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"Has the Cat Got Your Tongue?": Teaching Slang and Idioms

When studying a new language, a student needs to learn more than what vocabulary can be found in a dictionary. To have a better grasp of the new language, a student must be exposed to other aspects of that language as well, such as the use of slang and idioms in that new language. This is because languages, especially English, are particularly fluid with regards to the use of slang and metaphorical language. Teaching students of English some common colloquialisms would thus be useful, especially in providing students a more cohesive understanding of the language. Providing students with this knowledge is especially important if the student intends to seek opportunities in countries where English is the most commonly used language or even in English correspondence online.

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Sher L. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.


Teaching slang and idioms of a new language can be an overall benefit to students, especially when taught in conjunction with the more formalized aspects of a language. Learning slang and idioms of a different culture can serve as further motivation for students to learn English and make lessons more engaging. This is especially pertinent if the teacher begins to introduce more authentic materials into the classroom, where the use of slang or idioms is highly likely. Since students are bound to encounter such language inside and outside of the classroom, it is best to provide them with the knowledge and context to interpret slang and idioms correctly.

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However, teaching slang and idioms that are used in a new language can be challenging. Firstly, as aforementioned, the use of certain slang and idioms tend to fall in and out of use, and their meanings can change over time. For instance, a lot of current slang words are derived from common English words. Students may only be familiar with the dictionary definition of such words and the additional meaning of these words may be lost on them. A student studying English as a foreign language may only recognize a word like “extra” as an adjective denoting something additional, but, the use of the word to describe exaggerated or excessive behavior may be lost on them. Furthermore, a teacher has to be mindful when teaching slang words that the English word used does not have negative connotations in the students’ native language either to maintain a professional and conducive atmosphere in the classroom.

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Anticipated Problems

Besides that, teaching idioms in itself can be a difficult undertaking. This is because idioms tend to use metaphorical language to convey meaning, and students may have different associations in their native language to the metaphors or images used in idioms. As a result, even when a teacher is explaining the meaning of an idiom to a student, a student may find understanding the idiom and applying it correctly a challenge. For instance, teaching the phrase “pushing up daisies” may be a source of confusion, especially if the flower used in the idiom has different associations in the culture the student is from, as opposed to the source of the phrase.

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Despite the potential challenges and pitfalls, teaching slang and idioms to English learners can add to their understanding of English as a whole. However, a teacher needs to carefully curate what slang and idioms to teach within the classroom setting. To teach this subject effectively, a teacher will have to begin with slang and idioms used in non-authentic material before slowly exposing students to the use of colloquialisms in more authentic materials.

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