I'm Not Afraid: Banish the Word and U give it its Power

Ooooh, I'm musing on a Tuesday.

That's, in my editorial calendar, not allowed (did you know that I have one of those?  For a private edu-blog, yeah...) because I save my deep thinking for Sundays.

But, see... thing is, I tweeted out this fantastic link to Enimem's lastest video:

If you are reading my blog in a country where this youtube video is not accessible, 
the song I am discussing is I'm Not Afraid by Enimem

and many of the teachers who saw the link immediately saw it's potential because the song is so fuckin' rich: each line filled with delicious collocations and examples of real life and its real life street pronunciation; subliminal messages in idioms which almost make a joke of the listener.  

It's backed by a solid, deep, belly-hitting beat which is powered by rhythmic personal storytelling as Enimem begs his fans for their forgiveness, like a gambling man promising to never pick up the cards again.   There is so much here for teachers to exploit  (the language / the story of his past: his despair, depression, obsessions: predictions for his future; the business of fame and how it wears on those who reach it)  sparking off numerous authentic conversations.  

Can Shakespeare reach teenagers or young adults like this piece could?

Oh...wait, are you still reeling - did you stop to blush in horror at the use of my phrase above, the so fuckin' rich, each..?  Are you sitting in front of your computer gob-smacked, in shock, that OMG, you saw me just use that word, out-loud and in-public, on my blog? 


Don't worry, though, it's probably for exactly the same reason that this absolutely amazing poetic resource won't get used by many teachers and it sucks.  Really, it does....

Because if you listened to this song (and to the majority of Rap) and you don't ever use it because you're worried your students' parents and/or your DOS will raise wagging fingers at the inappropriate language - can I just say: please - you think they don't know those words anyway?  Check out Chaucer desalinated, take a good ole gander at Shakespeare's insults:

Our language may have been cleaned and spruced up around the 18th Century, but you know what, those words only attained power as a result.

Without a doubt, undoubtedly
And all those who look down on me
I'm tearing down your balcony
Enimen, 2010


Useful links related to this posting:

Best, Karenne
image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/smileham/3543823314/sizes/m/

p.s. follow the hyperlinked links in the text too :-)
p.p.s see Practical English Usage, Swan, page 573-578
p.p.p.s. thanks to my bro' Martin for sharing the vid with me on Facebook

26 Responses to “I'm Not Afraid: Banish the Word and U give it its Power”

  • Leahn says:
    May 11, 2010

    I love Eminem, for a while I toyed with the idea that I shouldn't listen to him because his lyrics were misogynistic. I still listen to him because he is cool and he is a great rapper. Rapping is really difficult and requires great skill.

    As to using his songs in class,it's a tricky one. Yes, of course we know our kids know this kind of language and use it. But if we use it in class are we condoning the use of expletives? Should we be condoning it? Do we believe that people who litter their conversations with such language are somehow inferior intelectually or socially? Is it wrong?

    Would I be happy if my kids came home with the lyrics and said they'd listened to it in their English class? Well, I don't have kids but if I did, I would probably think that it was fine for my kids to listen to this kind of music at home but not so appropriate in class? Why? Old predjudices? I'm going to think about this some more and listen to the song.

    Great post and you've raised some very interesting points.

    May 11, 2010

    And you've thrown out some good questions of your own :)

    Do we believe that people who litter their conversations with such language are somehow inferior intellectually or socially?

    I think we do this but I think we do this because we've been taught to. Fact is, most people use swear words in private, it's the public use of them that catches people in the .... and hmmm, that makes the whole thing kinda hypocritical.

    I think the thing is, also, the do "kids" go home concentrating on the swear words or in the messages within a song (and songs like this) - do we underestimate teenagers ability to discern story from a handful of naughty words?

  • David says:
    May 11, 2010


    I was just discussing this with my grad class (curriculum development) and how we always got to teach things we don't like....that's life. Same with swear words, sometimes we have to "toe the line". And despite my own rebellious streak, gotta agree there is a reason for this.

    It is not about having some agenda about what we think language is or transforming attitudes towards language. It is about "use". The kids know those words, so why teach them? To irritate the parents and large society. You won't be able to fight that. Keep the battles you fight quiet, that way you'll always win.

    But I do think there are some teachers in a position to use this video and creativity. So I made a karaoke version of the chorus on my site EFL Classroom. I realize , like you, its power. But I also realize the limits.

