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Is Teaching Slang and Idioms Important for ESL Students?

Is Teaching Slang and Idioms Important for ESL Students? | ITTT | TEFL Blog

Slang and idioms are often omitted from the formal education curriculum. According to the Cambridge dictionary, slang is defined as a “very informal language that is usually spoken rather than written, used especially by particular groups of people” and an idiom is defined as “a group of words in a fixed order that have a particular meaning that is different from the meanings of each word on its own”. This essay will suggest possible reasons why slang and idioms are often excluded from formal English lessons, and posit that it is important to teach them to certain groups of ESL students namely, students who have moved to an English-speaking country with little or no prior knowledge of the language and students with high English language ability.

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

English as a global language

English is the official language of more than seventy countries and is ranked the third most spoken language in the world. It is considered to be a ‘global language’; the preferred language of communication among diverse groups of people across countries. Formal classroom education focuses on Standard English. As implied by the term ‘standard’, classes in schools and language institutions aim to teach English at an internationally recognized standard such that it can be understood regardless of the English speaker’s background.

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Cultural aspects of the English language

Slang, however, is a culture- and group-specific spoken language. Hence, it is not able to facilitate cross-border communications. This is likely to be the main reason why slang is not considered as Standard English nor tested in internationally recognized examinations such as TOEFL.

While idioms are included in TOEFL examinations, they may not be more useful in facilitating communication among people from different cultural backgrounds than slang. Idioms are abstract and metaphorical sets of phrases that provide an alternate way of expressing an idea or feeling. For example, one may say “a piece of cake” instead of “easy”. As the latter is a simpler and clearer way to express one’s thoughts, it is not surprising that idioms seem superfluous in comparison. This could be the main reason why idioms are given less attention in ESL classrooms if any at all. Moreover, each culture has its idioms – that is, a different set of words to allude to a similar idea. For example, instead of “beating around the bush”, “walking around hot porridge” is used in Norway and the Czech Republic to signify speaking evasively and avoiding answering a question directly. Also, the same set of idiom words may not have the same meaning in different cultures. For instance, to do something with “long teeth” suggests ambition in French but implies being forced against one’s own will in Finnish. Without a mutual understanding of its cultural origins, idioms would only reduce the clarity of communication and confusion.

british and american flags

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Slang emerges from a group of people within a culture and changes over time. Slang can be word contractions (e.g. wanna (want to), cuz (because)), acronyms (e.g. BTW (by the way), GTG (got to go)), or words with a different original meaning (e.g. basic (common/conformist), salty (angry/bitter)). As it also includes abusive and obscene terms, it is set apart from informal Standard English (i.e. an accepted way of casual speech which usage is not limited to a particular group of people). Despite some negative perceptions of slang, it is no doubt that ESL students will encounter slang through the internet and other forms of media. This will raise their curiosity, or even frustration when they are unable to comprehend. Thus, teachers should not dismiss questions regarding slang as inappropriate, but instead, recognize that slang is a deep-set part of English-speaking communities and professionally address this topic.

Although slang is not considered as Standard English, it is beneficial to teach ESL students who have moved to an English-speaking country about common slang words used in their community. This is because Standard English by itself would not help them fully understand their daily, colloquial interactions with natives or feel integrated within their new social environment. Hence, ESL teachers of this particular group of students need to make a sensitive effort to introduce slang typical in their community. Using an ESA lesson plan framework, it can be incorporated into the Engage phase of a lesson. For instance, the teacher may elicit slang words that students have heard being used frequently around them. Then, its usage and context can be analyzed and compared with informal standard English. It is also valuable to introduce slang to students with high English ability as they may encounter and interact with more authentic materials such as songs and movies, in which slang is prevalent. Teaching slang will also allow them to feel a sense of relevance and practicality to their language lessons. For students with low English ability and who do not encounter slang in their daily environment, the teaching of slang should be avoided in favor of first building a strong foundation in Standard English. It is easy to offend someone or appear derogatory with inappropriate use of slang. Additionally, it should never be taught to Business English students where the sole focus should be on formal Standard English.

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For the same reasons, idioms should be taught to students who have moved to an English-speaking country or have a high English ability level that is sufficient to grasp the nuances. Furthermore, idioms can enhance cultural sensitivity and appreciation as they learn about the imagery related to their respective origins.

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In conclusion, it cannot be denied that slang and idioms are part of the English language, albeit non-Standard English. As students advance with their English abilities, they should be introduced these aspects for a deeper understanding of English as a dynamic language and awareness of its variances across cultures. Also, regardless of ability level, knowing slang and idioms can help students who have moved to an English-speaking country better comprehend their community and assimilate into their new environment.

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