Slang. Many English students worry about it. Some teachers spend a lot of time trying to teach it. And publishers keep printing books about it. But why? Is slang that important? Is it worth the worry, time, and money?
What is slang?
We often divide a language into three categories: standard, colloquial, and slang. And we usually describe them like this:
Standard language is used in formal and informal situations and in both speech and writing. It’s the permanent core of a language, the most important part.
Colloquial language is used in informal situations, in speech more often than in writing. Some colloquial language evolves into standard language as more and more people use it and it becomes acceptable. Colloquial language often appears in the dictionary, but it is marked as colloquial or informal.
Slang is a temporary, specialized form of language. You can occasionally find it in a dictionary where it is marked as slang. Slang is often considered a fad – something that is very popular for a short time and then disappears.
We could compare the three types of language by putting them on a line that looks like this:
Most formal <———————-> Least formal
Standard Colloquial Slang
Native speakers use all three automatically, but mostly they use standard and colloquial language.
Slang is often regional, that is, it is used only in a particular part of a country. Dr. Jeff McQuillan recently wrote about this on the ESL Podcast blog in a post called SoCal Slang is Coo. In addition to being regional, slang is most often used by a particular subculture – a unique group of people within a larger culture. For example, video gamers, skaters (skateboarders), and surfers have their own slang terms.
Who needs slang, and what should you do about it?
In general, slang is much less important to an English learner than most believe. And it’s easy to get along without knowing slang. If you’re around people who use a particular kind of slang for a while, you can usually pick it up quickly and easily. A few years ago I worked with a group of American teenagers, most of whom were skaters, surfers, or gamers. I didn’t know their slang, but that wasn’t important. Our communication was based on our shared knowledge of standard and colloquial English. I naturally picked up a lot of their slang during our conversations, and when I had questions, they were delighted to tell me about it!
If I were an English learner, I wouldn’t spend a lot of time trying to learn slang. I would focus on acquiring a good foundation of standard and colloquial English. And the best way to do that is to do as much reading and listening as possible, especially of popular fiction. Popular fiction will usually include all three kinds of language, so in addition to picking standard and colloquial English, you’ll probably also pick up some of the more common slang terms. This is especially true if you choose popular fiction that’s about young people or include characters that are young people.
For more about using popular fiction to improve your English, I encourage you to take time to read these articles:
- The power of reading and listening
- Using popular fiction to improve your English
- If I wanted to speak better English
Sometimes fiction written for young people – we call it young adult fiction – contains a little more slang. Finding books for intermediate readers will tell you more about this kind of fiction.