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The Necessity of Slang and Idioms in ESL Studies

The Necessity of Slang and Idioms in ESL Studies | ITTT | TEFL Blog

Language is an organism that changes as the people using it changes. No living language sounds as it did 1,000 years ago, nor does any use all the same words that were used within it 100 years ago. Just as it is a very different experience to live in a body than it is to study one, so is it powerful for students of a foreign language to be invited to live in a language rather than only learn about it. The endless auditory phenomena of English, such as the “hootin’ and tootin’” interjections of Appalachian people or the booming discourse of an African-American preacher, cannot be understood by other peoples unless they are exposed to the context these phenomena were nurtured in. Students of English must, therefore, be given the opportunity to enjoy slang and idioms, context-heavy linguistic devices, if their intent to live within the language is to be fulfilled.

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

Reasons to Use Slang in Real Life Situations

The adage “content is king” makes its rounds well in business and popular culture, but context is king with languages. This is true in any culture; moreover, it is unlikely that English, laden with more vocabulary than perhaps any other modern language, is anywhere near the most contextual of languages. Mandarin Chinese might rank highly - most words in Mandarin are composites of two or more hanzi or characters, but each individual character carries several, if not a dozen of its own potential meanings. There is no way for two Mandarin speakers to exchange mutually intelligible ideas with each other without using words and expressions formed by the sociolinguistic context they each grew up in.

It is not being suggested that anyone wishing to use words correctly must know their etymology. But no native Chinese-speaking student can grasp what it means to “hit the road” as easily as a child born in the United States, who likely heard the term first from her parents, continued to hear it in from her favorite television shows and was left a powerful audio-visual memory of the idiom by the age of 7. The American child will find it impossible to ever forget the phrase, but the Chinese child will find it impossible to ever remember and enjoy it unless she spends significant time in an English-speaking context. She must spend enough time in that context to discover which of the idioms she actually enjoys, not merely memorizes; she cannot speak personally in her second language with terms that do not carry her personality.

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English and Learners

How wonderful are the moments when students of foreign language express their sincerest thoughts in their target language for the first time! For any of us who have undergone this experience, it is as if we gather our person, lift up, and plop it back down into a whole new world. We connect our same internal selves with new external expressions. This natal moment and, especially, the newness of life that comes forth of it, is the good that ESL teachers must pursue their students. Students neither young nor old will comprehend or anticipate the gravity of this achievement until it is in their tongues, so it is the burden of the teacher to strive towards it with intentionality every lesson. Not all travelers are as equally motivated to discover the oasis, but even the most driven will never see it if they do not have a guide. And there is no linguistic oasis without an informal, everyday language like slang and idioms!

Methods to Learn

It is true that no single method of learning these terms will suffice for every student, for each student will encounter the target language through differing mediums and differing relationships. But incorporating them into an English course does not require the disruption of the course’s other contents – much of that content should, in fact, precede any descriptions of or activities involving idioms. In the same way that a great work of historical fiction seems a great bag of irrelevant facts to a reader unfamiliar with the period of history it describes, so must students be prepared to use the basic rational components of a language competently before they can wield its irrational (idiomatic, rather than literal) components with comfort. But once students have entered an advanced stage of their studies, they ought to be given the tools to speak with native English speakers in a way that will make native speakers feel comfortable.

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To acquire a language well, one must acquire an understanding of the people who speak the language from birth. ESL teachers will drill contractions and recite diphthongs, yes, but they should spend just as much time inviting students into the world they grew up in. Therefore, no ESL student should ever be without the opportunity to dive into the rich linguistic reservoir of English idioms and slang.

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