Politically correct ESL

Jack and JillI used to use some old textbooks called Jack and Jill, in which the words ‘ugly’ and ‘pretty’ were represented by pictures of an ugly girl and a pretty girl. Jack and Jill was published back in the ’70s, but not much has changed in the book I’m using now, Hip Hip Hooray, in which pictures of pretty and ugly mice are used to teach the same words.

Hip Hip HoorayThere have however been some more significant changes in Hip Hip Hooray. Take the story of Jack and the Beanstalk for example. The original book had Jack hiding in a bread oven, stealing bags of gold, magic hens and golden harps, and finally killing the giant. The politically correct version has Jack hiding behind a stove, taking back the gold originally stolen from his father, and the giant suffers nothing more than a bruised bottom as he falls from the beanstalk.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is another. In the original story, Injun Joe kills the doctor with a knife, but in the modern day version, Tom and Huck witness some men stealing a box of money.

In the politically correct world of mail carriers, firefighters, police officers and flight attendants, I find it increasingly confusing when teaching non-native speakers. For the most part, my adult students learned postman, fireman, policeman and stewardess when they were in junior high school. Now it’s my job to ‘correct’ them, using words I rarely use myself.

When I first came to Japan, the word ‘homemaker’ was prominent in the books I was given. Embarrassingly, I had to call Head Office to find out it meant ‘housewife’, and since there are so many housewives (edit: homemakers) in Japan, I had to start learning this new lingo pretty quickly.

Hangman or Spiderman?To be honest, I’m quite reluctant to teach language I don’t use myself, and I do have limits. When it comes to games, I’ll still play hangman instead of spiderman because I think avoiding the noose is far more motivating than seeing a spider grow legs.

I’d like to hear other people’s opinions on politically correct ESL, so please leave a comment!

If you like, you can find me on Twitter at @nick_ramsay. I'd love to hear from you!

6 thoughts on “Politically correct ESL

  1. When a student teacher (with whom I co-teach a writing class this semester) wanted to do a vocabulary lesson on non-sexist (aka PC language), I inwardly groaned. But rather than express my reservations, I allowed her to present her lesson.

    And, truth be told, it wasn’t that awful. Many of our ESL students had heard some of that language and were pleased to finally find out what the PC terms meant and why the more traditional terms are less frequently used in government or other politically sensitive language. Some of them did question the purpose of the non-sexist language (since gender-specific terms are unavoidable in their own language) and even ridiculed the terms; however, I felt good that whatever conclusions they came to were their own, and not initiated by my bias.

    PC language is a part of American English, whether we like it or not. By exposing our students (especially ESL as opposed to EFL in your case) to these terms, we are helping them prepare for reality.

  2. I didn’t even know about “spiderman”! I just hate watered down, politically correct stories. I don’t mind language evolving, such as “police officers”, as long as it represents a reality in the community. When it is wishful thinking, it is annoying.

    As far as hangman goes, here’s a real reason to be careful about playing it with some ESL students. When I taught ESL, I was told to be careful about playing that game with refugee kids from countries where hanging was actually used, as the kids may have been exposed to it in a not so “fun and games” manner. I wish I’d known about “spiderman” when I was teaching those classes!

  3. I am the anti-PC teacher.
    I think ruffling feathers stimulates conversation, and since I’m a conversation teacher, I gotta be non-PC!!

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