LOS ANGELES — Many people who learn English as a second language think they have a good grasp of it until they watch an American TV show or speak to someone from the United States and realize there's a lot they don’t understand. Some are actually coming to the U.S. to learn American slang, since it's rarely taught in textbooks back home.
Most people come to Venice Beach seeking sun and entertainment, but for Hussain al Shahri of Saudi Arabia and his classmates, the beach is a classroom.
Their teachers are strangers they meet by the beach.
Al Shahri is taking a class on American “street talk” and slang. Field trips, combined with classroom discussion, make up most of his learning experience in a class at the University of California Los Angeles.
“If you want to know this culture, you have to communicate with people and socialize. So slang language is the only way to communicate and socialize with people," said Al Shahri.
Knowing the culture also means learning from American media, said “Street Talk” instructor Ryan Finnegan.
“American movies are global, and [so is] American music. So they hear these words, and they hear them used a lot, and they see maybe people laughing at those words, and they want to understand what’s funny about that,” explained Finnegan.
Finnegan pointed out the slang in TV shows as examples for his students. Student Zhang Jiu Hua said the English she learned in China was very different.
“It makes my English style more academic and formal and a little bit stiff. I don’t want to be that way,” said Zhang.
Zhang said that through the use of American slang and idioms, she can speak more casually and use humor in her speech. Through slang, she is also learning about differences between Chinese and American culture.
“There is a slang I love: 'drop dead gorgeous.' In my culture, I still remember when I was a child my parents told me 'don’t use dead. It’s very rude and unlucky.' And when I say that word 'drop dead gorgeous,' I’m curious. Can I use that? Actually, I love that word,” said Zhang.
Finnegan notes that while it provides benefit to students, teaching slang presents a specific set of challenges that more conventional language instruction does not face.
“Slang is extremely regional and extremely dynamic. So the slang from even one year ago is different from the slang of right now,” said Finnegan.
Judy Tanka, who develops curriculum at UCLA Extension's American Language Center, said that instructional materials will need to improve as demand for slang and idiom classes grows.
“A lot of materials get outdated very quickly and it’s very expensive to republish books frequently with updates, and this is why online materials will be very popular," said Tanka.
With a working knowledge of American slang, Zhang will return to China and use what she's learned to advance her career. Hussain al Shahri said he will be better able to immerse himself in American life as he pursues an education in the United States.