Every year, international students come to the United States thinking they have properly mastered the English language, only to discover upon arrival that they cannot follow any native speakers’ conversations. Trust me – coming from China to the United States for college – I have experienced it first hand! If you have had trouble with common slang expressions like, “Whazzup?” or “How’s it going?”, taking the following steps could really help you to understand what the local people are saying.
Interact with American and other native English speakers.
As you settle into your new life in the U.S., hopefully you will begin to form new friendships. Although it may be easier to only make friends with people from your own country, it’s not the best way to assimilate yourself in a new environment. If possible, I recommend finding American roommates. Hopefully, they will be interested in your culture, and they can also share their traditions (including slang) with you, teach you what to say in confusing situations, and let you know when it may be inappropriate to say certain things. Simply conversing with them could teach you a lot about the local slang – after all, experience is the best teacher!
Do your research.
I have found that Google can be the most convenient tool for learning slang. For example, if you are curious, you can Google the term “college slang” to find a list of some of the words and phrases commonly used on American campuses. Or you can Google the specific term that you are wondering about. (While we’re on the topic, “Google” has come to take on a slang-like meaning in reference to doing internet research!) Another helpful (and often humorous) site for understanding slang terms is Urban Dictionary.
Listen closely to everyday speech.
Although people who like to research language—and have ready access to the internet—may be interested in reading more about slang, idioms and colloquialisms, it is not always necessary. Truthfully, the most effective way to learn about it is to listen for it in everyday speech. When you hear something unfamiliar, ask someone to explain it to you. More often than not, I have found that people are happy to help you understand. If you are not able to ask right away, make a note of it. To the best of your ability, memorize the word or phrase as well as the context in which it was used; write it down if possible. Later, ask a friend, teacher or English tutor what it means.
Keep a vocabulary log.
In my opinion, it is absolutely necessary to bring a notebook with you everywhere so that you can write down any new slang terms that you come across. This goes along with the previous step in that you should also write down the meaning and context of each term, asking people for help when you need it. I also recommend making a study schedule in order to keep track of your slang notebook, going over each term again and again.
Remember, you don’t have to use it.
Not everyone uses slang, idioms or colloquialisms. As language specialist Mark Algren points out, it depends who you hang out with. Although it is useful to understand the meaning of words and phrases that are frequently used, you do not always have to use slang when you are speaking. Like in any language, it would sound unnatural if you forced yourself to use every slang expression you came across. So find a way of speaking English that feels natural and comfortable to you. The most important thing is to convey your meaning clearly, not to sound cool or hip while doing it.
About the Blogger: Dorothy Feng is a language and marketing summer intern at Brainscape in charge of our marketing research and strategies and the content for our Chinese vocabulary application. Dorothy is from Mainland China and is currently studying Marketing Management at St. John’s University. She loves traveling, photography, art and cultures. Dorothy speaks fluent Mandarin and English and she is also interested in learning Japanese, French and other languages. Her favorite quote is, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Dorothy believes every day is a starting point for a better life by learning progressively. Live, not exist.