    On the other hand, I do wish we brought into our classrooms with as much clamor, armor and anomor, those so beautiful renegades - e.e. cummings, eliot, bukowski, Mailer, Miller...the list is too long. But yes, we prefer the flash in the pan.

    To end, I really just wish we'd think about language differently. You said, "do we believe that people who litter their conversations with such language are somehow inferior intellectually or socially". Well, yes. Language is a social organism. It isn't a solid, yes/no thing. It is not about "what" but "how" you use it and says something about yourself as a human being. I'm as much a deconstructivist as the next linguist but I still stick to the facts - words hurt. They should be used judiciously and with decorum. Call me a fuddy duddy but socio linguistics has my back on this one. There is a reason we use language as an indicator of social status....

    But to wit - as a teacher we have to balance so many things. That's just our job....

  • Daily Alchemist says:
    May 11, 2010


    Hey I guess we both had birthdays recently -- I always thought a birthday should be the one day that governments around the world could agree to let people have for a holiday...mine was on a Monday here in Korea -- no holiday.

    Regarding Eminem, definitely some great potential for teaching. I used the music video for 'Stan' with a university class I taught a few years ago. Got a great response. We used it as a listening comprehension/gap-fill & discussion exercise.

    May 11, 2010

    Hey David,

    Hmm..ho...hmmm I mean we don't need to teach them the swear words, do we - but do we have to ignore the rest because there's some pepper in the pot? Seems silly to me.

    And really I think most language learners learn these words pretty early on in the process - they pick them up in music and in movies.

    I guess I just don't understand why we simply don't ignore them - if someone's making an exercize they can write #*§%& in place of the f-word or whatever is spoken... we don't have to hit ourselves with a switch and wonder if OMG will the students run home and tell Mum and Dad.

    And I don't agree about the flash in the pan, to be honest I actually think some of these crucial poets of today will be held up, studied and revered just as much as the poets of yesterday.

    Anyway, I won't fight you on the socio-linguistic thing and when that all started... and whom by... and what their aims were, it'll all start getting political round 'ere.


    May 11, 2010


    I love Stan - a very powerful and deeply sad story and when I taught teens used it too and had same results as you

    - I should say, btw, for the rest of my readers that I do practice what I preach :-) and when taught teens never was fussed about things like a handful of cuss-words... and nor were they/their parents and... then I was the DOS so no one from up above complained!


  • darren says:
    May 12, 2010

    Can I say something which you might find a bit more uncomfortable? I don't give a fuck about the swearing, but I still wouldn't use this clip. For one, eminem is old hat and teens are probably listening to lil' wayne or someone else we haven't even heard of.

    But the reason I try to avoid using music I like in class (which doesn't actually include eminem) is because I don't want to kill it for myself, and I don't want to be a man approaching middle age trying to be cool with teenagers. I know I'm cool, but I try to hide it from them...

    Let kids have something for themselves. They will listen and learn outside class, but if we play it in class, then start pulling out collocations and examples of the present continuous.... cheers grandad, you've shat on something I used to like.

    Anyway, Shakespere was like the ultimate rapper...


    You are cool too Karenne, I know it. You don't have to try so hard ; P

  • Unknown says:
    May 12, 2010

    Hi there
    Mmm. Well, as a coursebook writer you are probably expecting me to say "shock! horror!" but I won´t ;-)
    However, when I was senior teacher at a private school in Barcelona we used the song Stan a couple of times. Then one of the teachers used some other Eminem songs and we got two visits from angry parents.

    Now, all the teachers thought oh god, what puritans etc but we weren't exactly going to tell this to the parents. As David said, it's a battle we couldn't win.

    Am completely with you on the other poets though, and I do believe that teenagers can see past the f- word for a larger story. There is in fact a magazine in Spain called Hot English that specializes in including all these words. It used to be sold in kiosks here. http://www.hotenglishmagazine.com/
    They may have calmed down now, but there were a few lessons in there that had so many swear words in them that it felt a bit childish almost (you know, like looking up "fuck" in the dictionary and giggling at all the entries). But it's out there.

  • Unknown says:
    May 12, 2010

    Ouch Darren!

    You know what's really cool? When it doesn't bother you in the least that you are a middle (or older) aged person who might look like they are trying to appear cool to the young ones... it's like being so ugly, you are cute!

    At least that's what I've always relied on, that and the kindness of strangers.

    I think if you honestly enjoy Eminem, it is easy to share that with your students if that's possible within your school system.

    But I also notice that you teach adults (over 18) Karenne. I'm pretty sure there is no chance, zero, that a public school teacher in the US could teach with these lyrics without losing their job. Maybe you would get a warning. After that, fired!

