Should slang be taught to learners of foreign languages?
Thursday, 11th March 2010
Most foreign language courses focus on teaching you grammatically correct and fairly formal language. Some do cover some aspects of more informal and colloquial language, however few venture into the wonderful world of slang and very informal language.
When you encounter native speakers, you will probably find that they don’t speak like your textbook, except in very formal situations. This is why it’s very useful to learn slang and informal language, especially if you want to sound like a native speaker rather than a foreigner.
There is a lot of variation within languages and you don’t speak in the same way to everyone in all situations. If you only speak textbook language, you might sound too formal in some situations, and not formal enough in others. An important part of learning a language is learning the different styles or registers of a language and when to use them.
The main challenge with learning slang is that it constantly changes – words go in and out of fashion and acquire new or different meanings, and new words are being invented all the time. There are some words which last longer and become part of the mainstream of the language, and these are perhaps the most useful to learn.
Another problem with slang is that some teachers seem reluctant to teach it to foreign learners of their language. The idea that foreigners should speak the language correctly and not dabble with slang and very informal registers seems to be quite widespread. This is one reason why people from Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and German countries are thought to speak English better than the natives. This perception exists because such people may have a better command of the formal register of English than some native speakers, although they may not be as familiar with more informal styles of English.
There are a number of books which can teach you slang and informal colloquial language. They often have ‘street’ or ‘urban’ in the title. Some of the words they include might be out-of-date, but they are useful. They don’t always tell you when it’s appropriate to use slang, and more importantly, when not to use it. These are things you can learn through extensive listening to the language in a variety of contexts, and from native speakers.
To learn a language really well you need to learn the different registers and when to use them, as well as the sounds you make when you can’t think of what to say, um, er, well. etc., sounds to indicate appreciation, mmm, yum yum, etc. and so on. They aren’t slang, but are just as important if you want to sound like a native speaker.