The Funny Thing about Slang

or I’m a drop some knowledge on why haters be all, “You totes cray.”

Colloquial language is fun. It’s different, it’s edgy, it’s a pie to the face of “stuffy” textbook stuff. It can better reflect a person’s character, mood, and attitude. I can say, “I’m going to 7-11 to buy some snacks,” or I can say, “I’m a hit the sev and NAB SOME NOMS!” The essential meaning is the same, but the second tells us so much more about the speaker and the context he’s in.

So why don’t I push colloquial language in my classes? The short version: I want students, particularly those who have not achieved a strong level of proficiency, to be understood by the widest possible audience, for their utterances to be appropriate regardless of context, and for it be natural. Let me explain.

Varieties in Language

Multiple varieties of a single language exist. Whaaat? I doubt this comes as much of a surprise, but Fred Householder (among others) made a pretty big hubbub by arguing that native speakers of a single language in the same geographic location don’t necessarily share grammars. By grammar here, I don’t only mean how tenses are used; I’m talking about essentially everything that has to do with language, from inflection to structure. Let that sink in. One area, one language, multiple varieties. Now these differences may be miniscule (e.g. word choice), but it could go much deeper than that. Since we’re talking about English here, then according to William Steward’s language model, we’re moving away from viewing English as a standardized language and instead treating it as a vernacular* (i.e. an autonomous language with native speakers that has developed over time but is not standardized…you get all that?).

This means forget thinking in terms of American vs British English; my variety of English may not be the same as someone’s who grew up less than a block away from me! This goes beyond the grinder-sub-hero-hoagie debate (which are all names for what is essentially a long sandwich), the pop-soda-coke argument, or the more specific Taylor ham-pork roll feud; these we can chalk up to regionalisms (which the Atlantic made a pretty good video about). There are definitely other factors at play here that trigger divergence in language varieties.

In addition to being geographically determined, varieties are also socially and chronologically influenced. These two categories are pretty influential. Socially determined factors include your socio-economic status, interests, profession, level of education…all that stuff. Chronological factors, well, think of this in terms of the speaker’s generation or age. When you get a bunch of people with different backgrounds, different interests, and different ages living together, then you get multiple varieties of one language. What also has to be mentioned is that a single individual doesn’t only identify with one of these factors. In the same way that a speaker identifies with multiple groups (maybe they were born in Texas but went to college in Philadelphia, or they work at the Apple store but run Windows on their PC), they may also identify with and possess multiple varieties of language. This is what Allan Bell calls diglossia.

Language teachers have to choose (so to speak) which variety to use when addressing students. As great as it would be to walk into the classroom saying, “Yo! Y’all best watch your step, ‘cause I’m about to drop some knowledge,” something about that might come across as a bit odd. The main goal of typical (not all) English language classes abroad are to teach a somewhat standardized variety of English. As the teacher, we get to step in and introduce our own local and commonly accepted varieties to add some actuality to our classes, but this has to be done with certain limitations.

If my goal as a teacher is to ensure my students can be understood when speaking English, I want to make sure they can be understood by the widest audience possible, not only folks from northern NJ who studied at UMD (go Terps!). I want them to be understood across the US and throughout the rest of the world. In a lot of (touristy) places, you can’t swing a stick without finding someone who can speak English to some extent. Despite this, it wouldn’t do much good if a speaker is throwing phrases and constructions around all willy-nilly that are foreign to everyone BUT those from my home town.

Additionally, I want to minimize potential contradictions with other teachers. I can’t be the only one to have heard, “That’s not why my other teacher said,” or “I disagree. I heard it differently somewhere else.” Yes, it’s important to learn that the verb to table has a different meaning and that schedule is pronounced differently in the US and UK, but it would be naive of mean to think that my most comfortable variety is the only one that’s right or worth teaching. If a standardized or commonly accepted variant exists, that’s what I’m going to teach and reinforce. Is it wrong to teach variety? Not at all. It’s actually rather fun! It lets my students get to know me and the language better, but I won’t reinforce it or encourage active usage because odds are, outside of the classroom, it is doubtfully going to come in handy.

Contextual Appropriateness

Let’s pretend you’re 16 years old, hanging out with your friends, not really doing much of anything. Mr. Dad comes in and says, “What’s crack-a-lackin’?” Odds are this was not cool. Odds are your next words to said parent will be: STOP EMBARRASSING ME! What’s odd is that just before that flawless display of hip and groovy parenting, your buddy Mike walked into the room and said the same thing. Remember that? Yeah, nobody batted an eye when your friend said it, so what’s the big deal?

This is something Canale and Swain would attribute to sociolinguistic competence (i.e. there are social norms that dictate how we speak). I’m fairly certain most everyone can identify with this. Have you ever put on your “professional” voice to talk to your boss or teacher? If you wouldn’t talk to a bank teller the same way you would talk to your cat, then congratulations! You are sociolinguistically competent!

Crack-a-lackin’ may be appropriate for you and your friends, but it isn’t appropriate for your papa. He doesn’t fit the context. The phrase isn’t exclusive to a language variety that only you associate with, but it may be exclusive to varieties that your dad doesn’t naturally possess or isn’t perceived as possessing. It could be something chronological (he’s too old), social (he’s a French-Canadian electrical engineer who watches Antiques Roadshow), or geographic (but doubtful since you’re living under his roof). It could also be something more apparent, like the phrase was used incorrectly or the delivery (pronunciation, inflection, timing) was wrong. Take your pick! There’s an abundance of possibilities.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why Mr. Dad’s use of crack-a-lackin’ seems out of place or what he can do to use it appropriately. This is an issue second-language (L2) learners face when presented with vernacular varieties: varieties are needed to achieve particular comprehension goals (like learning Baltimore-centric varieties to understand what they’re talking about on The Wire), but it’s difficult to fully understand how to create appropriate utterances. Since language is tightly linked to context, sterile classrooms and minute-long video clips are less-than-adequate environments for this kind of language acquisition. Instead, the nuanced feel for varieties is something which usually requires extended exposure or immersion.

