Most English language learners are studying English for academic or professional reasons. With their goals in mind, we teachers focus on the language structures and vocabulary that we know they’ll need. We create tasks to build necessary skills. We present graphic organizers for essays, we share model email messages, we turn to high frequency word lists to select readings and build vocabulary exercises, and we give practice with presentations and debates. But should our instruction be even broader?
The world is a big place, and there are many different people our students might come into contact with. Someone who works in a call center needs to speak in a friendly, professional manner, but the speech on the other end of the line can vary greatly. A customer could call, too upset to organize his or her thoughts or choose words accurately. Another person could work in sales or hospitality, where contact with the public is frequent. Clients or guests sometimes use speech that’s splashed liberally with idioms and local jargon, not to mention the amount of reduction being used.
Places like the college cafeteria or staff room also expose our learners to more informal English. How can we increase their confidence and ability to face these situations?
I’ve been considering ways to help an advanced learner become more adept at understanding informal American English. My thoughts so far:
- Fast speech can be a challenge for some. Teaching patterns with linking and reduction is very helpful in building listening comprehension. (See my Fast Speech playlist.) Awareness of these pronunciation patterns is key. Students don’t necessarily have to reproduce what they hear. Listening to a few musical.lys can put their knowledge of reduction and linking to the test!
- For this particular student, the challenge lies more in vocabulary. Working with TV shows or film clips is one possible way to expose learners to colloquial speech. TV commercials are also a possible source, and they’re conveniently short. I’ve shared ideas in the past based on TV ads. (Click here.) Watching and discussing a clip is a way to test comprehension of vocabulary in context.
- YouTubers like to post compilations. A collection of Super Bowl Ads can provide content for a couple of lessons. Ads not only give a context for idioms and slang, but they also present humor. Do students find the jokes funny? Culture plays a role in whether an ELL “gets it” or not.
- Local jargon is a trickier thing to teach. Those of us who have relocated from one part of the U.S. to another know that it’s just a matter of time. Through daily encounters with the locals, you learn that a water fountain is a bubbler or that a gumband is a rubber band. For an ELL, it may be helpful to note down unfamiliar words. They’ll likely be able to find the meanings online when they get a moment to do a search. ELLs can also seek out encounters with spoken English where there’s time to pause and think, for example, visiting a local news website. Students can replay street interviews and listen to the local weather forecast more than once. Captions are often available, too
- There’s also the issue of non-standard grammar. My preference is to teach what is most commonly accepted. When appropriate, I point out structures that could be considered non-standard. For instance, in a recent grammar lesson on YT I taught the common use of the contraction There’s before plural nouns, noting that it’s done in informal English only.
Do you have articulate advanced students who have struggled with informal English? What have you done to support them? Feel free to share tips.
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