From Iceland — Nothing but the Word

Nothing but the Word

Published March 8, 2007

Nothing but the Word

The first time I heard it used by a child I was quite shocked and a bit disturbed. Did that third grader just yell the f-word? After the initial shock was over, I then began to analyse the way he said the word. There was not the occasional follow-up of “oops, sorry.” He said it like a grown man witnessing his favourite sports team losing the championship in the final four seconds of the game. It possessed a level of maturity that you could only get from watching another person do it: that is, a professional.
It’s unusual and frankly a little scary to find a country where so many of its citizens pick up their colloquial English skills solely from watching American-made films and television programmes. The media’s influence on the English language in Iceland penetrates quite deeply into the voices of the younger generation. In my opinion it stands as the most dominant English instructor in the country and has given many Icelanders an advantage over many other countries that struggle with appropriating second languages. However, as convenient and accessible as this language teacher may be, there are a few side effects that need to be addressed.
First and foremost, when an actor or actress says something offensive on a television show or movie, the screen does not flash a warning sign that reads, “Not suitable for everyday conversation.” An obvious backlash from allowing the media to be your English teacher is that it makes inappropriate words seem fitting for casual conversation. Since television and film have neglected their standards in censoring expletives altogether, many Icelanders do not understand the correct etiquette when utilising some of their English-speaking skills. Most native English speakers would find it quite offensive to openly curse in the course of a chat. It sends a message that you do not respect the other person and their comfort level with swearing. Openly cursing also reveals a lack of sophistication on the part of the speaker and gives the impression that curse words are a mask for an inadequate vocabulary and therefore are being used to convey a variety of unknown words or phrases.
In addition, the American entertainment industry also gives culturally offensive words a pathway into the vocabulary of a non-English speaker without any rhyme or reason. Last month one of my students used the word “nigger” out loud in a way that showed an eerie level of comfort in its delivery. Through this incident I saw an opportunity to speak with well over one hundred students about the history and sheer abhorrence of using the “n-word” in any way, shape or form. “Nigger” is a derogatory racial slur used mostly for insulting people of colour. Many students stood clueless about the long historical past this one word contained. It is regarded as one of the most offensive words in the English language and is currently a hot topic on many U.S. political agendas in this time just after Black History Month. Political figures such as Jesse Jackson are fighting for it to be taken out of the entertainment industry all together, while New York City has recently passed a symbolic law on banning the word from its usage in films, music and everyday conversation. As one of few African-Americans living and teaching in Iceland, I am blessed to be in a position that enables me to educate as many people as I can about the weight and cultural license of verbalising certain words of power.
As there are two sides to every coin, there are of course positives in utilising television shows and films as teaching tools for English. The benefits of acquiring English skills through entertainment are two-fold. One, individuals develop a firm grasp of how to communicate with confidence and at a sufficient level. In my English classes it is crystal clear which students have spent a large amount of time in front of the television versus those who have not. Although expressing oneself thoroughly cannot be attained, students who have been exposed to this visual and audio component of learning over an immense amount of time tend to be the most proficient out of everyone in the group. Another benefit that television offers is that it provides an adequate comprehension level of popular culture and cultural norms that also flow into understanding the language. Based on the fact that a language is not just words, but facial expressions, body language, humour, sarcasm and the like, many of these idiosyncrasies are critical when communicating in any circumstance.
So, did I write this piece to encourage more TV time or discourage it? The answer is neither. The purpose is to inform those using the media as a teaching tool to also be cautious as to what they are not learning. At the end of the day we must remember that the mission of the big screen is not to educate, but to simply entertain.

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