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Non Native Speakers

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 3715 words Published: 3rd May 2017

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Learning a language outside of your own can be difficult, it has its advantages. Even words that are considered unacceptable in some countries can have its uses, in this case English. The reason for this investigation is based on the concern about the use and perception of swearwords for students who are non native speakers (N.N.S) of English. The issues that I intend to explore are the ideas whether University students who are N.N.S of English are able to define and understand swear words within the English Language and if any similarity exists between our language and theirs. On top of that I would like to find out why they think it is essential to know what some slang words in English mean. To me this seems like a valuable topic as I have not come across a lot of research that can explain the opinions of those who originate from countries where English is not their first. Although I have read extracts from online journals by Tony Thorne, Jean-Marc Dewaele and ‘Forbidden words’ by Keith Allan. Therefore, I found it to be an interesting challenge as it would open up a wider understanding of how opinions may differ between me and a student who comes from a different country.

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Word count: 458In this investigation I shall be looking at 4 sets of data, focusing on the opinion and answers of each participant. An initial interest in this area of investigation came from ‘Forbidden words’ by Keith Allan and a journal by Jean-Marc Dewaele. It provided significant ideas as to why taboo language may be just as common in English in comparison to another country. A preparatory study was reading the journal of Jean-Marc Dewaele who looked at ‘The Emotional force of swearwords and Taboo Words in the Speech of Multi-lingual’s’. On personal level I feel this is an excellent area of study as it is one that I have interest in and I am intrigued to see what can be found. The investigation will make use of a list of taboo language within my questionnaire and whether a N.N.S has the ability to recognise and define these words. There should be a difference in the quantity and quality of answers from the N.N.S examining the words that I provide them with, and it also allows for a large amount of linguistic theories to be incorporated in the study such as Rod Ellis. There is no particular hypothesis for this investigation as I am not trying to prove a belief nor am I trying to criticise another, it is mostly based on whether there is an influence that our words have on N.N.S of English and if they can define them just as easily as an English person can.

Literature Review

The word ‘taboo’ is derived from the Tongan ‘tabu’ which came in to use around the end of the eighteenth century and according to Radcliffe Brown the word “simply means to ‘to forbid’, ‘forbidden’, and can be applied to any sort of prohibition” (Allan & Burridge, 2006: 2). The discussion of censoring language tends to lead to other forms of communication such as polite/impolite remarks, euphemisms and dysphemisms. However over time the opinion of Taboo language has seemed to become less of an issue in society, for some reason it has become the norm in a person’s language, though there are still those who are less inclined to accept it I have personally come across more who accept it in the United Kingdom. This investigation focuses on university students rather than a vast variety of ages (i.e. under 16 year olds and 30+) “There is a serious side to analysing young people’s slang. Latest research suggests that what was once a passing fad may be evolving into a genuine dialect, dubbed ‘multiethnic youth vernacular’, with its own vocabulary, accent and intonation. This new form of English, heavily influenced by Black and Asian speech, may actually displace what used to be known as the Queens’ English” (Thorne, 2007: 1). In comparison to other countries outside of the U.K, in particular citizens from countries where English is not their first language can vary, there appears to be just as many profanities in their languages as well as our own.

Every culture and language has taboos; some may be easier to define than others as each language make us of different sets of taboos. An example that can illuminate some difference between swearing is Norwegian and English, the word ‘shit’ in Norwegian tends to implicate lack of value, however Norway is very religious so calling someone a ‘devil’ (jævel) is extremely offensive and looked down upon. Though in English offensive words tend to revolve around words that can also means parts of the human body, rather than just words that may insult a person due to their behaviour, i.e. ‘cunt’. In relation to this investigation, Wright (1987) feels that a positive way to teach learners of a second language is by writing “instructional questions that invite learners to operate on input in some way” (Allan & Burridge, 2006: 17).

