a different category of words to be taboo compared to their own sensibilities. Racial epithets are usually rated worst by teens, while older people are likely to find sexual swearwords more offensive. And there it is, right there. We need alternatives to 'those' words because they have become unacceptable - and most seventeen year olds can agree with that and have horror stories about grandparents embarrassing them with inappropriate racial descriptors.

The big task is getting students to separate the clear and apparent need for new terms represented by topics such as race and disability (many teens are shocked that 'The Spastics Society' ever existed, for example) from the myths perpetuated by the tabloids on a slow news day. Of course, the problem is that so many well-meaning institutions have embraced some of these myths in their desperation not to offend. If one more student tells me I can't say 'brainstorm' (I can, actually) I might just spit.

exciting news for tomorrow's blog

Sally Gardner will be here tomorrow, celebrating the publication of her new book The Double Shadow. She will be continuing the PC theme, from her perspective as a historical novelist. 

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