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Slang and Idioms: Why They Are Difficult to be Taught?

Slang and Idioms: Why They Are Difficult to be Taught? | ITTT | TEFL Blog

As with all living languages, English is constantly evolving, slangs and idioms is an example of that. Slang and idioms are an integral part of written and spoken English; often it is employed by native speakers and has a deeper meaning than the literal phrase. Some might argue that slang and idioms are not ‘proper’ English and should not be part of the syllabus but people around the world are increasingly getting exposed to Western media. Students might encounter slangs and idioms when consuming authentic materials such as English films and books, where the characters would interact using normal lay speech. Perhaps the students are interested in all these words and phrases that are nonsensical when taken literally and would like to learn about it. The motivation and purposes of teaching and learning slangs and idioms could be that the students might wish to employ them to sound more authentic as well as wanting to understand the context when consuming English media. Where can students turn to with questions about slang and idioms when there are no dictionary entries about them?

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

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Relation to Context

Most idioms have some sort of historical context or practice associated with it, such as ‘kicking the bucket’ to mean death and referring to the slaughter of animals and the spasm of neurological struggles after slaughter. How should one teach such idioms? There is no literal sense to the phrase and it is difficult to link such practice to modern days. A way to teach such idioms would be to just say ‘riding shotgun’ equals sitting next to the driver up front without mentioning the history of a coach traveling and actual shotguns being carried by the person sitting next to the driver to ward off bandits. However, one could teach this by telling it like a story as well as explaining all the historical practices that are involved. By telling it as a story, we would be able to capture the interests of the students as well as making it more memorable, but the downside is that it is time-consuming to teach each individual idioms this way. Therefore, the best way would be to select a few relevant and widely used idioms and talk about those in-depth, as well as assigning a reading task to students so they can research and learn more about it.

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Cultural Dependence

New slang emerge every day, especially in the age of the internet where English speakers from different parts of the world can share their local slang and idioms. Some new slang have become part of the language and taken in by the Oxford Dictionary and even became the ‘Word of the Year’, such as the term ‘selfie’. How should one teach slang when the numbers are growing exponentially each day? How do we know which ones to teach and are relevant to the students? As slang are part of youth culture, how could teachers keep up with the contexts? And lastly, teachers would have to be aware of culturally sensitive and racial slang and applying that to students’ native culture.

These are all issues that are pertinent to teaching slang and teachers should perhaps start by looking at the interests and age of the class and select appropriate and relevant slang that might cater to the students’ interests. Also, teachers can look to the internet for online slang and idiom dictionary and forums to keep up-to-date.

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Relation to Events

Another reason for teaching slang and idiom is that when discussing recent events and topics, we might have to use specific slang to effectively describe something intangible that might be associated with it. For example, when talking about ‘Brexit’, a new term ‘Remoaner’ is used to describe people who voted to remain in the EU and are unhappy about the result. Another example would be the usage of ‘cherry-picking’ and ‘having one's cake and eating it’ to describe the action and attitude regarding the negotiation of ‘Brexit’ terms.

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In conclusion, slangs and idioms are important to the English language and to not teach it to non-native students would be doing them a disservice. Idioms allow students to learn and understand English practices to be it modern or historical and obsolete. Slangs allows us to communicate about our interests effectively and concisely, often with a sense of emotion attached to it. Whilst it might be difficult and time-consuming for teachers to assemble materials and plan lessons around this topic, it has become increasingly easy with the use of online resources.

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