I wanted to get a personal input from every participant that I handed out a questionnaire to in order to gain some variety of opinion between students from numerous cultures and felt this was the best way to do it. This study is based on the numerous classroom techniques that many second language learners (SLL, or SLD – Second language developers) are introduced to when acquiring a target language. Wode (1980) thinks that “classroom learners are able to utilise different strategies for producing TL and observes that they can memorise or imitate fairly long sentences of speech material” (Ellis, 1984: 2) Further studies by Wode (1980) lead to results that showed classroom learners can also produce spontaneous speech just as much as those who learnt in a naturalistic way. There has been criticism for this method though, one by Hatch (1978) who stated that classroom learning tends to require frequency as SLL/SLD can take place so quickly that learners may soon fall behind and end up listening instead of contributing to the tasks so little language is actually learnt and produced correctly, Hatch (1978) writes “It is not easy to conduct a case study of an individual learner when this learner is immersed in a class of twenty or more such learners” (Ellis, 1984: 8).

Reading this influenced me to use fewer participants rather than a vast number, although for statistic analysis it would have proven useful, I was actually more concerned with the individual rather than the group. Using a questionnaire also defines the process of interaction between me (the teacher) and the student (the learner) “Language development is the result of an interaction between the learner’s existing state of knowledge and the linguistic environment to which he is exposed” (Ellis, 1984: 13). If this is the opinion during any kind of learning the student may go through, how are they able to come across words that they are not taught in the classroom? It could be subconscious strategies that the learner may use to intake information from everyday activities such watching an English film with subtitles, reading a book with English swear words then looking up what they mean, hearing them from friends or family, the internet and even in popular music, “it is reasonable to assume that a learner’s learning style reflects both nature and nurture. The learner’s personality and cognitive style result in a general preference” (Thorne 2007: 1). It also depends on the person and why they may want to learn taboo language in the first place, as Tony Thorne states it could be a way to form an identity, a way of “excluding outsiders from their conversations” (Thorne 2007: 1) this creates a barrier between them and others who they don’t wish to communicate with.

More of than not it could be so that they are able to recognize them when other people say these words, so they have the ability to defend themselves it has been said about them. Also as there are more people from non-native English speaking areas moving to places in the U.K it is best for them to know the ‘right’ words from the ‘wrong’, for if one were to use a swear word in a job interview without having a full understanding of what it meant could result in them not getting the job at all. When writing pieces of work it is best to know what words to avoid when creating descriptions, it seems unlikely that a person from Luxemburg may write ‘shit’ in a biology essay if they had to refer to specific roles of the human body but it is not an impossible mistake to make, or a person from France using the word bitch to either describe her opinions about someone or a female dog in a social situation where it is unlikely to be used. It also fascinates me how a learner manages to apply the rules that they have learnt during SLL/SLD to words that are considered to be taboo, naturally they may just apply the meaning to what a word in their language may mean if it shares similarities – for example being able to define which swear words are nouns or verbs. Scott Thornbury gives advice on teaching methods for second language students, and asks them to think about “what kind of linguistic knowledge speakers of a language raw in order to express themselves” (Thornbury, 1997: 10).

This comes to mind when looking at reasons for how students who are N.N.S. of English (Non native speakers) use these kinds of censored words in order to express themselves, whether it be opinions or actions. Another researcher I found relevant to my investigation was the work of Jean-Marc Dewaele (2004) who states that “these words are often among the first ones to be learned in an L2, typically outside the classroom with a gleeful NS of that language” (Dewaele, 2004: 205). Dewaele points out that they rarely make an appearance in textbooks or used by their tutor in the classroom due to their offensive nature. Because of this, some language learners appear to lack general knowledge of taboo words so tend not to use them as much, they may come in contact with these words (maybe in conversation or though reading/listening to something) but may not actually know the meaning of the word. This creates a fascination of wanting to learn what these swearwords and other vulgar expressions, not just to be able to understand them but to use in themselves. According to Dewaele “knowing how to swear in a foreign language can make you seem sophisticated, well-travelled or at least give you a means to swear in front of others without them thinking of you as a foul-mouthed person” (Dewaele, 2004: 206), it can also save the possible embarrassment of ensuring that it isn’t used in situations where it can be unacceptable (i.e. classroom talk, church and family gatherings).

