Whaddya gonna do about slang? Mix it or nix it?

We all know that our main objective is to facilitate our students’ ability to communicate in English. When they make an error, we offer correction. When they look to us for a speech model, we strive to provide clear, accurate English. But where does slang fit in? Does it have a place in our instruction?

I’d argue that it’s impossible to ignore the use of slang. Language learners will inevitably encounter it, and by not having any knowledge of informal English, they will be confused if not clueless in such situations. For instance, all books write going to, but if our students listen to American songs, watch an American TV sitcom, or overhear conversation on public transportation in any of the 50 states, they’ll hear gonna. In fact, such common reduction of words in fast speech has started to affect spelling. Look at public comments online or billboard ads and you’ll see words like gonna, ya, don’tcha, and ‘Sup? Given the pervasiveness of slang, would we not be putting students at a disadvantage if we kept all informal speech out of our curriculum and focus only on standard language that’s appropriate in professional and academic settings?

There seem to be two basic approaches to dealing with slang: (1) teach it in conjunction with standard English or (2) address it separately. Some grammar textbooks have taken a cautious approach to addressing slang: standard English is the focus, but some informal variations are noted. Other publications are dedicated solely to helping students make sense of American slang. These attempts range from a phrasal verb workbook to a dictionary of street talk. This fact itself raises the question what we mean by slang. Is it merely English used in informal contexts or is it a compilation of dirty words and adolescent lingo?

Suffice it to say that we needn’t create a lesson on four-letter words and all their uses, nor should we like, you know, try to give the 411 on all the fave expressions used by teens and tweens among their BFFs. I think we must teach standard English, but we should also address informal speech when it’s relevant and when students ask us about it. For example, in the case of adjective clauses you can present levels of formality and explain the appropriateness of all the variations: the friend to whom I spoke > the friend whom I spoke to > the friend who (that) I spoke to > the friend I spoke to. In the case of compound subjects using the first person singular, I’d tell students that “my friend and I” is the only acceptable form, but they will occasionally hear the non-standard “my friend and me” and even “me and my friend”.  When idioms such as pain in the neck surface in a lesson, you can throw in the alternative pain in the butt and note that butt in general is rude. A student may then venture to ask about pain in the ass, and such a question needs a straight answer: Explain ass is very rude and its use will offend polite company.

In the past, I’ve experimented with the approach of teaching slang separately, that is, making it the focus of a lesson. A short clip from a movie can provide enough material for a 50-minute class. You can present changes in grammar and pronunciation as well as alternatives to standard vocabulary.  Among my YouTube vodcasts I’ve created a series of lessons on American Slang that steer clear of hard core street talk and present informal and idiomatic language for everyday use.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Lucy says:

    Hi. Most of my students only realize there is such a thing as slang when they are at the level of better understanding and speaking. Only then do they begin to ask questions regarding the meaning of certain unfamiliar words or expressions they hear. Usually these few tid bits are incorporated within the lesson just as explanations. Like you, I may sometimes create a lesson focusing on slang. Usually when students are at a much higher English level they are also more interested in the nuances of the language they’re learning. Thanks:)

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      True. It seems the higher the proficiency, the more interest there is in understanding idiomatic language and particulars about grammar and pronunciation.

      I think there are two other issues to bring up as we discuss informal language. First, the exposure to slang and the dangers of slang having a greater effect than standard English especially in the lower levels. I’ve had had basic students use GONNA in their writing as well as in slow, careful speech. I’ve also had a number of YouTubers greet me with “Hi Teacher! How’s it goin?” They’ve seen and heard this language so many times in other contexts, so why not use it at school and with a teacher? This leads to the second issue: appropriacy of language. How should it be taught? How wary should we be of supporting the notion of “book English” and “real English”? I don’t think I’m the only teacher who’s been told: “It’s so easy to understand you. You speak so clearly. I can’t understand a lot of others.” Is this a compliment or a warning sign?

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Lucy says:

    Thank you for your take on this important point. You’re absolutely right when you ask : Is this a compiment or is this a warning sign? As teachers, we’re delighted when we see that our students aremaking the effort to understand, and that they really want to communicate. But, when it comes to integrating slang, we should make sure that students have a strong grasp of the English language the way it is intended to be used; correctly first.
    Familiar expressions should only be shown when there is a good command of the English language and slang shoudl only be one other way for students to feel like they’re part of the culture that the language entails.

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