Slang! It makes language professors crazy and helps the rest of us express ourselves more colorfully. What makes a word slang, exactly? According to the dictionary, slang is “a type of language that consists of words and phrases that are regarded as very informal, are more common in speech than writing, and are typically restricted to a particular context or group of people.” It may seem odd, but you should definitely learn slang when learning a new language.
One of the coolest things (and most annoying for language learners) about slang is that it is ever changing. The meanings of slang words evolve over time to reflect the values and attitudes of the culture, and sometime slang gives standard words new meaning. Take the word hot, if you will. It is traditionally used to express a feeling of extreme warmth. But it has also taken on a slang meaning, where it means attractive. So, the if someone says “I’m hot” they could be saying one of two things, and context will be the key to knowing what they are trying to say. Read on to find out why it is so important to learn slang.
7 Reasons You Should Learn Slang
1. Better understand a culture
You can learn a lot about a culture if you learn slang and idioms. Take American slang, for example. We have some odd ways of saying that we succeeded at something. You may hear, I murdered that exam or I kicked its ass, both of which really just mean I passed it, or I did really well. Now, imagine that you were a new English speaker hearing those expressions. If you didn’t understand our idioms, you may start to think you are hanging out with a very violent person who likes to kill and beat up pieces of paper. You would likely be very confused.
The same is true of any new language you are learning, whether it be German, French, Mandarin, or Spanish.
It is also important to know that idioms don’t usually directly translate from one language to another. In English, we use the phrase bored to death to say we are really bored, but in Spanish, they say aburrido como una ostra (bored like an oyster) to express the same sentiment.
2. Prevent misunderstandings
If you learn slang expressions of a language, you will be better able to understand what people are saying. In the example above, you may be confused to hear someone say they murdered a test. If you only understood the word murder in its literal sense, you wouldn’t know if that was a good or bad thing.
In French, they say gueule de bois to say hangover, but it literally translates as a wooden mouth. What’s more is that the word gueule is slang for mouth or face, but it literally means an animal mouth. You can see how confused you might get if you don’t understand the slang.
3. Understand popular music and literature
Slang is everywhere in popular music and writings. In fact, it would be hard to understand a lot of American music if you didn’t know the slang. Sometimes, slang from certain subcultures is introduced into the mainstream through music. Check out this American rap song about slang that gives the meanings along with the words. I hadn’t even heard of some of these slang words he mentions, and I live in the US! Sometimes we have to learn slang of our own language because it changes so often!
4. Be more creative
Often times, slang is called “colorful language”, at least in the United States. Using slang really does help color your language and make it more interesting and creative. If you are learning to speak French, you will find that there are many ‘borrowed’ words from other languages. For example, kiffer means to like and is an Arabic word that has been adopted by French speakers. Using it in your sentences can make them sound more creative than just saying aimer over and over.
5. Fit in somewhere new
When you know slang, you are better able to fit in when you visit another country. Of course it is important to study the slang for the specific dialect used in the area. Of the languages that I have learned, Spanish is the one where dialect in the most important. This is because it is so widely spoken across South America, and each country has its own culture and history that helped form the slang. Take a look at some of these funny slang expressions from Venezuela. I am not sure that they would work in Costa Rica.
6. Increase your fluency
There is a lot that you won’t understand if you don’t know slang. Think about your own daily conversations for a moment, if you will. How often do you use slang? Do you say things like what’s up or even s’up? Then you have used slang in the very first greetings of the day.
There are some really interesting German idioms that wouldn’t make any sense to you if you didn’t know what they meant. Would you know what Das Ei des Kolumbus, (the egg of Columbus) means? Probably not, and it isn’t easy to guess unless you have some more context. It means an easy solution to something that seems difficult. Yeah, I wouldn’t have understood that! This is the most important reason to learn slang.
7. Avoid causing offense
Think about the slang in your native language for a moment. Are there some words that are taboo or off limits in your culture? Are there words that mean something very negative, but only when used in a certain context? I bet that there are, and you can be sure that if these words exist in your first language, they also exist in your new language. This is why it is actually a good thing to learn the swear words and derogatory expressions used in your new language. That way you will be able to make sure you don’t use them when you shouldn’t!