    For me, it's not worth that. Eminem isn't that good! If I was going to lay my job on the line, it would be for Tupac : )

    PS It is TERRIBLE to judge people on the basis of the language we use... just another way to divide people into educated/uneducated; sophisticated/redneck; native/foreign; upper/middle/lower class; black/white/hispanic; old/young and probably more discriminatory categories!

    And, I agree & admit, it is something I have to fight doing myself.

  • Nicky says:
    May 12, 2010

    I've brought our friend Marshall Mathers into the classroom once, but that was by special request of a student, and it was a song that's way more heavy than this one (lyrically, not just the f-bombs but the subject matter). Anyone who's read my blog can probably imagine my attitude towards this kind of thing. I don't like to let one little f-word get in the way of a good text (whether in print or audiovisual).

    I think it depends on a lot of things.

    A) The cultural context. Here in Spain for example, the use of taboo words has become so commonplace over the years that they've almost (but not quite) ceased to be taboo. In fact, I'd say that in order to be able to watch any TV program other than the nightly news or to have a normal conversation on the street, "los tacos" are absolutely essential. So a "f*ck" or "s*it" here and there isn't gonna offend anyone really.

    B) The parents might not even understand. I had one kid who loved the fact that he could say "m*therf*cker" in front of his mom and she had no idea what it meant.

    So anyway, you have to be careful, not just with the curse words, but as Darren pointed out, with the whole "trying-to-be-cool-and-looking-like-a-chump" thing, the whole "ruining-stuff-kids-like-by-TEFLizing-it" thing, and the whole "ruining-stuff-I-like-by-taking-it-to-class."

    But if you do feel the need to take hip hop into class, Eminem's a good choice, his vocabulary is much bigger than his more up-to-date competitors (Weezy, etc.). Anyhoo, off to look for some Gucci Mane on Spotify :)

  • Anonymous says:
    May 12, 2010

    I'm really impressed and excited about your post, Karenne!

    I've always marvelled at the juiciness of Chaucer, Shakespeare and others and always appreciated such honest juiciness, wit, physical humour, not to mention the spicy sexual references that could be found everywhere around us.

    I find it that the more engaging the topic, the more memorable the lesson and the more effective and seamless learning takes place. There are lessons to be learnt from everything and this definitely includes a bit of honest, fearless attitude.

    If we, as teachers are at ease with any of the more "controversial" topics or attitudes that we decide to introduce to classes, they provide an excellent source of memorable and rewarding moments.

    Of course, the most important thing is to be at ease about them ourselves. The rest is a joy.

    Thanks for this post, Karenne! Great topic.

  • Anne Hodgson says:
    May 12, 2010

    I asked a niece of mine about the misogynism in a lot of rap, which she loves. She says, well, you know it and you sort of think it's funny, so you don't take it seriously, it's just showing off. She went to an inner city highschool and says for all the learning skills and knowledge gaps she has to fill now to make it at college, she learned how to be relaxed and in control in a way she could never have in a safe, middle class environment.

    I teach Business English, and "fuck" plays quite a role there. So frankly, yes, I teach my students to use it. WTF and SNAFU are normal. And I actually used ..."fucked up - pardon my French" this morning with one of my financial students when we were discussing the euro bailout and he was very pleased to have a chance to talk it through because he says his American boss says it all the time.
    I did something on the f-bomb for Spotlight a while back to supplement Dagmar Taylor's booklet on swearwords, and we got a letter of complaint from a teacher, and a colleague of mine said we shouldn't be doing this, but we also nice letters asking for more of the same. (http://tinyurl.com/dk2tjj )
    I also like Stew Tunnicliffe's What is the f***ing problem with the word fuck! http://www.goodopenenglish.com/?p=12/?s=fuck

  • Evan says:
    May 12, 2010

    I would agree with Anne - this topic has always been around in business English and ESP - you would be doing your students a disservice if you did not include relevant swear words in your teaching - it is very common in workplace discourse. (in fact I blogged about this point a few weeks ago - see Authenticity).

    Janet Holmes in particular has done some very useful research in this area as part of the Language in the Workplace project - see for example this article and the LWP research website.

    But there is also a need to be culturally sensitive about the topic in the classroom - it can be tricky. I remember doing swear words with an Iraqi student many years ago, and he pulled a knife on me when I said something he didn't like, even though it was simply an academic exercise.

    May 13, 2010

    @Darren, you are like so way mean... I totally intend on being completely hip til I'm like in my 70's.

