Teaching Slang and IdiomsSlangs and idioms, or figurative languge, can be confusing: it’s raining cats and dogs; this is ticking me off, and it can easily cause frustration with students. That doesn’t mean, however, that slang and idioms have no place. To ensure that the slang and idioms are understood and used by the students, teachers must consider the type of course being taught and the reason behind teaching specific phrases.
If students were only ever interested in or required to use written english, one might be able to argue that there is no place for teaching slang or other casual figurative language in the classroom. However, if a student wants to read and write more than user manuals, they will come across figurative language, and they will need to know how to use it. Slang and idioms will crop up in class whether it’s consciously done or not. Barbara Palmer, et. al. wrote about a study done in 1989 that stated that “ teachers use idiomatic expressions in roughly 1 out of every 10 words when addressing the class” (258). Clearly teachers are using slang and idioms in the classroom, perhaps without even realizing it, and it would be helpful students to know basic figurative language expressions for their understanding of the day-to-day class lessons.
There is a difference between slang and idioms. Idioms are phrases that are culturally based, and they can often be broken down into both the literal and the metaphorical translation. To break down the idiom into its literal translation and then explain to the students how the literal translation connects to the metaphorical translation can illuminate the phrase’s meaning. An example that Palmer, et. al. was with the phrase “ Alejandro went out on a limb to help his friend” and the student named Alejandro. “What might happen if Alejandro were actually on a tree limb…How might Alejandro apply
knowledge of this danger to the phrase out on a limb and find its intended meaning?” (261). Breaking down the meaning of the phrase allows it to make sense to the student. Without knowing how the phrase could be used figuratively, a student wouldn’t know how the phrase applied
to him/her, and it would be less likely to be used.
This is a fairly straightforward example, and it can be more complicated when the idiom is a culturally specific one, like the example used by Frank Boers: “Baseball, for instance, is evidently more popular in the united states
than in Europe, and consequently American english is likely to produce more baseball-based figurative expressions” (234). The teacher would need to assess in what context the students would be using english – is it in the boardroom? Is it in casual conversation while traveling? From that assessment, a teacher should choose the idioms that would apply and be useful to those specific scenarios. If it doesn’t seem to play a role in the student’s life, he/she is less likely to be motivated to understand the phrase.
While idioms may connect to a literal meaning or a cultural meaning, slang can be more difficult to break down. It’s everyday language that students would likely come across in more casual settings, or even in business settings, and not knowing what the words and phrases mean could leave the students at a distinct disadvantage. While it may not be possible to break down slang, it can and should be taught in a similar manner as idioms: see what words or phrases would be helpful to that class of students and teach to what they would use. It could also be an option to have students write down or say words they’ve heard and go through and give definitions, though this may end up with a fair amount of swear words. Not that swear words are inherently bad, it would be something to consider based upon the makeup of the class.
Learning slang and idioms can help students feel more confident in their ability to understand and be understood in english, particularly in “authentic” situations as compared to inside the classroom. As long as the context for the use of the words is considered and the lessons are done with patience and care, teaching slang and idioms has a place in the ESL/EFL classroom.
Boers, Frank. “Applied Linguistics Perspectives on Cross-Cultural Variation in Conceptual Metaphor.” Metaphor and Symbol. 18.4 (2003): 231-8.
Palmer, Barbara C., Vikki S. Shackelford, Sharmane C. Miller, and Judith T. Leclere. “Bridging Two Worlds: Reading comprehension, figurative language instruction, and the english-language learner.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. 50.4 (2007) 258-67.