Introducing Slang to English
Sociolinguists are interested in studying how languages are used by people and their societies in various towns and regions.
These interests include English language learners’ (ELL) use of the English language and how it is affected and adjusted,
depending on the situations they are in. In a context where English is taught as a foreign language, English is only taught
and used in class and usually the formal use of the language that is being taught, i.e. Standard English. For instance, English
learners are introduced to the ready-made textbooks and audios for speaking classes, which are supposed to provide them with
great opportunities to learn how to use the language in their “real world” interactions for communication.
Yet, ELLs usually go through experiences where they nd that the language they have learned in class is different from what they
hear or use as they interact with native users of the language. Accordingly, they learn to “modify the way they speak” (Meyerhoff,
2011, p. 1) through the experiences they come across while interacting with English native speakers’ who use slang. ELLs’ down-
ward convergence by using slang helps them gain social acceptance and construct their identity. By using slang, ELLs learn to
modify their speech by using certain expressions and making changes in pronunciation and grammar.
English language teachers’ aim should not be just to help ELLs learn the academic language but also to help them master the
social language. It is essential to help especially college international students who come from different countries and cultures
to understand and master the social and academic language since they are mostly introduced to the academic language in their
countries. Jim Cummins calls these two language continua as the Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (BICS) and the Cog-
nitive Academic Language Prociency (CALP). BICS is the everyday language skills that are needed to communicate in day-to-day
interactions whereas CALP is the formal academic learning that is needed for students’ academic success, which includes listen-
ing, speaking, reading, and writing about their academic eld of study.
Since college ELLs interact in various contexts and need both the academic language and social language, as an English teacher,
I nd that introducing ELLs not only to formal language but also to other spoken informal varieties will be benecial. The main
point of showing them how to use other varieties of spoken language is to present to them examples of appropriate use of slang.
Learning to use the informal language will prevent them from misusing or overusing slang or informal varieties.
What is Slang?
Slang simply is the informal language that is used in everyday interactions. It is dened as “an ever changing set of colloquial
words and phrases that speakers use to establish or reinforce social identity or cohesiveness within a group or with a trend or
fashion in society at large” (Eble, 1996, p. 11).
Martin, Weber, and Burant (1997) claim that aggressive messages are different from slang when slang is not used with the intent
to offend people (cited in Mazer & Hunt, 2008). Using slang cannot be considered as an aggressive act even though there are
some slang words that might be considered offensive. It can only be considered offensive if someone intentionally said a slang
word to offend another.
Crystal (2003) specied fteen “varied functions” of slang. He indicated that number 13 is “the primary function of slang” which
is “to show that one belongs to a certain school, trade, or profession, artistic or intellectual set, or social class” (p. 182). In other
words, slang is used to interact or to “establish contact” (p. 182). Similarly, Mary Bucholtz (2007) indicated that slang is used to
construct identity, especially youth identity. Bucholtz investigated the California teenagers’ use of slang and found that slang is
used as an interpersonal source to attain specic interactional goals.
As indicated earlier, slang can be positive and negative. Mazer and Hunt (2008) specify that positive slang is the informal lan-
guage that “a speaker utilizes to signal identication with the listener” (p. 22). For instance, using words such as “cool,” “sweet,”
or “awesome” is regarded as positive slang. On the other hand, negative slang is the informal language that “may be perceived as
offensive by the listener” (Mazer and Hunt, 2008, p. 22). For example, using words such as “jerk,” “waste,” or “shit” are regarded
as negative slang and therefore offensive.
By Entisar Elsherif and Nadia Nsir
Ohio TESOL Journal -- Volume 7, Number 3
Examples of Slang
Since formal interaction is what is being taught in EFL classes, ELLs acquire certain expressions and language uses in slang
through interaction with native speakers of the language. They nd out that there are expressions that are used to express
particular messages that differ from what they have learned. For instance, in textbooks, ELLs acquire new ways of asking about
well-being rather than just using the expression “How are you?” In informal English, most of the people tend to ask questions like
“Sup?”, “what’s up?”, “How is it going?”, or “how’re you doing?” that are commonly used expressions in informal English depend-
ing on the context and the relationships between the speakers. ELLs modify their use of formal language to slang to belong to the
community they are interacting with.
There are other examples of expressions that might be new and unknown to ELLs and might be incomprehensible because of the
“lexical items” of “unfamiliar slang” (Eble, 1996, p. 98). The following example was chosen from Facebook (for privacy purposes
the commenters’ names will be C1 and C2 whereas the name of the person who posted this will be P).