    Seriously, though - yes Enimem may be a bit old hat for younger teens (and probably not appropriate) but I was thinking of the older ones /young adults who've grown up at the same time as he's been growing up! (After all, the link was shared with me by my baby brother who's 21)

    And I agree in part that we need to let people have things they can enjoy for themselves (I have another post coming up on how I botched "sharing" TED vids with a student) but on the other hand I really believe that student-centered-learning does mean incorporating things that students enjoy authentically into the classroom for understanding.

    As I mentioned earlier, I don't think we should teach them directly the f-word or any other profanity but to simply let it slide, as we and they let this slide in the same we do in normal everyday movie, television watching and trash-novel reading...

    May 13, 2010

    :-) nah, Lindsay, you might be a course-book writer and all that but in general, you're mega cool and down with the needs of our learners.

    May 13, 2010

    @Ellen, ya sweetheart - I was fixing a website yesterday for hours and missed the comments on my blog - thanks for sticking up for me!

    Yes, you're right - I do teach adults nowadays and when I taught teens it was in a private setting.

    That's madness, isn't it, that American life is filled with profanity on every street corner, on television and radio, in movies and yet they pretend at purity within the classroom.

    I was in High School in the US (in Michigan - private exchange school, boarding for 3 years)and I know about these double standards.

    I suppose it's not that surprising though, Shakespeare would hardly have been studied in the classroom in his heyday and probably didn't make it for several centuries later!


    May 13, 2010


    Right... off to go find out who Gucci Mane is...

    Thanks! I agree - I dunno, both Darren and Nicky seem to think that you can ruin a thing by doing it class and I wonder - I have this fab activity with Janis Joplin's "Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz" song and I don't not like the song anymore but instead have very fun memories of doing this with teens, with adults, with teacher-trainees on top of my general enjoyment... but na ja, different strokes, different folks!

    May 13, 2010

    @Anne, thanks! I really enjoyed my trip on over to Stew's blog along with your own piece. Very interesting.

    And yes and both you and Evan point out in Business English, the F-word is most definitely a part of regular every day usage when having American bosses!

  • Anne Hodgson says:
    May 13, 2010

    Got another one for you. My Irish boss Eamonn just blogged about "fuck off" being one of those expressions that don't have a synonym and are nearly impossible to translate. He posted a video by Scottish comedian and actor Billy Connolly who gets it just right. http://tinyurl.com/28zcrqj

  • theLingoGuy says:
    May 13, 2010

    the opinion of some that keeping learners and young people away from certain taboo words such as the dreaded "F" word has a very biased argument.

    I love Stephen Fry, as maybe a contemporary,
    eccentric yet classic guy, and his take on this.


    Also I am of like mind in my blog
    "What Is The F***Ing Problem With The Word Fuck!"

    as for Eminem many people who do not really look at the lyrics may think that because he swears his language is base. As Stephen Fry said people who swear often have lots of words in their vocab base.

    Billy Childish is another poet who I use who has "colouful" lingo, and I mean that in a positive way. Not like my Dad would

  • Nick Jaworski says:
    May 13, 2010

    Well Karenne, I did go to two Eminem concerts back in my younger days, so I approve :) I do use a lot of serious subject matter in my classes and it often does contain expletives.

    However, I teach adults and I don't dwell on it too much. You gotta be sensitive to the culture here where calling someone a "donkey" is considered really bad in many contexts.

    I did a couple lessons on swearing in Prague for some demo lesson and the students thought it was the best thing ever. We had a great time. Then I came to Turkey and did the same thing my second week. I had a class of horrified students and a very long meeting with the DoS :) :) What can you do?

    I agree, definitely don't shy away from worthwhile material because of some of the language, but use your better judgment as well.

  • David says:
    May 13, 2010


    We can agree to disagree about whether Eminem will be remembered or just a flash in the pan.

    However, about swear words and teaching. I think we both have the same opinion (a view that language should be "neutered" and "disempowered") but there we part and take different approaches. You think we should teach swear words or rather "use" / "ignore" them in our lessons. I say, we shouldn't.

    I would love to but at the same time I respect what my vocation is - a teacher is always one "in the middle" and one who represents and balances a diversity of views (right or wrong). No teacher was ever a revolutionary or "radical". We do our job in a quiet way, the chalkboard revolution. The middle way - a la Buddha or Jesus, two of the greatest teachers. It isn't that I agree that language should be regarded with such superstition and power but that others do believe these things and I have to respect that. I always caution student teachers to avoid all the controversial subjects: abortion, religion, death penalty, homosexuality etc... challenge students to think? YES! but there is so much language and are so many issues on which to challenge - don't take on these big ones. Swear words to me is among this category.

