Teaching Slang and Idioms A question on the minds of many English


A question on the minds of many English as a Second Language instructors are whether or not it is appropriate to teach students the use of slang and idioms in the English language. Although the distinction between what is a formal term versus an informal one is crucial, slang is a significant part of conversational English and, as such, should be covered in the classroom. It would be very difficult for someone new to the English language to understand an American movie, TV show, news broadcast or even a typical conversation as they are filled with nonstandard English.

Firstly, it is important to define the terms “idiom” and “slang”. Slang can be described as nonstandard vocabulary of a given culture or subculture. In other words, slang is typically a nonstandard word. An idiom is commonly understood in a given culture or subculture to have a meaning different from its literal meaning. Typically, an idiom is a phrase whereas slang is used as a single word. A common misunderstanding among native English speakers is that slang and idioms are used as obscenities. This is not generally the case.

David Burke is a well-known author of ESL materials and has written extensively on teaching slang in the classroom. Burke divides slang into a family tree, with universal slang terms at the top representing words that are not only used consistently in the media, but by virtually everyone. Just below the universal slang are subcategories used by specific groups such as teens, rappers and certain economic groups. Additionally, business is notorious for creating a slang on its own. For ESL students entering into the workforce, learning these terms and phrases is crucial for success in the business world.

Considering teaching slang and idioms is recognized as an important part of teaching ESL, it is important to examine the most effective way to do so. In his article, Without Slang and Idioms, Students are Left in the Dark, Burke provides many useful tips to achieve this (Burke, 1998). Firstly, Burke recognizes as presentation being the most important. Starting with a natural dialogue that contains no more than twelve slang words and idioms is appropriate. Allow students to first guess what the terms may mean before telling them and encourage the students to use the language in a conversation with classmates. After slang and idioms are presented, understood and practiced, a variety of reinforcement activities can help make the meaning of the slang terms stick. Learning slang and idioms are typically entertaining for students and a good break from the traditional forms of teaching.

Although teaching slang and idioms in a formal classroom setting may seem inappropriate, there is no doubt that it is an important exercise. These words and phrases are everywhere in the English language and are used in all contexts. Considering many students find learning slang and idioms entertaining, it is an effective way to get the classroom eager to learn English. A well-rounded ESL course will include a thorough examination of the formal aspects of the English language, but complemented with the not-so-formal terms and phrases as well.

Works Cited

(1) Burke, David. Without Slang and Idioms, Students are in the Dark! ESL Magazine. September/October, 1998.