TEFL Deerfield New Hampshire

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Teaching slang and idioms as a part of language learning is a controversial practice. Opposition stems from a misunderstanding of the word “slang,” which has been falsely interpreted to exclusively including vulgar and obscene language. Some opponents claim that teaching slang contributes to “the decay of the purity of the english language” (Burke, 1998). Yes, slang is informal and therefore inappropriate to use in written academic assignments, business emails, and other formal situations. However, upon closer examination of what language the term “slang” truly represents and its pervasiveness in the english language, more and more teachers are advocating the incorporation of slang and idioms in teaching english as a second/foreign language. A nonnative speaker of english simply cannot understand authentic english movies, TV shows, song lyrics, advertisements, or even casual conversation without comprehending slang (Merritt, 2010). What exactly do the terms “slang” and “idiom” mean? According to David Burke, slang is “nonstandard vocabulary of a given culture or subculture.” He goes on to explain that slang is typically a word, not a phrase, which may have an alternative, literal meaning or be made up. Burke defines an idiom as “a phrase that is commonly understood in a given culture or subculture to have a meaning different from its literal meaning” (1998). While vulgar and obscene language can fall into these definitions, so can casual, non-offensive expressions like, “I'm wiped out” and “He stood her up”. Elisa Mattiello defines slang as “vocabulary which people use in familiar relaxed conversations, in such contexts as home, pub, sport, music, or general free time, in which educated formal registers would be situationally inappropriate and unconventional language is instead privileged” (2005). This definition leads into how the educated formal register of english typically used in textbooks is inappropriate in certain situations. For instance, look at this conversation script from an english textbook. “Hello, Mary. How are you?” “Hello, Frank. I am fine. Are you going to the concert tonight?” “Yes, Mary. I am going. Will I see you there?” “Yes, Frank. I will be attending around 7 p.m.” “I am delighted to hear that, Mary. Take care. Good bye.” The language used in this exchange is unnaturally formal. The conversation feels sterile and stagnant (Lieb, 2009). The speakers seem distant. If students are only taught this proper, sober version of english, they will be handicapped when they interact with native english speakers. They will have trouble fitting in, coming across as boring, stuffy, and overly polite, and will struggle to understand real informal conversations, which are peppered with slang and idioms. The exchange above would realistically look more like, “Hey Mary, what's up? You goin' to the show tonight?” “Yeah, I was gonna go around 7.” “Sweet! See ya there!” “Cool!” As you can see “mastering a language is not only its vocabulary and grammar, but also the social and cultural world of its speakers” (Mattiello, 2005). As Anne Merritt explains, slang's relevance depends on the language student's goals (2010). If a student plans to use english for school or work, they will need to communicate formally and properly in essays, formals emails, and business situations. They will still come across universally used slang and idioms like “tackle a problem” or “pitch an idea”. However, if a student wants to use english to socialize, they will encounter much more slang (Mattiello, 2005). With the increased number of communication portals, learners may find themselves bombarded not only spoken but also written slang. Common abbreviations like FYI, TTYL, and IDK are frequently used in text messages, on social media websites like Facebook and Twitter, and in informal emails between friends. Slang allows students to socialize more naturally and build intimacy with their peers. It enables students to communicate appropriately in informal situations. Slang and idioms make language more colorful, expressive, humorous, creative, and interesting (Mattiello, 2005). As Jon Lieb summarizes, “It breathes life into english” (2009). For these reasons, Burke considers it a teachers' responsibility to familiarize the non-native speaker with nonstandard english (1998). However, teachers should not forget to teach clear pragmatic instruction of the correct pragmatic usage (Lieb, 2009).

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