Home > Linguistics > @Martin Warters on teaching Impoliteness in EFL

@Martin Warters on teaching Impoliteness in EFL

The recent conversations on how we should approach politeness in the ELF classroom reminded me of a great talk I saw at IATEFL Brighton in 2011.

In this talk, Martin Warters explained how responding to specific problems his UK based learners were experiencing led him into the controversial world of teaching learners how to be rude.

Here I interview him about his view on what we should be teaching in the classroom, what he learnt from the experience and why he feels raising sensitive language issues in class is an important way to empower second language learners to fully express themselves.

Martin lives in the US and is taking an MA in educational technology. Read his blog rolesspacesplaces.blogspot.com here  or follow him on twitter @MartinWarters. Thanks for your great views Martin.

1. There’s currently a discussion about what forms of politeness English learners need to know and whether people can really absorb the politeness conventions of a new language. What’s your view?

I think you can but you need authentic contact within the culture. Whether or not that can be truly achieved in a traditional classroom setting, well I am unsure. Speaking as a language learner, I learned more about the culture the illocutionary force of the language by actually immersing myself in situations.

2. In your IATEFL talk last year, you described how learners living in the UK have a real need to at least be aware of ‘impolite’ forms of English, how did you come to this conclusion?

Something happened to me that had a profound effect on my teaching, and also my way of thinking. I would even go so far as to say that it led on to me questioning my own principles and approaches of teaching English.

I taught in a private language school here in Brighton, where the majority of students are young graduates. Predominantly these students are focused on obtaining the Cambridge FCE to improve their employment opportunities when they return home, but it is also clear from needs analysis that there is a need for ESOL tuition, and many of our students have spent at least one semester following programmes for the Cambridge ESOL skills for life examinations. The average period of stay is about one year and during their stay a secondary aim for many of these students is to obtain a greater understanding and experience of the UK through full integration in the target language and culture of the UK, and like many young adults, this includes taking advantage of Brighton’s established and eclectic social life.

One day, a student brought up a topic that would introduce this idea of teaching impoliteness…. Increasingly, the functional-notional aspect of the consolidation sessions had moved away from survival English, e.g., completing job application forms, setting up direct debits, to what to say in response to impoliteness being directed towards students.

After an impromptu class discussion where I invited students to share their experiences of impolite behaviour, it soon became apparent that the majority of students had unfortunately experienced a situation where they felt verbally threatened or uncomfortable during their time in Brighton. This primarily was taking place in social situations, but also somewhat worryingly in work settings as well: both by co-workers, supervisors and customers

At the time I didn’t know what to do! Only yesterday we were having a lovely lesson on the merits of different cafes in Brighton, and now the student body was asking for a lesson on how to respond to discourse that was perceived as impolite.

There is an awful lot to unpack from this situation, and I think it is worth noting here the key word RESPONDING. I had never heard of students requesting the language to instigate rude or impolite discourse exchanges…. That would be another postJ

This impolite discourse does happen on a daily basis unfortunately. The world that is reflected in coursebooks rarely exists outside of their pages. This is not an attack on publishers; it would take a brave publisher to reflect real life needs of impolite discourse. Reviewing materials that were at hand in the staffroom, professionally it seems that systematically we teach the importance of how to be polite extensively and in great detail. But this merry old England doesn’t really exist anymore (if it ever did!!!)

I feel strongly that in this sense it is not actually behaviour changing. The way I would behave in English is the same that I would behave in a second language. If a student is comfortable to do sth in their L1, then they should have the opportunity to do this in English.

I decided that there was a real need to empower students to have the ability and opportunity to respond impolitely, if they so wish, with full knowledge of the implications that such responses would have.

Almost by chance, as part of my MA, I came across an article by Gerry Mugford (2008) and this dilemma of appropriacy is something that he investigates, concluding

‘that teachers need to take the lead by preparing learners to communicate in pleasant, not so pleasant, and even abusive interactional and transactional situations’ (375).

3. How do you knowledge of impoliteness adds value to learners’ ability to operate in an English speaking environment?

There is clearly a need for teachers to provide the language for students to operate in any given situation they may find themselves in, and this, for many students, could be the not so pleasant and abusive situations. Adding this to a student’s lexical resource hopefully gives the student more confidence in their day-to-day English exchanges.

4. How did you go about introducing the subject of ‘impoliteness’ in class and how did your learners react?

As mentioned above, it was brought to me! The sessions went well. I was nervous that a few students might react badly to the lesson and not feel comfortable in the session. I introduced the topic systematically, and I think it helped that all the students had had a bad experience that they could discuss.

Ultimately the main technique I used was Awareness Raising, and this was primarily done through a social comparison of behaviour and the students’ own reflections on how their own culture differs to what they have experienced in the UK. I did this as a class discussion, and it was fascinating to hear differences of opinion between nationalities about the UK and it opened up opportunities for exploration into the ESOL syllabus and generated some really useful language patterns.

I did this by using existing coursebook materials

A possible welcome by-product would hopefully be that students feel more confident outside of class, and this would have a positive effect on their motivation and progress in English inside the classroom.

Two things that I did came straight from coursebooks we were using, and this was the topic of Customer services.

At the time we had the Ash cloud from Iceland, and later on in the year we had the travel chaos at Gatwick, and Eurostar. So the images of happy airport and rail passengers that were typical in the EFL coursebooks we were using were not so apparent.

