What are the implications of not teaching swearing when we teach a language? First and foremost, we have a sense of relief that we are not going to be facing angry parents or Daily Mail reporters. We would, quite rightly, be in a lot of trouble if our induction lessons for new arrivals included swearing. Nonetheless, within a few months, pupils new to English will be using language that we have quite deliberately not taught them. After a year their swearing is, in my experience, quite close to fluent while their mastery of the academic English they need to succeed in school is still a long way from where we want it to be. So how do they learn to do it?

As universities are also quite wary of parents and the Daily Mail, it is hard to find one prepared to fund research into how school children learn to swear, though the Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching did publish an article in 2016 by Maria Fe Suganob entitled “Swear words among young learners: A case study of the elementary students.” It includes statistical analysis of the usage of variations of the f-word and suggests that swearing is learnt from family and friends with mothers being the chief culprit. In other words, we learn to swear without being explicitly taught to do it.

I studied French for seven years at secondary school. I have an A Level in it. When I was eighteen I went to work in a warehouse just outside Paris. Between them my colleagues spoke French, Portuguese and Spanish. The foreman, who was French, told me what to on the first day. I did not understand a word. If he had written it down, I might have understood a bit more.  So Manuel (who was Portuguese) took me in hand and showed me how to do things while speaking to me in French. My spoken French got much better very quickly. When the other staff realised I could understand, they started speaking to me while we were doing things together. But could I swear in French? I heard Manuel and others doing it constantly. I thought I knew what to do. I got it almost right, but people would giggle when I did it because I didn’t get it absolutely right. After four or five months, however, I could do it properly and no one explicitly taught me what to do.

We are not taught day to day communication in the language or languages we grow up with. We acquire those languages by learning in contexts where we do things, where there is always visual support to help us make sense of what is going on and always someone modelling what is appropriate. Giving new arrivals buddies from whom they can learn English informally will always have more impact on a new arrival’s conversational skills than any form of teacher or TA led basic English lessons. The language of exam success, however, is an entirely different matter. Each subject has its own vocabulary and its own way of writing things. Some people pick those things up from reading, but most of us need to be taught explicitly, whether it is a language we have known from our early years or one we learn later in life. As it is very hard to acquire academic language without fluency in everyday language, we need to acquire the language by the quickest route possible: we need to hear the language in contexts where we can make sense of it and it is ok to try things and get them wrong.