Teaching Slang and Idioms In the first five minutes of Googling

In the first five minutes of Googling for information pertinent to the topic of teaching slang and idioms, I was blown away by the amount of existing discussion on the subject. I found it initially surprising that there is actually documented argument regarding whether or not to include these subjects as part of a formal English education. The argument can be generally described as a tug of war between language purists and those who would seek to dilute the vocabulary and phraseology of English with potentially vulgar slang and idiom.

Defining slang and idiom is often like defining vulgarity'it depends on the perception of the viewer. Racy, colorful language is often humorous, usually concise, and almost always interesting. The line between proper English and slang is continually blurred as traditional slang is adopted or removed from generally acceptable use. Webster's New Collegiate dictionary defines Slang as 'The nonstandard vocabulary of a given culture or subculture, consisting typically of arbitrary and often ephemeral coinages an figures of speech marked by spontaneity and occasionally by raciness.' Similarly, Idiom is 'A speech form or expression of a language that is peculiar to itself grammatically or that cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its elements.'

Both slang and idiom are effectively so intertwined in the language use of any culture that attempting to quantify it as proper or improper is an exercise in futility. Criticizing the use of slang in the academic environment is like complaining about the weather. For instance, the use of the word 'intertwined' in the first line of this paragraph is not intended to be slang or idiom. However as the word was historically used to describe the physical tying together of things with twine, it arguably could be considered slang, though few if any English purists would bat an eye at its use.

It cannot be denied that there is something universally engaging about slang and idiom. Usually slang terms are quite interesting if one investigates their origins. Web sites like http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/index.html and author David Burk's twenty-plus books specifically aimed at the teaching of cultural vocabulary as a tool for academia give evidence to the vast interest in the history of colorful words and phrases. Whether we applaud or abhor slang, we collectively cannot seem to get enough of it.

The propriety of the raciness of slang can only be determined by the producer and receiver. What is totally acceptable, or even expected, in one conversation might prove offensive in another. It is often an unfortunate truth that people unconsciously choose to be offended by words. In the arena of learning a foreign language, (or even without any intention of actually learning it) people are usually titillated by the idea of learning some 'swear words' in other tongues. There is simply some intangible attraction to slang, idiom and even vulgarity in foreign languages, or even in different cultures using the same language.

If a teacher can use the general attraction to slang and idioms as a tool to further engage and excite students about learning English, than the positive effects far outweigh any potential for arguments about propriety or purity. Additionally, learning the details of slang terms often creates a bridge to learning more about the culture from which the term evolved. It often even leads to a veritable linguistic history lesson. This can only lead to a better understanding the language and culture for the student, which is indeed the whole point of the education in the first place.

Outside of academia, the only purpose for spoken or written language is to translate a thought in one person's head accurately into another's. The use of slang and idiom in language carries with it the risk of shocking or offending language purists due to the unorthodox terms involved. Often it is in fact the producer's intention to shock or even offend the receiver. If the chosen words or phrases effectively convey the thought and intent of the speaker, it is indubitable that he used proper language.