The Facebook post was:
Beautiful day for a drive! Heading over to Penn State and I’m not leaving until I have a place to live!!
C1: Good luck! There’s a room on the Main Line available… just sayin’.
C2: If you are ever in need of dinner (or wine), give a holler! Good luck on the apartment-hunting!
P: Thanks everybody for the well wishes! And C2 – I’ll denitely hold you to that!
Facebook users usually write their posts in slang, especially when commenting on posts. The previous example shows that by
using the expression “give a holler,” C2 meant, “call me.” The word ‘holler’ basically means to cry, call out, or shout out. Also,
sometimes African-Americans use the word, “Holla” to mean the same thing; they say, “Holla at me” to mean “call me” or if
something is really “cool” or really good, they shout “HOLLLAAA”. P responded by saying “I’ll denitely hold you to that” to make
sure that person keeps her promise. So, when someone “holds someone to something,” she is making this person accountable
for what she has said. In the way that it was used it, it was a friendly expression that meant like “I’ll keep that in mind” more than
“I’m counting on you.” Another point to consider is C1’s use of “just sayin’.” ‘g’ is omitted in “saying” because it is pronounced like
that in informal English.
Another example that can be used as video illustrations of the
meanings and uses of certain expressions in slang is taken from
YouTube. Jennifer ESL (2007), an English teacher, created seven
videoed lessons to help students of English understand how to use
slang appropriately and not misuse or overuse it. She concentrated
on how slang expressions are used, what they mean, and what pro-
nunciation and grammar changes happen during speech.
1. Jennifer: You up for a movie tonight?
2. Sally: I dunno. I’m kinda tired.
3. Jennifer: We could take in an early show. Say 6 o’clock?
4. Sally: okay. (JenniferESL, 2007)
In this example, Jennifer used the expressions ‘be up for’, ‘take in’, and ‘say’. To ask Sally whether she is interested in or in the
mood for going somewhere to watch a movie, Jennifer used the ‘be up for’. In line three of the conversation Jennifer uses the
expression “take in’ to refer to going to see a movie. She also used the expression say to make a specic suggestion about time.
The same example shows how pronunciation changes in slang. In line 2 of the conversation, Sally used ‘dunno’. This is because
“don’t know” often changes to ‘dunno’. Also, Sally used the phrase ‘kinda’ instead of saying “I’m kind of tired”. In slang, ‘kind of’
often changes to ‘kinda’. Example 1 also demonstrates changes in grammar when using slang. In line 1, instead of asking “Are
you up for a movie tonight?” Jennifer dropped the auxiliary and asked “you up for a movie tonight?” Another example that shows
changes in grammar is in line 3 when Jennifer suggested a time for the movie. She said, “say 6 o’clock” in this suggestion, Jennifer
omitted either “let’s” or “shall we”.
The previous examples show how slang is used and provide explanation for how expressions are used, pronunciation is changed,
and how grammar is changed in informal language. Eble (1996) states that sentences including slang “may be incomprehensible”
since some of the words that are used might not be known (p. 98). So, how can language teachers help ELLs become aware of
slang and use it appropriately?
Why use slang in EFL the classroom?
Recent research showed that using slang in the English classroom might have positive effects on the language learners (Mazer &
Hunt, 2008). It can motivate students to learn the language because including slang will provide students with relevant authentic
sources of language use as well as it enhances students’ informal communication skills. For example, a formal dialogue in the
students’ textbook might seem like the following:
S: “Hello, Ahmad. How are you?”
A: “Hello, Simon. I am very well. Thank you. And you?”
S: “I’m very well. Thank you.”
A: “Are you going to the movie tonight?”
S: “Yes, Ahmed. I am going. Will I see you there?”
A: “Yes, Simon. I will be there around 7 o’clock.”
S: “I am delighted to hear that, Ahmed. Take care. Good bye.”
This dialogue seems to be not related to how teens interact in their everyday communication. This dialogue might be criticized as
rigid, guarded, and unusual if shown to a native teenager. To be more specic, it is not authentic. The following dialogue seems
more realistic and authentic:
S: “Hey, Ahmed, what’s up?”
A: “Hey, bro. Not much. You catching the show tonight?”
S: “Yeah, wild horses couldn’t drag me away. I’ll be there at seven.”
A: “Cool. See ya there.”
S: “See ya.”
Showing English language students the informal varieties and raising their attention to not misuse or overuse slang will be help
them. Knowing when to use formal English and informal English will help ELLs to cope easily with the new language they are learn-
ing and create their own L2 identity.
