Teaching Slang and IdiomsSlang is defined by the Merriam Webster Learning Dictionary as: “words that are not considered part of the standard vocabulary of a language and that are used very informally in speech especially by a particular group of people.” Idiom is defines as: “an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words but that has a separate meaning of its own.”
There are many reasons why individual students choose to study english as a second language, but I think the primary one is to be able to verbally communicate with people around them in business or in the streets. Years ago my brother taught ESL in Taipei, Taiwan. He was 24. He had a bachelor’s degree in history from Hampshire College in Massachusetts in the united states
. It was his first job as a teacher
and he spoke no chinese. His students were primarily businessmen who had studied english in school for years. Why did they hire him? According to his students it was “To learn to speak like an American”. They had a vocabulary from their classroom, but what they found in their travels was that Americans did not talk or choose the words they expected. Their choices were unusual and perplexing. They found that Americans used a lot of slang and a lot of idiomatic expressions.
For many years I worked for a major U.S. multinational corporation. In my position, I frequently received unsolicited mail from small businessmen in China, Southeast Asia and Korea, seeking to introduce themselves and their companies to our company, in hopes that they could do business with us. A remarkable number of these communications chose to communicate their message in such unusual language (in my opinion at the time) that they did not inspire my confidence… and I was their prospective buyer. At the time, I simply threw these letters in the trash.
As an ESL instructor it is important that we realize that our students want to communicate and be understood. If it is our goal to help them, than we must give them an understanding of idiom and of commonly used slang. Christiane Antunes de in her article on slang in the TEFL online blog (date of post: 2006-09-08) put our obligation succinctly: “The use of slang and idioms in the classroom is very important, I believe. Not to teach students everyday slang and idioms is to ensure that they remain outsiders to the learning and understanding of the english Language.”
The following is a suggestion for a methodology for doing such teaching. It was developed and suggested by Phil Thomas, at the International TESOL congress held at Tacna Peru July 30th to August 2nd, 1996 and cited by Ricardo Carranza in his post on 2006-11-21 in the blog TEFL Online. According to Thomas:
“Each idiom should be presented within the context of a short paragraph followed by five exercises A, B, C, D and E. Exercise A deals with the definition of the idiom. Exercise B requires the student to apply
the idiom to a given situation. Exercise C involves vocabulary development. Exercise D deals with usage of the idiom by requiring the student to use it in rewriting a sentence. Exercise E is of the subjective type, it asks students to apply the idiom to their own experience. An answer key should be provided to enable students to correct their own responses to the objective exercises (A through D). The teacher will have to correct the subjective exercise (E).
Finally, a list of idioms can be given to the students together with their definitions so as the students organized in groups or pairs to prepare a presentation per week, in the meantime, the teacher can remind the students of one or two idioms per class to keep interest high and promote usage.”
This suggestion, whether one choose to follow it or not, recognizes that the problems encountered in teaching idioms and slang are that, not only must the student be able to interpret what he hears, but he should also be able to subjectively apply idioms and slang in his daily experiences. One should teach the language student, not only to understand but to use appropriate contemporary language as it is used by native speakers.