Word count: 1372 with quotes, 1100 without (272 words in quotes).


The setting I decided to follow was a basic quantitative method using a simple classroom to hand out the questionnaires to all of the N.N.S Students during the last 10 minutes of their English Studies lesson. My reason for choosing this method was because each person could contribute their opinion to our English taboo language and make a comparison with their own, see appendix 1 for an example of the questionnaire that I used in this study.

Materials were also simplistic as I wanted to keep things from appearing complicated and stressful for the participants; I handed out a box of pens and pencils and the questionnaires onto separate tables for each of them to decide their preferred writing method and begin the questionnaire once everyone had sat down. I did not have any intention to set a time limit as every participant was different so forcing a time limit could have affected their answers – If I had set it for a short amount of time answers may have become basic rather than have any elaboration on their answers. The questionnaire was separated into four separate sections; Definitions, Rating, Opinions and Personal questions (to validate the questionnaire).

The reason I thought it best to separate my questionnaire in to sections was to make it look more user-friendly rather than one continuous block of questions. In relation to ethics I knew things would be less difficult as all participants were over the age of 18 therefore gaining permission was not needed and I did not go over any personal boundaries when asking participants questions about the cultural background. Also, the number of participants that filled in my questionnaires were a total of 11, this is because it was difficult to find students other than first year students as they were on tutorial leave although I did manage to get 2 second year students to fill the questionnaire out for me. Receiving their answers were different to those in first year, it was still in a classroom, but it was just the two of them rather than taking part when the first year students did so the experiment took place twice; in the same classroom but at different times. The first section required them to define a set of English swear words as best as they could, these words were; ‘Shit’, ‘Bollocks’, ‘Bastard’, ‘Fuck’, ‘Wanker’, ‘Faggot’, ‘Twat’, ‘Bitch’ and ‘Cunt’. The second section is where I spotted a problem but this will be explained in the discussion/conclusion, I asked students to rate swear words from a choice of 1-10 (1 being the least offensive and 10 being the worst) in the boxes provided. The final two sections focused primarily on their cultural back ground, where they had come across the English swear words how long they had learnt English for, when they learnt it and whether they thought swear words were more frequent in our language than theirs.

Word count: 486

Data analysis/Findings

The total number of participants were eleven; though I was not primarily focused on gender I did ask them if they were male or female and the result was 8 females and 4 males; the females appeared to answer the personal questions in more depth whilst the males appeared to answer the definitions in more detail. In relation to the backgrounds of the participants I asked them where did they originate from, the results were; 3 students from France; 2 students from Czech Republic; 2 students from Greece/Cyprus; 1 student from Italy; 1 student from South Korea; 1 student from Luxembourg and 1 other student from Brazil. My questionnaire consisted of 4 sections, each one requiring a different set of answers. The majority of participants provided swear words with a definition and an example. Questionnaire 1 (see appendix 2) gave well thought out answers and examples of sentences along with definitions and if they struggled with the meaning they attempted to make some kind of contribution (although some did just tick the ‘I don’t know or pass’ boxes. An example from Q.1 (Appendix 2) is:


Excrement, faeces. Usually attributed to bad things/people. ‘Shit I forgot my hat’


Don’t know its ‘mean’ meaning, but it can be used to describe non-sense or madness. ‘That guy’s completely bollocks’


A very rude/annoying person. ‘Stop blabbering, you bloody bastard’

Most of the other participants made similar definitions for those three selected words above. Although Questionnaire 3 (see appendix 4) had written down ‘Person without a father’ when asked to define the word ‘bastard’. This shows that they are also aware of another form of definition besides the obvious one used to insult a person who may be rude. Another word that I am glad many (minus questionnaires 2, 5 and 9 : Appendices 3, 6 and 10) managed to define was the word ‘Faggot’, most wrote down the definition ‘mean word for a homosexual’ as it is has only within the past 10/15 years become a popular word in our vocabulary. I make this assumption because most people from England who I have spoken to who are over the age of 30 have not come across the word ‘Faggot’ much. The first section was considered a success as all participants tried to define words to the best of their knowledge. However it was noticeable to see that the definition for word ‘Twat’ proved difficult with some being unable to make a definition at all, whilst others said it was like another version for some of the previously provided swearwords.

