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Jeffrey C. Trippe ITTT Online Course (120 hrs.) 02 February, 2020 Why Slang and Idioms Should Be Included in ESL Course Curricula My first job after earning my master’s degree in English was as a reading teacher in a medium-security prison in Trenton, Florida. As one might expect, I was a bit apprehensive; it was my first full-time assignment, and I would be entering a unique environment about which I knew nothing and in which I had never even imagined myself. Ironically, on my very first day at work, a tall, kind-faced inmate taught me an important lesson. He asked me, “So, will you be strokin’ the pen a lot in here?” Naturally, I was confused. “Strokin’ the pen?” I asked. He laughed. “Yeah, you know. ‘Strokin’ the pen’ means writing a lot of disciplinary referrals. It’s prison slang.” “Oh,” I said. “Absolutely not. I plan on strokin’ the pen as little as possible.” “Cool,” the inmate said. “And if you ever need somebody to translate prison talk for you again, just let me know.” Since that day, I have taught in many different sorts of classrooms, in private prep schools, public middle and high schools, and in universities, and I have learned that regardless of family incomes, ethnic groupings, and age, slang is a part of everyday communication anywhere the teacher may land. Now, to be clear, I require that my students use formal English in class discussions and in all of their writing, but if I wish to know who they really are, I must also listen to them talk to one another outside of class and try to understand them. Teaching conversational English, I believe, means having some familiarity with current slang. Since much new slang is created by young people and is ever-changing, I would certainly not make it part of my own daily casual conversation (in fact, I would sound foolish, no doubt; I had my turn with youth slang many years ago now), but I do think I should be equipped to help ESL students adapt to a wide range of speaking and listening situations as best they can. The journalist Robert MacNeil, in his wonderful 2005 documentary called Do You Speak American?, points out that linguists fall into two categories when it comes to slang: the prescriptivists, who believe that formal English should always prevail and that much slang is an abomination, and the descriptivists, who embrace slang and believe it to be the lifeblood of the English language’s durability and vitality. I count myself a descriptivist. Similarly, new speakers must become familiar with idiomatic expressions. It is essential in conversation to know at least some of the thousands of idioms in English. Additionally, the inquisitive student can also learn something of the rich history of the language by considering idiomatic origins. For example, the writer and research expert Bill Bryson tells us that the word “neck” once referred to a parcel of land; hence, today we have the expression “neck of the woods.” Think of the fun that a group of intermediate or advanced students might have in class as they contemplate expressions such as “barking up the wrong tree,” “letting the cat out of the bag,” or “beating a dead horse.” Indeed, I would venture to say that beginning to understand and use idioms fluently may mark the stage at which the student truly begins to feel comfortable and confident as a speaker of English. Of course, formal English - its structure, its grammar (confusing as it may be at times), and its usage - is the foundation of such an enduring language. Nevertheless, we would be remiss to overlook the fact that the richness, the wit, the tolerance, and the utility of English shine upon us through its slang and its idioms. After all, it seems we have never felt much shame over absorbing (some might say stealing) words and expressions from other languages in order to fill some gap in our native vocabulary (which is rather small, really - not very many Anglo-Saxon words are still in common use). So...why should we not count slang and idioms as important considerations in speaking and listening? As for me, I still do not do much in the way of “stroking the pen.” In fact, I would be surprised if that expression is still in use in correctional facilities today, given the ever-shifting tides of English slang. In any case, I much prefer to know where my students are really coming from, so to speak. Works Cited Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way. New York City: William Monroe and Co., Inc., 1990. MacNeil, Robert, et al. Do You Speak American? Princeton: Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 2005.