If the teaching goal is maximum comprehension for your students in a set of specific contexts, then varieties are unavoidable; however, if the goal is so your students can be understood in the widest context, then social competence should be taken into account.  Sadly, this is something that can’t necessarily be taught.

As a quick aside, I understand that cultural appropriateness isn’t everything. Using certain varieties or elements from a variety in contradicting situations can serve a multitude of purposes: it can be used to raise controversy, prove a point, make a joke, or show membership in a community (there are even a number of videos featuring Barack and Michelle Obama doing just this).

Natural Expression

In support of a Whorfian view, Alexander Z. Guiora calls language a basic method of self-representation. It not only serves to communicate ideas and concepts, but it can clearly expresses our personality, mood, and attitude towards people and situations. When learning a second language, it takes time before these subtleties can be manifested. The speaker requires a certain level of competency (which may also involve cultural acclimation) before they can start to truly express themselves at a nuanced level. So what are they doing before then?

In this case, let’s classify our students as Intermediate on the CEFR scale.  They can combine words and phrases to create simple sentences and their active vocabulary has some gaps, but it’s okay.  I’d say at this level it’s still a lot of imitation. The language a speaker produces, their interlanguage, is a hodgepodge of varieties they’ve been exposed to.  Every utterance can be seen as an expression of someone else’s background: a blend of formal constructions (thank you, textbook), teenage US slang (thanks, Youtube), robotic intonation (not sure here), and a lot of swearing (thanks, Hollywood). This certainly reflects the language learning journey the speaker has taken, and it may offer glimpses into their interests, but that’s it.  If the student extracts relevant language, then this would be fine.  They would branch off of their singular interlanguage and start compiling their own varieties and diglossia.  Unfortunately, it’s not usually the case.

If we were to imagine (and tweak a bit) William Littlewood’s description of an ideal natural learner (one who is exposed to language in one particular context…immersion basically), we would see a speaker exposed only to language reflective of their surroundings. Their language would develop with them, manifesting the varieties they interact with and appropriately belong to. When someone learns under these natural circumstances, their language shows who they are or have become; however, when they are taught varieties in a sterile environment, reproduction can be inauthentic.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s part of what makes language fun; by making a few changes to the way you speak, it’s like putting on a costume, giving off an impression of an entirely different person. From a teacher’s point of view, it’s a good idea to explain the implications of less frequent phrases and constructions to students. For example, if a 42-year-old male business executive is overheard spouting out totes and amazeballs, then usage feedback would probably be appreciated.

Conclusion

Littlewood’s proposal that language learners learn a language and multiple variances thereof is more relevant than ever. It is something that cannot be avoided, especially considering the abundance of native resources easily available from anywhere in the world (textbooks, podcasts, television programs, even the growing presence of natives). However, exposure alone does not guarantee that utterances will be used properly, sound right, or even be understood, whether it’s because the delivery of the phrase is off, the context is incorrect, the speaker’s perceived variety groups is inappropriate, or the variety is too specific for the listener to know it.

Depending on teaching/learning goals, less common varieties may be absolutely irrelevant, or they may be all you need. Despite my aversion to teaching and enforcing them, they are fun! Teaching varieties provides an interesting look into natural language and may spark interest in otherwise less enthused students. It gives you the opportunity to utilize native resources, like songs, and liven up classes.  I should also point out that there is a difference between standardized and widespread varieties.  Phrases like take a stab at, kick back, and drop a line may be considered non-standard, but they are certainly widely used across the US and would warrant reinforcement in the classroom. Beyond this though, the usage of less frequent forms should be properly framed or avoided as to ensure students get the most of every class.  

* For those of you vehemently shouting, “IT’S A DIALECT,” at your computer screens, take a look over here at a former listserv discussion. M. Paul Lewis (?) does a fair job at laying out the differences in usage of vernacular and dialect.

References

  1. Bell, A. 1984. ‘Language style as audience design.’ Language in Society 13: 145–204. [137–8, 140–1, 45(n 16)]
  2. Canale, M. and M. Swain. 1980. ‘Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing.’ Applied Linguistics 1: 1–47. [52–3, 62]
  3. Guiora, A.Z. 1982. ‘Language, personality and culture: or the Whorfian hypothesis revised’ in M. Hynes and W. Rutherford (eds.): On TESOL ’81. Washington, DC: TESOL. [111]
  4. Householder, F. W. Jr. 1962 ‘Greek diglossia.’ in E.D. Woodworth (ed.): Report of the Thirteenth Annual Round Table Meeting on Linguistics and Language Studies. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press. [109-132]
  5. Littlewood, W.T. 1981. ‘Language variation and second language acquisition theory.’ Applied Linguistics 2: 150–68.
  6. Spolksy, B. 1989. ‘Conditions for Second Language Learning. Introduction to a general theory.’ Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  7. Stewart, W. 1968. ‘A sociolinguistic typology for describing national multilingualism’ in J.A. Fishman (ed.): Readings in the Sociology of Language. The Hague: Mouton.

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