Developing effective ESL euphemism lessons is one of the most beneficial ways teachers can help English language learners. Using euphemisms involves using a word or phrase that is more socially acceptable in place of another word or phrase perceived as inappropriate in certain contexts.
Speakers use euphemisms to:
- Avoid using words that have a negative stigma attached to them
- Avoid offending others by speaking of taboo or sacred subjects directly
- Over-inflate the importance of certain words
- Obfuscate meaning from others
Factoring in the great amount of genre specific language in English (legalese, doublespeak, political speak, etc.) failing to understand euphemisms leaves students vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation by language.
Social Code Challenges for ESL Students
While native speakers understand the nuances of English, ESL students often struggle to internalize the social codes of conduct that fuel the need for euphemisms; therefore, they find it very challenging to use them effectively.
This is particularly problematic because the English language fluency requires users to master this skill. In addition, through the rise of political correctness, the English language is becoming more and more euphemistically complicated every day.
Examples of Effective ESL Euphemism Lessons
Lessons need to begin by clearly defining what a euphemism is and by giving some very common examples. Such as:
- When someone dies, it is often said that they "passed on" or "passed away." In this way, a phrase is created that evokes a softer, gentler image that avoids confronting harsher realities.
Continue by writing some commonly euphemized words on the board and see if the class can provide a list of effective examples.
Euphemisms Used to Soften Language
Start your list on the board with examples of words that have negative connotations to demonstrate how substituting gentler words can create a more polite effect:
- Fat = overweight, full-figured, big boned, chubby, plump, voluptuous, portly, etc.
- Poor = working class, of modest means, of humble origins, low-income, unable to make ends meet, in debt, etc.
- Handicapped = disabled, differently abled, physically challenged, disadvantaged, etc.
- Remedial = developmental, special needs, etc.
- Homeless = without a roof over one's head, on the streets, destitute, dispossessed, displaced, etc.
Continue this brainstorming activity before going on to the next set of euphemisms.
Euphemisms Used to Inflate or Mislead
Demonstrate another important use of euphemisms - showing how language is manipulated to add value to certain words or ideas. Notice how these examples often involve occupations:
- Garbage collector = waste disposal worker, sanitation worker, waste management, etc.
- Secretary = administrative assistant, clerical assistant, executive assistant, personal assistant, etc.
- Janitor = custodian, caretaker, superintendent, maintenance worker, etc.
- Boss = supervisor, executive, director, manager, etc.
- School = institute, academy, university, conservatory, etc.
They have now seen concrete examples of how certain language softens the impact of words and how to manipulate language to inflate or mislead. Students can now take sentences filled with euphemisms and translate them into simple, direct language.
Example Sentences Using Euphemisms
Break into groups and provide each group with two or three examples of sentences using euphemisms. If students haven't heard a particular euphemism before, encourage them to try to figure out the possible meanings by looking for context clues in the sentences:
- The executive administrator accused the caretaker of contributing to the misappropriation of office supplies.
- The clerical assistant had an inappropriate relationship with the office building's superintendent.
- Jenny's dog Bowser went to the great doggy park in the sky.
- The executive in charge of increasing the company's workforce requested proof that the applicant had never been detained for possessing controlled substances.
After the groups create their sentences, have them share their findings with the class. The more creative the teacher is when creating the example sentences, the more fun the exercise can become.
Final Thoughts to Keep in Mind
As with all issues involving second language learning, leading students through ESL euphemism lessons in the classroom can provide necessary awareness and introduce critical skills, but they are not enough on their own.
ESL students, even more so than native speakers, need to read, write, and speak in English at every available opportunity. There is no magic button to second language acquisition; but effective lessons, combined with English immersion, can ultimately lead students to English language fluency.