    But glad you raise the issue, it is well worth some thought, a lot of thought by teachers.


    May 13, 2010


    Oh my golly... yes we definitely have different approaches and at the end of the day, that's why we can learn and enjoy each others ideas and philosophies as I'm not one of those people who need people to agree with me (all the time :-)...

    But, we are definitely different. My classroom contains zero borders - it just doesn't. I am here to teach the language when it is beautiful and when it is ugly. The world is so, so if my learners want to do something (I generally work according to my students wants, wishes rather than my own ideas) then that's what we do - if they bring a topic into (or up) class it's because they, for whatever reason, want or need the accompanying vocabulary.

    I am not there to be a priest, a judge, a politician... perhaps, to be honest, I don't even see myself as a "teacher" in the traditional sense - my aim is to coach the students into the adoption and successful acquisition of English... nothing more.

    But of course, yes, like Nick says - remaining as much as possible and viable cultural sensitive... although that reminds me of once when I wasn't, quite by accident and I won't spell out the details here because that would be offensive a second time and then later in another lesson, I apologized and my student turned around to me and asked me if I didn't think that he faces the same issues in his own language, at least now he knew what they sounded like in mine so he'd recognize them and therefore appreciated my mistake.

    so... hmmm... what is language anyway

    random sounds and symbols smashed together to create meaning

    if you decide that a word or a phrase is offensive then you are the one who makes it so, we are the owners of meaning.

    @Stew - loved your f*ing article, was on your blog this morning- ta for your comment.


    May 13, 2010

    David, Nicole tweeted this one over to me and had a good deep listen again and I dunno, if you pop back on over...

    Have a listen, at the lyrics, deeply especially in the first two or three minutes - listen to the construction...


    for me that's seriously studiable stuff

    oh, alright I may well be too mega a fan, I just kinda like poetry that explores boundaries...


  • hirondelle says:
    May 13, 2010

    I don't usually touch controversial topics with my teens because I work with an organisation that has rules about such things. In fact we aren't allowed to use song lyrics in a dismembered form anyway which makes the whole point moot. However if a student asks me about a swear/taboo word I will explain it, I also include a lot of pop culture in my lessons so although I won't cover Eminem's lyrics I may do a lesson about him, as bio on heroes (to give tired old John Lennon a break) for example.
    I understand the warning about not trying too hard. I see a lot of less experienced Teen teachers go over the top to 'connect', and they aren't fooling anybody - they ain't cool, they're teachers ;-). That said, check this out - an incredible project based on using rap to connect with American students and, yes even Shakespeare is given the hip-hop treatment. The videos are very inspiring. http://www.flocabulary.com/

  • Darren says:
    May 14, 2010

    Karenne - I've seen your skillz and you got mad flow.

    I think we can all agreee that there is not a human being alive who doesn't know what 'fuck' means. Over the last couple of years I have spoken to students who wore clothes with swear words on... (a sweater that said 'no one gives a shit' and a baseball cap that said simply 'fuck'). I asked them at the end of the class if they knew what it meant, and they both smiled ruefully and never wore it again...

    I use that clip from 'Do the Right Thing' in class sometimes, which is not only very sweary, but also very racist... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cOxOR3x8FBQ&feature=related
    very interesting though, so I'll use it.

    I'm trying to clarify what I mean about keeping something back. Being a teacher is a big part of what defines me, and I think that is the same for most of us. But sometimes I want to be something else...

    My passions are not likely to be their passions, and if I try to push them it will sour it for both of us. That's not to say I should eschew all material based on my interests outside the class, just that I am very wary of doing so. I guess the best way is to encourage the students to have more of an input into the material used.

    (A note - I knew it was time to watch my own language when my two year old came back from a trip to the museum and told his mum he had seen a big fuckin' dinosaur....)


Visitors and Regular Readers


FEEDJIT Live Traffic Feed

Communities of Practice

Blog Archive

Directories, catalogs and Back Links

Adult Blogs - Blog Catalog Blog Directory Add to Technorati Favorites

The EFL ESL Blog List TotalESL.com - ESL/EFL/TEFL Teaching Jobs and Teacher Resumes

International Blogging Directory

Recent Posts

Simply Conversations

Pedagogically sound materials designed to get your students actively talking:

Free Samples
Conversation Control

General English
Business English

Learn more on why these work