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ESL teacher Anne Merritt considers what place slang and idioms should play in the classroom.

I once had an ESL student who had spent a year working in Miami. In my upper-intermediate class, alongside peers who had studied English formally for years, did he ever stand out.

One day, we discussed celebrity worship. “I think when people gossip about celebrities, they will gossip more in their own lives, about friends,” one student shared.

The Miami transplant perked up. “Shit, man, I saw so many famous people in Miami. Listen, you know that tennis player? What’s her name? The ugly chick? I saw her, man, it was nuts!”

Man? Chick? Shit? The rest of the class started flicking through their dictionaries, baffled.

We had made a list of new vocabulary on the board. Gossip, idolize, tabloid. Now, we were adding to it, with “It was nuts!” and (to my grave discomfort) “chick.” The students were insistent though. These terms, they said, must be useful too, if their classmate picked them up.

How important is slang in language learning? I’m not just talking about the four-letter words, though heaven knows they come up often. I’m speaking more broadly than that, to colloquialisms (gimme or ain’t), idioms, (hit the road) to the pop culture bits so embedded in our way of speaking (You can’t handle the truth!).

Photo: Karl Jonsson

On one hand, slang is unavoidable, no matter what language you’re speaking. The phrase “worst movie ever” may not show up on BBC’s website anytime soon, but you’ll see constructions like these daily on Facebook and blogs. What’s more, communication mediums such as texting and Twitter are moving so far from formal language that even native speakers can have trouble figuring out messages like “word” and “big up.”

Let’s take a language student, attending daily classes. They study the grammar, the formalities, the subtle differences between look at and watch. They might produce lovely coherent sentences and conversations. Take this student out of the classroom and away from the textbooks, though, and they will encounter a world of language that breaks those rules. In advertising, online, and in conversation, language becomes far less structured. Taking the time to understand slang and informal speech might save someone a whole lot of confusion. In understanding and in speaking, it will allow that student to use language in a current way.

I can attest personally to the slang handicap. I studied French for fifteen years. Conversing with shopkeepers is a breeze, but a night out at a bar leaves me feeling like a scared student all over again, the speech is so different from the textbook stuff. I can read books in French, but can’t get through an article in French Glamour without a list of new terms; the slangy colloquialisms that are never taught in school.

Of course, there are some potential obstacles when you try to learn slang.

Slang is also ever-evolving, and terms can grow outdated.

For one thing, learning a language is hard enough! Remembering vocabulary and syntax is a job in itself, especially when elements of the language don’t exist in your native tongue. Attributes like tonality and honorific speaking, for example, can throw native English speakers into spirals of confusion, since they don’t exist in English.

With slang, there also comes a whole sliding scale of social appropriateness; one that can vary, confusingly, from person to person. I wouldn’t use “bullshit” or “asshole” with family; some native speakers might. One wouldn’t type “gimme” or “gonna” in an email to a professor, though the terms might be used orally in a class discussion.

Slang can also toe the line between casual and offensive. Personally, I loathe the terms “retarded” or “gay” when used in the pejorative sense. As a teacher, I would reprimand any ESL student using those terms, and yet that student probably hears them used quite casually by native speakers on a daily basis. What’s offensive or uncomfortable to some is just conversation filler to others. It’s a murky area; one in which even native speakers will slip up. Trying to navigate the best time and place for slang terms can bring about enormous confusion for a language learner.

Slang is also ever-evolving, and terms can grow outdated. Though “It’s raining cats and dogs” and “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse” are go-to idioms in any ESL textbook, how often do people really say them? It might be futile to memorize phrases that are rarely used, or are used only with a certain generation of people.

Photo: weeta

Slang terms can also vary regionally or nationally. In English, money can be “bucks” or “quid.” Food can be “chow” or “nosh.” Common slang in one country can be unheard of in another. I once had a German roommate who had studied in England but lived with Canadians for years. When he spoke, he would deliver British slang in the twangy Canadian accent that he had adopted. “Are you taking the piss, mate?”, spoken in an Ontario lilt, sounds hands-down ridiculous. What’s more, in some parts of the English-speaking world, that sentence would not be understood at all.

The effectiveness of slang also depends on your conversation partner. If you’re learning, say, Vietnamese or Finnish, you’ll likely converse mostly with native speakers who have a ready understanding of slang. Widespread languages like Arabic or French, though, are often conduits for communication between people who don’t speak one another’s language. A fellow language student may understand the language but not the slang. My ESL student with the ugly tennis player story is a good example; though I understood him clearly, his fellow English learners did not.

We’ve all met travellers who have picked up English exclusively through television and rap lyrics. They’re the ones who swear like sailors and talk like a Fresh Prince Mad Lib, with terms like fly and bro being emphasized unnaturally.

In the end, I think slang’s relevance depends on the language student’s goals. If you plan to attend university abroad, then formal language is what you’ll be using daily for essays and formal emails. If you’re using that foreign tongue for work, you will also need to communicate formally and properly. If, on the other hand, you’re learning a language in order to simply get by and socialize in a foreign place, you’ll encounter and use a lot more slang.

