A euphemism, also called doublespeak, “makes the bad seem good, the negative seem positive, the unnatural seem natural, the unpleasant seem attractive, or at least tolerable”. So how are our L2 students going to understand such nuanced language?
Most languages have euphemistic expressions. They might not be used in the same contexts, for the same terms or expressed similarly. However, we can understand why they are used. The problem comes when our students try to make sense out of them. Euphemisms are mostly idiomatic expressions or those obscure phrasal verbs our students just love!
Students might have mastered a decent repertoire of words after they have achieved a certain proficiency level. There are many quizzes online that test how good your vocabulary is (for instance, here or here). Nonetheless, when students encounter authentic material or speak to native speakers, they hear expressions such as “pass away”, the “ladies room”… that bring weird images to their minds. It’s true that L2 learners become very skillful at guessing from context but it won’t do any harm if we work with them in the classroom first.
Here you will find an activity progression with fun and effective ideas to work with euphemisms in the classroom (B1+ level or higher).
After having worked with a few euphemisms in context, now they will have to work out their meanings. Choose 10 euphemisms and their meanings (see reference list at the end of the page). Put them on cards. Make enough copies for every pair (you can get the worksheet from here).
Students work in pairs (Student A, Student B), with the cards facing down. They mix up the cards and one student turns two cards over. If those cards match, they can keep them. If not, they turn them back over. The game is over when all cards have been matched. You might substitute the words for pictures to make the task a bit harder.
Secondly, get all Student As together and form pairs. They will write a story using 5 of those euphemisms. Limit the number of words (eg. 200 words). Example: My uncle from West Virginia was a miner in the 60s. Now they live in a small house in Fairmont with their cousins. They don’t have much money so they have bought a pre-enjoyed car so that they can go to the market once a week.
From here, there are several alternatives.
LISTEN TO THE STORY
Back to original pairs and the cards from the memory game, SB listens to SA reading the story (maybe they could learn it and recite it?). While SB is listening, they need to grab the cards that match the euphemisms that SA is reading out from the story.
You can try this same activity the other way around: Students write the story using the common words and their partner will grab their euphemistic match.
After that, SB shows their cards to SA and says what they mean. Example: You said ‘pre-enjoyed car’ for ‘used car’, ‘passed away’ for ‘died’, etc.
ALTERNATIVE 2 (caution: fun ahead)
In groups of three, SA reads the story out loud. SB will hide behind their desk, with only their head visible. When SA is reading the story, SB will have to act out the story with facial expressions (exaggerating). SC will shoot the scene (see example from a Spanish TV show).
Then, students can upload their videos to the class cloud or a padlet.
With the cards from the memory game, students watch the previous videos (with the sound off) and raise / point to the euphemism they think that person is trying to convey with their facial expression. After that, they can play the video with the sound on to check answers.
What other ways would you suggest to work with euphemisms in class?