The Second section was rating the same words that appeared in the first section. This can be put onto a bar chat to explain how participants rated them. All results for this section have also been created in a tally like form (see appendix 13). So in order to place these words into a bar chat I decided to look at the ranks that the students gave and added them up to see what the total was. To make the bar chat clearer I put the total to a maximum of 90 for each word (as an issue was only 9 words would equal up to 90 if all words were marked as ’10’).


Rank (out of 90)



















From the above bar chart is clear to see that ‘cunt’ was considered the most offensive word by all participants with ’82/90′ whilst ‘Shit’ and ‘Bollocks’ both ended up receiving the lowest rank of ’31/90′. There were some surprising results for words such as ‘Fuck’ as it was ranked as a ‘considerably average’ offensive word along with ‘Bastard, Wanker, Faggot and Bitch’; ‘Twat’ was also ranked quite low down. Unfortunately not many participants answered why they ranked these words with certain numbers apart from questionnaires ‘1’ and ‘3’ who gave a couple of answers for some words, one was in Appendix 2 for ‘Fuck: used so often it’s almost unoriginal and inoffensive’ and Appendix 4 answered ‘Not really rude’ for ‘bollocks’ and ‘unnecessarily mean’ for ‘cunt’. The next part of section two was to find out where they heard these words, as I’d suggested before in the literature review some came across these words when watching films, learnt them from friends or read them in books. Some also said that they are similar to words in their own language; an example of this is from Questionnaire 2 (Appendix 3) who said that the word ‘Bastard’ was ‘Almost same word in my language and same meaning “Bātard”‘.

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In section three I focused on their opinions about taboo language, whether it was more frequent here than in their country and in their own language what was a very offensive taboo (swear) word. Opinions changed between some participants who share the same backgrounds, three participants from France showed different answers; this could be due to what area in France they come from (which I did not ask). Questionnaires 2 and 3 (Appendices 3 and 4) both say that there are more swearwords in their language and that English people swear less whilst questionnaire 4 had the opposite; that English people have more swearwords and use them more often. Although one common ground that these participants had were the same idea answer for the most offensive word in their language; this was ‘Pute/Putain’ which is the French word for both ‘Bitch’ and ‘Whore/prostitute’. A participant from Luxembourg also used the word ‘Pute’ when describing what he thought was an offensive word in his language, this shows that other cultures may appear to have the same opinion as one another in regards to what is considered to be ‘taboo’ to them.

Other students from different areas like Cyprus and Greece thought that both languages seemed to share the same amount of swear words but thought English people swore more than they did. The same can be said for 2 participants from Czech republic who both shared the same opinion on the most offensive word in their language; Píča/’Cunt’ and ÄŒurák/’Wanker’. Although one thought (appendix 8) that swear words in our country and theirs seemed to be the same whilst the other (appendix 9) believe that there are far more words in our language and more frequent use. A student from South Korea was unable to translate her example of an offensive swearword although said it was to do with a ‘Cunt/Slut’ (See Appendix 10) and that there appears to be the same amount of swearing in her language just as much as ours. All participants have said that they have found themselves using English swearwords since learning them. Every participant in this study think it is important to know what certain swearwords in English mean as it saves them from using them without knowing their definition, it allows them to recognize these words when said by other people and also knowing these words helps them find the right situations to use them whilst avoiding the wrong (i.e. in a job interview).

The final section was to ask them some personal background questions about their origin and how long they’ve known English for. All but one participant (Brazilian student learnt at age 18, see Appendix 12) had begun to learn English between the ages of 6 and 12 and all had learnt English before coming to England. The times each participant has lived in UK varies from 7 months (Cyprus; Appendix 6) to 9 years (France; Appendix 5), with one also living in New Zealand at one point (see Appendix 4).

3328 without quotes

3608 with quotes


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