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Politically correct language in the EFL classroom

Suggestions for bringing the topic of political correctness into class in interesting ways, and for dealing with PC issues when they come up naturally

Politically correct (PC) language such as “fire fighter” and “(s)he” is a great topic for higher-level classes, as are spoof PC expressions like “vertically challenged” for “short” and “living impaired” for “dead”. Students may also be interested in having the kinds of conversations that native speakers have about whether it is okay to say “blacklisted” and “mankind” and whether “he or she” is unnecessary, too long, a less silly of saying “(s)he”, or a good way of avoiding the (possibly ungrammatical) singular “they”. The movement to be more politically correct in their own languages might also be an interesting topic of conversation. The great thing about these topics is that there is not one correct answer and although the teacher can give information about the debate in English-speaking countries, students ultimately have to make up their own minds.

Apart from discussing their opinions on PC language, other possible classroom activities include students guessing what certain real or joke politically correct expressions (e.g. “chair”) mean, guessing which ones are common, trying to spot and “correct” politically incorrect language in a list or text, and making up their own politically correct expressions. They could also roleplay a local council or PTA meeting where they decide a city’s or school’s policy on PC expressions.

The issue of politically correct language may also come up naturally in class, usually by students or texts using a politically-incorrect word or phrase. With students, this may be because:

  • They didn’t know that it was politically incorrect
  • It is not politically incorrect in their language
  • The word or expression has become politically incorrect since they learnt it
  • What they said was a slight mistranslation
  • The place where they got the word from, e.g. an electronic dictionary, doesn’t have information on connotations
  • They didn’t learn that it was not PC when they learnt the word
  • They learnt it from a text that was old, very informal (e.g. rap), or deliberately politically incorrect (e.g. a stand-up comedian)

Examples of terms that are perfectly okay in other languages include “oriental” (just meaning “east” in Spanish without necessarily the same connotations as in English and strangely uncontroversial in Japan and Korea, where there are plenty of “oriental restaurants”), negro (Spanish for “black”), and homo- (no negative connotations in Japanese).

When students use politically incorrect expressions, the teacher will need to make a decision whether to mention that fact or not. Things to consider include:

  • Are they actually likely to offend anyone if they say it in conversation outside the classroom, e.g. do they only speak to non-native speakers who are likely to use the word in the same way without knowing anything about the connotations?
  • Is it actually likely to come up during conversation outside the classroom, or were you talking about a topic that is quite unusual in everyday life?
  • Have you talked about PC language in class before, making correction much quicker and easier?
  • If not, are the students likely to be familiar with the concept?
  • If not, will mentioning it be explainable, time-efficient and of interest, or will it be an irrelevant distraction?
  • Do the students often have problems with non-PC language, making it something worth bringing up, e.g. to make future correction easier?
  • Was the politically incorrect language one of the things that most needed correcting/mentioning?
  • Are students likely to use English in a context in which they will have to be very careful with their language, e.g. academic writing?

The issues to consider when deciding whether to mention non-PC language in a text are similar. With higher-level classes you could ask them to search for any words or expressions that they think might be politically incorrect in the text, and then to discuss whether they would edit it when republishing it, or leave it as it is and expect the readers to understand that it contains politically incorrect language for an understandable reason, e.g. because of its age.

The other situation in which a decision on political correctness might come up is when a teacher is saying or explaining something and has the choice of using the expression that they would usually use or a non-PC expression that students will find easier to understand. The same is true when preparing your own materials. One possibility is to use both, e.g. putting both more- and less-PC expressions on the worksheet, as in “mentally disabled (= learning difficulties)”.

Written by Alex Case for EnglishClub | January 2011
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic blog.