How Should You Handle Taboos When Teaching English?

By Johanna Kawasaki
September 9, 2020

Have you ever been worried about making a cultural misstep when teaching English? Have your students ever reacted strangely to something you did or said – either when teaching English online or in the classroom? How about the other way around? Or maybe you have been wondering whether or not you should be teaching certain language and topics to your EFL/ESL students, even if they request it. Let’s take a closer look at this delicate topic.

What is a taboo when teaching English?

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a taboo is a “subject, word, or action that is avoided for religious or social reasons.” TEFL/TESOL taboos are simply these kinds of off-limits or sensitive subjects or behavior that can pop up in the English language classroom. Taboos when teaching English are prohibited words, expressions, gestures, topics, and body language used in social interaction that you and your students need to be aware of in order to communicate appropriately in the classroom and in the world.

What are some examples of taboos in the ESL classroom?

The cultural and social customs of the country that you are teaching in, or that your students come from, play a huge role when it comes to determining what taboos are. Because taboos vary by culture, if you’re not fully aware of the accepted norms where you’re teaching, or you have multicultural students, it’s recommended to be aware of these possible taboos when teaching online or in the live EFL/ESL classroom:

Talking about certain topics


There are obvious subjects that can fall under the umbrella of taboo, depending on factors such as where you and your students are from, your students’ age, the perhaps the policies of the school where you teach. Such topics include the classics – religion, politics, and sex – and also extend well beyond to potentially controversial topics such as gay rights, wars, domestic violence, drug abuse, incest, polygamy, pregnancy and abortion, death, rape, alcohol, nudity, suicide, racism and racial abuse, or terrorism. But even what we might consider more neutral topics, like family issues (one-parent families or divorce, for example), physical or mental illness, or discussing political leaders can be inappropriate in some cultures, so be aware.

Swearing


This one probably seems obvious; as a teacher of any aged students, you’ll generally want to avoid using profanity during class or including swear words in the learning content. However, there may be times you’re using a movie clip or other authentic material in class that contains such words. Or, you may hear students swear when speaking to one another in English. A student may even ask you the meaning of an inappropriate word they’ve heard.

Using loud or abusive language


Raising your voice or using abusive language (or gestures) as a teacher is considered taboo in most cultures and of course, it’s also extremely unprofessional.

Violating person space


Touching a student or standing too close to them is fine in some cultures but can be taboo in others. In fact, personal space is one of the taboos that varies most between from culture to culture.

Pointing


Pointing at your student(s) with your finger or with an object can be considered taboo (even if you’re teaching online), so it’s best avoided. If you need to point, try using your entire hand instead of just your finger.

Prolonged eye contact


Holding eye contact for a long period of time can be understood as aggressive behavior in some cultures, so when teaching in person or online, you can avoid this potential taboo by not looking straight into the camera, directly at the student, all the time.

Are there any taboos that are unique to teaching English online?

Online teaching is becoming more and more popular in the time of COVID-19. Many teachers have transitioned their classes online, so thinking about new taboos that might arise in this particular teaching environment is a good idea for all global teachers. Consider these unique online teaching taboos, for example.

  • Your home environment should be clean and professional with only age-appropriate materials and wall-displays visible in your online teaching background.
  • Likewise, you don’t want your students to act too casually during your classes, such as sitting in an inappropriate position, showing too much skin, or lying in bed with their pajamas on (believe it or not, it happens!)
  • When working from home, it can be tempting to wear very casual, comfortable attire, but showing up at work in your pajamas (or “loungewear”) is a taboo in any culture.
  • You might encounter some family issues from your students’ side while teaching English online, such as a parent physically punishing a child in front of you or using inappropriate language. This kind of behavior is absolutely taboo; however, should you experience these domestic issues, it’s best to talk to your boss about it. If you’re a freelance (and therefore your own boss) reflect on this possibility and have a plan in place if it occurs.

Learn more: FAQs About Teaching English Online From Home

Why is it important to be aware of taboos when teaching English worldwide or online?

Taboos vary from culture to culture, and some of your students might use words or gestures that other students, or you, find offensive. You want to create a safe learning space for everyone in your class, you want to teach age-appropriate language and topics, and you want your students to be respectful towards you and one another. As the teacher, you need to be familiar with the local culture and your school’s policies, as well as with some general laws of the country you are teaching in. You want to be sure not to break a law by using a certain language or gesture, or by talking about a taboo topic.

When teaching online, you are dealing with students from all around the world, so avoiding the general taboos that we listed above, as well as familiarizing yourself with your students’ culture and individual backgrounds, is essential for a globally-minded ESL teacher.

Is it ever okay to teach taboos in the TEFL/TESOL setting?

This is a question where minds collide. Some say that there is a necessity to prepare our students for any possible situation they encounter in the world, and this includes being familiar with taboos. Others argue that the risk of offending your students and putting your job as a teacher at risk is too high to justify the benefit your students might have from that lesson. If you are unsure which side you are on, this selection of pros and cons might help you come to a conclusion for yourself as a teacher.

Arguments for teaching taboos


  • When we teach a language, we must teach the culture as well, and taboos are a part of the culture.
  • In order to communicate well and safely in a global society, students have to know which language and topics are appropriate and which are not, especially if they’re studying English to live and work in an English speaking country.
  • Taboos can provide various language learning opportunities. Students can learn about euphemisms, slang, formal and informal language, double meanings, body language, gestures, and politically correct terminology.
  • By discussing sensitive topics, students can practice their skills in negotiation and respectful debate. Student tasks could also be to look for taboo language in literary readings.

Arguments against teaching taboos


  • Taboos are areas of language and topics which are prohibited by a society for a reason, and by using them in a classroom, teachers risk offending their students in regard to their religious and political beliefs, sexuality, or morality.
  • Taboo language is extremely difficult to use correctly and appropriately. By teaching students taboo language, teachers act irresponsible and they cannot control the outcome.
  • Language classes should not trigger extreme emotional responses from students, which discussion of taboos may do. A teacher’s work is to teach the systems and skills of English without including topics that learners would never discuss, even in their own language.

What if a taboo word or subject comes up in the classroom? How should I handle it?

This is mainly down to your school’s policy and your student’s maturity level.

A teachable moment?


If you feel your students will benefit from learning about a taboo word or from discussing a taboo subject, and if you think that they are mature enough to handle this in an appropriate manner, then you could consider making this situation a teaching moment. You should, however, always check with your school before you take any steps. You don’t want to lose your job over this.

Consult school policy


An option could be to tell your students that they should avoid this word or topic as a rule, but that you will look into this and get back to them. If your school agrees with your idea to discuss the word or topic further for teaching purposes, you can elaborate on it in the next lesson. If they do not agree, you can simply tell your students not to use that word or talk about that subject during class anymore.

 

Taboos are a challenging topic in general, as well as in the ESL classroom. Whether or not to include taboos in your classes is up to your school, your own point of view, and your individual teaching situation. Will your students most likely encounter taboo language at some point in their lives? Then we as teachers may as well guide them through some of the most common taboos. If your students are not planning on traveling or only study English for academic purposes, there might be no need to include risky taboos in your lessons.

Learn tactics to handle another common classroom quandary: Effective Error Correction When Teaching English.