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The Best Times to Teach Slang and Idioms

The Best Times to Teach Slang and Idioms | ITTT | TEFL Blog

While slang and idioms may not be essential to clear communication, especially when their meanings are very different from their packaging, they do communicate something more subtle: ‘I’m trying to observe the nuances of your language to better connect with you’. Slang lets you come across as casual, intimidating, clever, or whimsical in ways that straightforward language can’t. FluentU English Educating Blog puts it this way: “Teaching Idioms Is Teaching Fluency”. Communicating your personality is easier when you are more fluent, or at least when you have more idioms under your belt.

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

What’s the importance of slang and idioms?

Given that the importance of slang is always relative to basic communication, when is the best time to teach it to language students? The universal conclusion seems to be that you can’t teach it until at least an upper-intermediate level. This makes sense because teaching plays on words doesn’t do much for a learner unless they have first grasped the words. Beyond level, however, when is the best time to begin incorporating slang and idioms into the lesson? I have seen it done two ways: in a dedicated unit (usually very small, framed as a nice break from the daily doldrums of grammar lessons) and interspersed infrequently throughout lessons, assigned to a unit which is somewhat relevant to the content of the slang or idiom. Neither is inappropriate because if an idiom doesn’t stick, there’s usually nothing at stake. From my own learning experiences, I would argue that it’s not for lack of trying that we fail to remember non-native-language idioms, but because we have different priorities at the only time we encounter them, and they are not taught in such a way as to fulfill a purpose or a curiosity.

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Problems with these lexical units

Additional problems with idioms and slang in a classroom are that they 1) don’t always have a direct equivalent in our native language, 2) are not encouraged to be used after their initial unit because they aren’t considered proper responses to coursework, or 3) are so removed from the learner’s age group that they don’t appeal to the sensibilities of the learner. These are just my observations, so I would like to support them with examples from a French class.

An example of the first problem would be “ma petite chou”/ “ma petite chou-fleur” or “my little cabbage/cauliflower”. It’s very easy to get bogged down in a search of what exactly it means and where it comes from, but it’s clear that it’s a pet name. Like English pet names sometimes it straddles the strange line of being available to couples but also to mothers and children. An approximation would be “my sweetie pie” or “pumpkin”. Cauliflower is certainly not in the English consciousness of cute terms, however, so English learners don’t have a clear translation to anchor this new knowledge upon.

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An example of the second would be “ouais” or “yeah”, a more low-brow way of saying “oui” or “yes”. You can’t use this on a paper for obvious reasons; it just sounds rude and it’s not how you address teachers. It’s not far from “oui” but people still ask me to remind them how to say it all the time.

An imperfect example of the last one would be “l’esprit de l’escalier”, or “the wit of the stairs”, which is when you walk away from something but later you think of the perfect comeback/solution. I had to search for this term because I didn’t remember it completely. I would attribute that to time, and not because the term would hold no interest to a high schooler. However, to a younger learner, especially one who would not use the language outside of the classroom, this term would seem too specific to an emotion they weren’t experienced with, and they probably wouldn’t remember it.

Having made my case, I would also like to provide a disclaimer. These are only among the phrases I remembered. I must have learned upwards of 30 idioms/colloquial terms during my time in a public-school French class directed by a beloved and capable teacher, and yet I only remember a handful. From my college French class, I remember no idioms at all. The ones I tried to teach myself on Duolingo in one rushed mini-unit? Forget about it. The ones I DO remember are a result of some small care, some odd detail in how they were presented which has stuck with me all this time. For the cauliflower, it was a picture of a cute, smiling cauliflower and the teacher reading it aloud in the gushiest “you’re my little cupcake” voice she could manage. To say “ouais”, it was watching two “friends” (actors) interact in a video where “ouais” was followed by a secret handshake and a cool guy nod. For the wit of the stairs, it was the teacher providing a reasonable evocation of going up the stairs to your room after a bad interaction, and then thinking about what you would have done differently.

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How to work on this problem?

These are all conducive to FluentU’s four tips for teaching idioms successfully: providing context, emphasizing their role as conversational constructions, breaking the idioms down into their literal parts, and teaching them in small doses.

My teacher provided enough context to help me remember what I have. This is where Duolingo and lists on paper fail; they aren’t alive enough. They aren’t close enough to the conversation. Idioms should be taught through videos, and situations, and voices, or even pictures. Sometimes, like in the case of the cauliflower and the stairs, the individual parts of an expression are striking enough to let you remember them. Small doses take away confusion; “ouais” and “l’esprit” were taught as a relevant side note, with no other idioms competing for my attention in the same lesson.

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Based upon these experiences, I say the best time to teach idioms/slang is individual, any time, so long as it’s appropriate to the student’s level, relevant, and you are prepared to give it an organic context.

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