How Teaching Slang Can Benefit Your ESL Students
2019-03-18 Linda Dunsmore Alumni Experiences
Stepping onto my flight from Miami to Santiago, Chile, I was confident in my Spanish skills. After all, I had taken nearly seven years of Spanish classes in middle and high school. However, when I landed I found, not only did I not understand 80% of what my host family said to me, they couldn’t understand me either.
Over the course of my two months there, I came to appreciate the significance of slang in understanding and mastering a language. Even though slang words and usage can vary tremendously throughout the English speaking world, this is not an excuse to avoid introducing slang in the classroom. Being able to identify and understand some common slang words and phrases will help English learners reading informal documents.
Being able to produce slang words, though more difficult, can make a non-native speaker sound more fluent. Learning about the informal side of the English language can be a fun and motivating tool to encourage students in their own exploration. Finally, introducing slang terms is a simple way to begin a conversation with students about the diversity of English speaking cultures.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Sophia S.
“Learning slang words is immensely helpful.”
For an English learner, reading a dialog in a novel or listening to native speaker’s conversation can be a disorienting and frustrating task, especially if they have never been introduced to some of the slang and shortcuts native speakers take with their mother tongue. Phrases like “hang out” or “chill out” may be lost on a non-native speaker. Even if a learner only expects to use English in a formal setting, at work, for example, learning some of these most common phrases and slang words will be immensely helpful. Being able to produce these words and phrases can elevate a learner’s fluency, making them much more understandable to a native listener.
“I was more motivated to retain these pieces of vocabulary and try them out in an attempt to sound more natural.”
Once I became accustomed to the rhythms of Chilean Spanish, my favorite way to learn from my Spanish-speaking friends was to ask them for their favorite slang phrases or ask them to translate a new, unfamiliar word I encountered on the street. Generally, they were not only happy to help me, but they were also excited to explain a part of their culture to me. I was more motivated to retain these pieces of vocabulary and try them out in an attempt to sound more natural. For students of English, I imagine this would be much the same. Learning slang words can be like discovering a precious stone. They are often funny and can serve as a motivating addition to any dry, boring grammar lesson.
“Learning slang can also open up the conversation for cultural exchange.”
Learning slang can also open up the conversation for cultural exchange. The origins of slang words can lend a cultural context for English learners. Students will have a better understanding of the values and quirks of a certain group of native English speakers. For example, students who learn the phrase “sauce me that...” (used in place of pass me that…) will understand that in the regions where this is used, mostly Canada and North Eastern United States, hockey is a prominent sport that has come to influence the language.
When teaching slang words it is important to keep in mind what is appropriate for the specific setting and age group. A teacher working with an adult student one on one may be at further liberty to discuss certain terms, while a teacher in a business school should probably avoid any language that is offensive. Similarly, with younger students, a teacher must be sure not to introduce them to any swear words or insults.
“There are many activities that could be used to teach slang words.”
Deciding which slang words to teach can also be a challenge. Variations of English are so distinct and diverse it would be impossible to teach students the ins and outs of each. A teacher must decide if they will focus on a certain geographical area from which to draw their slang, or perhaps provide a sampling from different regions. I think when faced with this dilemma a teacher should let the students’ interests guide them. If many students are interested in Australian culture and express a desire to travel there, the teacher should make an effort to include Australian slang in the lesson.
There are many activities that could be used to teach slang words. One fun and engaging option is to watch a popular TV show or clip from a movie and have students pick out unfamiliar words. Or the teacher could pre-teach slang from the video before watching. For beginners, this may be too advanced. Instead, slang phrases can be offered alongside the more formal version. For example, when teaching students how to introduce themselves a teacher can offer the greeting “What’s up” along with “How are you today?”
Are you ready to teach English slang?
Teaching English slang can be a daunting task. A teacher must make many decisions around which words to teach, what is appropriate, and how to teach slang. However, it should not be avoided because of this. Learning slang words can help English learners immensely by increasing their understanding, making them sound more fluent and engaging them in both the classroom and English speaking world.
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