Slang will always come up in the language learning process. It’s important, yes, but not more so than the proper mechanics of a language. We’ve all met travellers who have picked up English exclusively through television and rap lyrics. They’re the ones who swear like sailors and talk like a Fresh Prince Mad Lib, with terms like fly and bro being emphasized unnaturally. It’s a bit charming, but a bit impractical too.

Slang is, I suppose, like the junk food of language. Some seem to survive on it exclusively, some abstain completely. However much or little you like it, I don’t think you’ll get far without taking in the basic sustenance first.

Language Learning

 

About The Author

Anne Merritt

Anne Merritt has lived in Canada, Europe, and Asia. She teaches ESL, writes, haggles, hikes, and wears sunscreen fanatically. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, GoOverseas.com, and The Compass. Check out her blog.

  • Animesh

    Word. (Sorry, couldn’t resist :D)

    Slang is hilarious sometimes. “shit” and “the shit” are opposites!

    “That stuff is THE SHIT” -> Awesome
    “That stuff is SHIT” -> Horrible

  • http://iwasanexpatwife.com Maria

    Thank you for a practical and well-balanced look at the importance of slang and idiom when learning a language. You brought back many fond (and okay, not-so-fond) memories of my years in France, when I would struggle through Glamour magazine with my dictionary at the ready. (Good thing it was a monthly publication, or I’d never have been able to keep up!) The problem I ran into was one of relevance: as a 40-year-old woman, did I really need to know the French equivalent of “chick” and “dude”? I knew that peppering my speech with idioms would make my French more authentic, but I also wanted to speak in a way that reflected my personality and my station in life. Given the enormity of the language-learning task, I had to prioritize, so I focussed on those words and phrases that I felt comfortable using, and didn’t obsess over the rest. It’s not so different from my life in Canada: when my teenage daughters get together with their friends, I often don’t understand a word they say — and they’re speaking English!

  • http://www.hannahinmotion.com Hannah in Motion

    Thanks so much for this, Anne!

    I think there’s a really fine line between learning formal language and slang when abroad. As one’s life is never 100% work or 100% socializing, we’ve got to find a healthy mix of both kinds of words… AND remember when they’re appropriate to be used. But learning just formal language or just slang isn’t practical either.

  • Cassie

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article. Thank you so much for sharing!

    Teaching in Japan, my students are constantly asking me to teach them slang. I think I may ask some of the more advanced onces to read this article for homework. =)

    I constantly come across slang scenarios. There are always a few students who’ve studied abroad in Australia, New Zealand, or lived in the United States when they were children; those are the kids that use the strange Kiwi phrases in class, then expect me to either (a) be able to understand them, or worse, (b) be able to explain them. (I’ve still yet to figure out what “shuffty” or “dunny” are supposed to mean, though I have a student who swears they’re real words that her host family taught her. Any Kiwis care to clue me in?)

    All in all, this was a lovely read. Many thanks!

    • gem

      course they’re real words!

      Dunny is toilet, or loo and shuffty is to move, e.g. if there are people sitting on a bench and you want to join them, you’d ask them to ‘shuffty along’ to make room for you.

      You could also say shuft along as a command not a request! Oh and if you say dunny can you’re referring to the actualy toilet itself, not just the room/cubicle.

  • Heather Carreiro

    This article really made me think, because I definitely taught idioms and slang to my students, and now I’m wondering if some of it was just superfluous. For my 7th and 8th graders, I’d say the current slang was appropriate (or learning to make elisions like “whaddaya mean?”), but I think I’d pass on “hungry as a horse” if I teach younger students again. I mean, nobody of my age (late 20s) is saying it, and if my ESL students went abroad and started saying these type of things, they’d end up sounding dorky.

    As ESL teachers, I guess we need to think more about what the students will actually use the language for, and if there really is a need for them to understand certain idioms and slang or not.

  • http://www.neverendingvoyage.com Erin

    I think learning some slang makes language learning more fun and it does help you understand how people really talk. I did the Pimsleur Spanish audio course, and although useful the language used is really formal and outdated – I found Bueno. Entonces a much more relvant course (and very entertaining) as they teach how Spanish is really spoken (at least in Argentina).

  • http://www.the-other-georgia.com Cam

    I really enjoyed this article.

    Language is something that I spend a lot of time thinking about and this article influenced me to think more about slang than I usually would–at least in relation to my first language. My host sisters and students are very interested in learning English slang and whenever they ask me to teach them something I find it difficult, as I–generally–neither know nor use much slang myself. I do, on the other hand, often find myself in the awkward situation of having no clue what people who do use slang are saying to me.

    While attempting to learn Georgian I haven’t really gone out of my way to pick up any slang, but I haven’t needed to–it’s something that I am bound to hear daily and can usually infer meaning from context.