We discussed what could go wrong, how to react and if we would be impolite. There was a wealth of material on youtube and bbc news channel at the time on these stories, and this provided great input materials for analysis.

Customer services was an especially interesting area as some of our students had experience of working in receptions at some of the hotels here in Brighton. We found, unsurprisingly, that many times being impolite actually ensured that staff would be understandably unhelpful.

This activity also opened up the much needed analysis of what is impoliteness: one person’s remark could be construed as banter or as a deeply insulting remark, and from this there would also be a clear need to differentiate and grade potential responses highlighting the level of how impolite something is, and generally what is seen as an appropriate response on a discourse level. This then lead onto further work such as pronunciation- attitudinal tone, and the illocutionary impact of the language based on relationships between speakers.

Interestingly, after implementing the awareness-raising activities and class discussion, most students said that they would never dream of using the target structures in their setting. The feedback it seemed was that how to respond to impolite language was just another lexical set in the same way as making a complaint about food in a restaurant is. It was the empowerment of being able to be impolite that was desired rather than the actual need or desire to be impolite.

I don’t think it’s about teaching foul language or how to swear like a native speaker, but rather raising awareness of situations where people are speaking impolitely and helping students to make informed decisions, with strategies and phrases: Knowing how to be impolite, and the potential consequences.

The students said this was useful to know, and as a teacher, I feel that that is reason enough to warrant this and further exploration.

5. Do you think impoliteness should be taught as a receptive skill alone or is there an argument for teaching the production of impolite language?

A given tenant of teaching is that we enable students to be adequately equipped with a lexical resource to operate in any given situation. How do you feel about this if the lexis is related to being impolite, disrespectful or rude? The second language classroom is usually the place for dealing with the more pleasant side of language and discourse whereas impoliteness is seldom a feature. I would say that having the knowledge of how to produce impolite language, and being aware of its potential consequences, is…. well, there is a strong argument to do this.

6. What would you advise trainers to focus on if they decide to address impoliteness in class?

It would be impossible for me to advise trainers individually: I can’t really offer up a definitive guide as all our contexts are unique and will be informed by the specifics of the ecology of our teaching environments, and also by your own pedagogical and social viewpoints. Also I am still working through my own interpretations and understanding of this theme!

This teaching of being impolite has a huge social and pedagogical stigma associated with it. Speaking to colleagues in the staff room highlighted comments and ideas that had a startling breadth of opinion on the topic, with most stating that they would never dream of teaching explicit impoliteness in class, yet would appreciate the illocutionary power that it wields if they were learning a foreign language.

Just before my presentation, I was contacted by an MA student at Liverpool’s John Moore’s University asking for my view on teaching impoliteness. Her name is Dawn Skeoch, and she shared her own research on the teaching of impoliteness as part of her dissertation work, and this quotation is a very nice summary that I ended up using in my presentation.

One interesting point that came indirectly out of my research was that teachers’ and students’ interpretation of the term impoliteness related to foul language or insulting language, not very many teachers thought about other branches of the term which is partly why they were against teaching the subject in class although interestingly they recognised the need for students to recognise that kind of language and situation. (Skeoch, 2011)

Dawn’s findings fit in with what I found:

It seems many teachers were experiencing this dissonance of approach-wouldn’t do it, but would want it as a student. This actually got us all talking and horror stories emerged of previous negative experiences in a second language setting.

Personally, I am quite confident that 9 times out of 10 I must say that I wouldn’t actually use impolite language in an L2 situation but being able to think of a response would give me some comfort and confidence. I think trainers need to be guided by their own local context and student body.

7. Do you think practical matters, such as dealing with impoliteness, should have more of a central place in language teaching?

I do. It is language that our students need and as a learner I would like to have access to this language. I don’t think it will ever be incorporated into a mainstream language course by a big publisher but on a local level it is something that we can help our students with.

  1. Penny Hands
    February 20, 2012 at 10:13 am

    Thanks for this fascinating interview. I was at Martin’s talk last year, and my only complaint was that the slot was so short! We all had so many ideas to share. Looking forward to more on this.

    What occurred to me at the talk was that a lot of offensive behaviour, in the UK, at least, is covert, and delivered rather subtlely through sarcasm. This is hard to teach, but can be empowering for the non-native speaker once they are able to recognise it.

    • February 20, 2012 at 6:04 pm

      Hi Penny, Thanks for your comment. I agree that Martin was given far too little time and the engaged audience couldn’t explore this interesting topic thoroughly.

      You’re absolutely right that a lot of rudeness takes the form of sarcasm and implied meaning. Learners need the tools to recognise this and also to recognise when their utterances have potential unintended impolite implications.

      Personally, as Martin mentioned in the interview, I feel awareness raising and simulation is a great way to deal with this. In my business class today, we looked at a case where people were arguing with each other, causing conflict.

      We looked at the language in the case and talked about what problems it caused. We then modeled more empathetic, supportive ways of speaking and how we could rework the utterances in the case.

      This led to a fascinating debate about the interlocutory force of ‘should’ ‘could’ and ‘it would be good if’. Everybody left thinking about politeness, empathy and rudeness.

      If you have any other teaching ideas, please share them here.

      Thanks for reading and commenting

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