Since it is the English language teachers’ role to help ELLs learn the different language varieties they need to master to improve
their language prociency, what kind of classroom activities might help ELLs master these varieties? Here are a number of activ-
ities that provide ELLs with opportunities of understanding and practicing slang in the classroom:
How else can you say these sentences in English? In this activity, students are given a list of sentences and asked to think about
how to say them according to different situations. The aim is to show them how to interact in an academic and social situations
as well as the appropriate situation of using slang.
Games: Games have become so popular that we should use them to help our students learn the English language. Another point
that encourages us to use games to teach the English language is that most of the games include slang. The kinds of games that
are referred to here are not the educational games but the commercial games that many people play on their phones, computers,
and/or other devices. English language teachers can choose segments or parts of the games that include slang and discuss them
with their ELLs in class. A following activity might be asking students to nd slang words and expressions in any of the video games
they play and then nd their meaning as homework.
Movies, TV series and songs: Most of ELLs watch movies and listen to songs. English language teachers can benet from this by
using scripts from famous movies, TV shows and series, and songs and introduce them to ELLs to discuss and understand slang.
Teachers can stat with short segments that include few words and then move to more complex ones to help ELLs understand and
Stories: Another activity that English language teachers can use to help ELLs understand and learn slang is through stories. One of
the activities that we found really engaging and helpful is what we found on Tim’s Free English Lesson Plans website. The activity
is to provide ELLs with a story that’s in what Tim called “normal language” and ask them to change this language they already
know with slang. This not only helps them realize the difference and learn the words, but also helps them understand the various
contexts in which slang and formal language that can be used.
Ohio TESOL Journal -- Volume 7, Number 3
Slang journals: One of the most effective ways of language learning is writing journals. To help ELLs understand and differentiate
between social language and academic language, teachers can ask them to write daily or weekly journals in which ELLs discuss
various questions and experiences. These questions might begin with questions like “What is slang? What role does slang play in
any culture’s language? What role does slang play in our language as ELLs? How does slang both shape and reect any culture?
How does slang both shape and reect the English/American culture?” and other questions. Through these journals, ELLs reect
on not only the slang words they learn to use daily, but also about the role slang plays in any culture, especially the American
Slang dictionaries: In this activity, ELLs are asked to create their own dictionaries in which they collect slang words and expres-
sions they come across. They are given the right to arrange these words and expression in alphabetical order or any way they
think it would help them learn the words and expressions and remember their meanings. In these dictionaries, students create
lists of the words and expressions, their meanings, and in what context these words and expressions are used. Going through the
process of writing the words and expressions with their meanings and how to use them will reinforce ELLs’ vocabulary and how to
use them in an acceptable way.
Along with the previously discussed activities, English language teachers can use the ll-in-the-blanks and/or matching words and
expressions with their meanings and other activities to help ELLs learn slang words and expressions.
Real life conversations do not include formal spoken interactions all the time; learning to use slang will help convergence, diver-
gence, and maintenance, which constitute speech accommodation theory. Convergence is “accommodation towards the speech
of one’s interlocutors” (Meyerhoff, 2006, p. 307). In other words, how individuals are familiarized to each other’s linguistic fea-
tures during speech. In the case of ELLs, they needed to gain social approval in their new community, which makes convergence
occur. They use slang to maintain their social approval and construct their identity. Their convergence is downward convergence
since they use slang to belong to their school community.
Entisar Elsherif is an adjunct instructor of ESL at Miami University Middletown and a doctoral candidate at Indiana University of
Pennsylvania’s Composition & TESOL program.
Nadia Nsir is a faculty member at Washington State University. Her research interests include the role of social media in ELT.
Eble, C. (1996). Slang and sociability. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Crystal, D. (2003). The Cambridge encyclopedia if the English language (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Jennifer ESL, (August, 2007). American Slang – Lesson 1. Online video. Retrieved from: http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=EPIF-
Jennifer ESL, (August, 2007). American Slang – Lesson 3. Online video. Retrieved from: http://m.youtube.com/watch?fea-
Martin, M. M., Weber, K., & Burant, P. A. (1997). Students’ perceptions of a teacher’s use of slang and verbal aggressiveness
in a lecture: An experiment. cited in J. P. Mazer & S. K. Hunt (2008).
Mazer, J. P. & Hunt, S. K. (2008). “Cool” Communication in the classroom: A preliminary examination of student perceptions of
instructor use of positive slang. Qualitative Research Reports in Communication, 9(1), 20 – 28.
Meyerhoff, M. (2011). Introducing sociolinguistics (2nd ed.). London; UK: Routledge.
Photo Credit: improvement dialogue by Jurgen Appelo via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)