    What I, personally, find interesting is the fact that I desire to develop the ability to speak very natural-sounding Georgian despite the fact that I am totally fine with speaking somewhat awkward English.

  • http://www.speakinglatino.com Jared

    Well done article Anne!

    I may be a bit biased but I believe that if someone wants to be able to converse naturally with native speakers, then learning slang is extremely important, if not obligatory. My experience is that if you are in a country talking with people, it’s almost impossible to follow casual conversations without understanding the local slang.

  • James

    You make a lot of great points, but I’ll pose a question.

    I’m learning Spanish right now, but I don’t have access to any real, native speakers. Where do I go to learn some slang? Special Dictionaries, websites, magazines?

    I don’t want to get into a bar conversation (I visit a lot of bars when I travel) and be utterly lost (on top of drunk).

    • Heather Carreiro

      Hey James! Some of the Matador team is putting together a guide for regional Spanish slang, since slang varies widely across the Spanish speaking world. If you’ll be traveling in Mexico, check out our Quick and Dirty Phrasebook of Mexican Slang for a few phrases to get you started.

    • admin

      Hi, James-

      Great question! Even when you become fluent in Spanish, you’ll realize, traveling around, that slang varies remarkably from one Spanish-speaking country to another. Jared Romey (who we’ve profiled here on Matador before) has a few books that might be of use to you. One of them is Speaking Boricua (and the follow-up book, Speaking Boricua Phrases), which is a guide to Puerto Rican slang. It’s spot on and really funny. He has a couple other books too, including Speaking Argento (which I haven’t read or used). You can find the books online.

      • http://www.speakinglatino.com Jared

        ADMIN…thanks for the support!! It’s really appreciated.

        Just to add…Speaking Chileno hit the bookstores (in Chile) in July, and made the bestseller list shortly thereafter.

        James, I’m working on tools for people to learn the local Spanish slang for each country. Unfortunately, there’s not much out there. I too stumbled through trying to understand Spanish in bar settings.

  • Trolololololol

     Dis iz lyk siik blud

  • Trollololololol

     Dis iz lyk siik blud

  • Mdgross13

    Your article was very disappointing and I wish I did not read it. Although you make a few good points, most of what you say is ‘rubbish!’- especially your comment on the Canadian accent. You say you have been to Canada, does that mean one city for a week?

    I found your article quite GAY- (imagine this said with a TWANGY Canadian accent!)

    Plus- although you obviously got a thesaurus at some point in your life, did you ever consider the fact that using words such as ‘lilt’, ‘pejorative’, ‘flicking’… are unnecessary and make you sound like a pretentious ‘wanna-be’ scholar…. think about it.

    MDG

  • http://www.homestayenglish.uk.com M Maille

    Are you actually a native English speaker yourself? In all my life I have never heard food refered  to, in the U.K as  ”CHOW” or money as ” BUCKS” that is definitely American !

    • Breck

      Likewise, a typical American doesn’t know the word ‘quid’ or ‘nosh’.

  • Chris

    For me, I think learning slang or certain ways of saying something is great for fitting in, and sometimes I have noticed having people impressed I even know what it is or means when I say it. In family settings here in Portugal, I often hear various curse words (porra, possa) or playful insults (gosma). It makes things sound more natural because it’s how natives speak. What we learn in the classroom is essential, but the subtle variations of irregular grammar and sentence structure in a colloquial way is very important too. J’en ai marre is a lot better to say than je suis fatigué, but then I probably would only want to say j’en ai ral bos if I’m really mad about something. Different contexts, different situations call for each, and that only comes with time, just like everything.

  • Alex Liska

    my best friend’s mother-in-law makes $71 an hour on the internet. She has been out of a job for 10 months but last month her income was $15740 just working on the internet for a few hours. Go to this web site and read more http://trunc.it/lsa84.

  • Lin Robinson

    Extremely important, not only to get inside the cultural substrate a little, but also to avoid messing up. The funny thing about slang is that some stays good forever while some changes monthly.
    I publish Mexican Slang 101 and haven’t really revised the content in many years. Because it’s boiled down to the words that stay current. That are “official” slang. A lot of youth slang and criminal slang is designed to be “unofficial”. If everybody is on to it, it’s pointless and drops away.
    So we’ve seen English slang like “phat, ruff, fly” come and go like mayflies, but “cool” has always been around and has gone international.
    In Mexico you see all this evolution like “no mames” becoming “no manches”, but some terms like “onda”–bascially 69′s hiippie slang, like “cool” and “gig” are 50′s black music slang, has stuck around and become “official”.

    • Gwen Bell

      Happy new year Lin. hope all is well with you. Just wanted to.say hi!! Cousin Gwen.

  • Margaret Nahmias

    To me slang is best learned in context because of its ever changing nature.

  • Prefect_X

    LOL…!!!!!! As an Aussie reading this, we do use the line “are you taking the piss, mate”, but would usually verbalise it as “Are you pullin’ the piss out of me?”, however, imagining it said in a Canadian accent with a German twist had me ROTFL..!!!!!!

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