Should you teach slang in your language classes?

Teenagers using their smartphones

One of the biggest challenges for language educators (and students) is that all languages are alive – there’s nothing constant about them. They develop, grow and change over time, acquiring new words and sometimes, new meanings.

Part of this reflects the fact that a language never exists in isolation. It’s spoken and used by real people in their everyday lives. As such languages are heavily influenced by, and adapt to, the culture, values and society in which they are used. So it’s vital that language learners are always learning how languages are spoken now rather than how they were 50 years ago.

As we argue below, ensuring that students’ understand the use of slang in their target language is an essential part of language learning. This blog post looks at why teaching slang is so important and provides some ideas and inspiration on how to teach it in your classroom.


Why is it important to teach slang phrases?

The vast majority of language learners have a clear motivation behind their studies. Whether that’s a new business opportunity or job, the academic challenge, love or simply because it’s enjoyable, everyone has a single, simple aim. They want to be able to communicate with native speakers with ease and confidence.

So it surely follows that learning how native speakers actually communicate everyday should be a priority for your students? If you need convincing then here’s six additional reasons why teaching slang should be a key part of your pedagogical approach.

1. Build fluency and confidence

It’s bad enough not knowing the right word for every occasion, but it can be rude and embarrassing if students don’t understand the nuance or context that slang terms often carry. The English slang team “bloody” is a frequently shared example – not only does it mean “Of, characteristic of, or containing blood,” but it is frequently used to express anger, frustration and extreme irritation.

The same is, of course, also true with idioms. The classic English idiom “raining cats and dogs” would mean nothing to a non-English speaker if literally translated into their own language. 

Your students need to understand and memorise how such phrases are commonly used in everyday life. Otherwise they’ll find it difficult to understand and be understood.

2. Speak like a native

Non-native Portuguese speakers won’t sound natural by just using the language they’ve learned in their classroom. Adding in some well-chosen slang words helps to stand them apart and immediately builds rapport with their conversation partner.

The opposite is also true. Some terms / words seem harmless but in context can be seen as being offensive. In Mexican Spanish, “estupido” for example, carries a much stronger meaning than the English adjective “stupid.” Using it incorrectly might cause a problem that you’re not prepared for.

3. Belonging

A key benefit of building native speaker fluency is that it opens doors to community and to closer bonds that would otherwise have remained closed. If you’re looking to stay in an area for a while, learning the local slang phrases can be vital to really integrating yourself into the community.

They help you to fit in and to bond with people you meet. Perhaps most importantly, they also enable you to feel and be seen as a part of the group – whether that’s in a small, local village or as part of a fanbase of a big city sports team.

4. Cultural understanding

If you listen to a podcast, watch a TV show or read a book in your target language, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll encounter slang. Language reflects culture and vice versa, so it’s unlikely that everything will be in the King’s English!

Learning a language through slang will therefore also improve your students’ overall cultural experience. If they have little knowledge of common slang words, they’ll miss out on some key cultural experiences. Attempting to understand the films of Pedro Almodóvar without understanding words and phrases of Spanish slang would be almost impossible.

5. Inspiring creativity

For many artists, the use of slang can open new creative avenues to explore. The rise of grime and drill music, in the UK and globally, is one obvious example for this. Similarly, using slang in the classroom can help inspire students on their language learning journeys.

Moving beyond the textbook and the traditional to focus on real language can add new dimensions to language learners. Encourage your students to be inquisitive and to manipulate words and grammatical structures in their search for understanding.

6. Motivation

Not only can the use of slang words inspire creativity, but they can also be a powerful way to engage your students in lessons and to motivate them in their studies. Giving them the tools and the opportunity to practise using the everyday language of their native speaking peers makes everything seem real. They can begin to picture themselves drinking coffee in Milan and chatting with a friend. They’re reminded of their ambition and recommit to achieving it.


How to teach slang?

There’s a wealth of lesson ideas for teaching slang during a language class. These provide inspiration for using slang in a wide variety of target languages, but the following four ideas seem to be quite universal.

1. Matching pairs

Students are presented with two lists. One contains slang words / phrases in L2 and the other contains a definition or equivalent in the students’ L1.

Working individually or as a group, students simply match the slang word with the definition. Once all definitions and words have been matched, go over the terms with the whole class.

As an extension activity, get your students to write or say a sentence using the slang term they’ve successfully matched.

2. Rewrites

Provide students with a series of sentences in either their L2. These should be a combination of slang and textbook language. Students are then asked to rewrite the formal phrases as slang and vice versa. Again students could work individually or in groups to complete the task. 

Depending on your students’ skill level, some pre-teaching or contextual clues may be required to give them some exposure to key slang words / phrases. Otherwise this activity may well draw a blank.

3. Roleplay dialogue

Having emphasised the importance of slang in building conversational fluency, role-play activities are great for students to practise using key words and phrases. 

This could work in a number of ways. Give students a setting (e.g a cinema or a cafe) and a scenario (e.g a date or two old friends catching up) and encourage them to generate a real dialogue around them. Alternatively, you might consider giving them some set words or phrases that they then have to create a conversation around.

This activity can also have a written element too. Ask students to write down their scripts, which you can then review and feedback on.

4. Listening

This exercise is super simple and easy to run either at school or at home. Just play a song or watch an episode of a TV show in the students L2. The students just need to listen and to capture slang words and phrases that they hear. They write them down and then offer an explanation of their meaning. 


Whatever language you teach and whatever approach you use to teach it, Sanako’s market-leading tools include a wealth of unique features that help language educators teach languages more efficiently and more successfully. It’s why the world’s leading educational institutions choose Sanako as their preferred supplier to support online and in-person lesson delivery.


If you are interested in learning more about how Sanako products support language teachers and students and would like to see how they could benefit your institution, book a FREE remote demo now to see them in action.

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