[lg policy] Mastering the Finer Points of American Slang
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Tue Jun 5 20:30:15 UTC 2012
Mastering the Finer Points of American Slang
By ALINA DIZIK<http://online.wsj.com/search/term.html?KEYWORDS=ALINA+DIZIK&bylinesearch=true>
[image: [SLANG]] Jessica Scranton for The Wall Street Journal
Entrepreneur Gaurav Dhy, in Wellesley, Mass., has found informal small talk
to be an important part of doing business in the U.S.
Gaurav Dhy studied English when growing up in India, but soon after moving
to Boston five years ago, he realized he had a lot to learn about the way
Americans talk. Some phrases that left him wondering included "I'm all set"
and "I'm peachy."
Most meetings "start with chitchat," says the 39-year-old co-founder of
LearnFunGo, a discount software-learning website, who moved to Boston five
years ago. "And you're like 'Hmm, I don't get it.' You're left out."
While learning American idioms has always been challenging, texting, email
and social networks have generated a tidal wave of new slang and
abbreviations in English. It is difficult enough to decode "OMG" (Oh my
God) "BFF" (best friends forever) and "GTG" (got to go), let alone
understand why it's funny to call something a "fail" (but not a "failure").
"Nowadays, peppering our speech with nonstandard English is being a regular
Joe," says Jason Riggle, assistant professor of sociology at the University
Getting comfortable with slang is essential for building relationships and
communicating at work. For a manager, relying on formal English can create
distance. "Without [knowing] idioms, they look at you and say, 'Oh my God,
who is this woman?' " says Vladimira Gueren, 51, a former chief financial
officer in Palm Coast, Fla., who moved from the Czech Republic almost four
Textbooks aren't much use for managers trying to keep up with viral
expressions emerging in music and videos, says Amy Gillett, author of
English slang and idiom vocabulary books including "Speak Business English
Like an American." Many professionals don't realize they need help until
they arrive here, says Ms. Gillett, who also is a director of executive
education at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Another hurdle: choosing which words and phrases are appropriate for the
speaker and the situation. In her books, Ms. Gillett presents terms like
"slack off" and "stressed out." But she says she doesn't want to teach
idioms that are too cutting-edge, such as using "sick" to mean "cool" or
"epic" to mean "awesome."
Over the past 10 years, instructors at Berlitz Language Schools have been
asked to put more emphasis on the context in which particular terms are
used, says Shawn Scott, North America's director of instruction at Berlitz
International, which runs schools around the world. "With slang and idioms,
[learners] can read it but don't understand the meaning," says Mr. Scott.
At Kennesaw State University in Georgia, the Intensive English Program
doesn't teach a slang expression until it is in use for more than one
generation, says David Johnson, a professor of English and director of the
program. "We teach things like 'home run', which has staying power," he
At times, the slang terms promulgated in classrooms can be outdated. A
recent Berlitz English as a Second Language class in Chicago taught
students the meanings of "skedaddle," which dates back to the Civil War,
and "Valley girl," from the 1980s.
One way to learn the latest in conversational English: Rana Al Ruhaily, 29,
a doctor who moved to Chicago from Saudi Arabia last year, says she and her
husband consider the show "Family Guy" to be required TV viewing, to help
them fill in gaps.
John Hayden started English, Baby!, a website based in Portland, Ore., to
help nonnative speakers keep up with slang. The 10-person staff scours
celebrity interviews to add to its list of commonly spoken phrases. Posts
about "never say never" (from a Justin Bieber song) and "slack off" have
been some of the most popular, Mr. Hayden says.
One trouble spot he sees: "families" of slang words used in many different
ways. "You can have a crush that you're crushing on, but you can't crush
your crush," Mr. Hayden says. "See how that could get confusing?"
Even people who live overseas are eager to pick up American idioms. Jessica
Beinecke reaches an audience of 8.5 million Chinese each week as host of
OMG! Meiyu, a Voice of America Web show that Ms. Beinecke, 25, hosts in
Mandarin. Recent expressions include "eye gunk" and "wandering eyes." But
students often find it hard to understand which phrases are
age-appropriate, she says. "I'm worried that [I'm] creating this audience
in China who is going to speak like a 25-year-old blonde woman," says Ms.
Jennifer Powell-Lunder, a clinical psychologist and author of "Teenage as
Second Language: A Parent's Guide to Becoming Bilingual," says midcareer
professionals must be especially vigilant about recognizing when they sound
like teen wannabes. "Adults will start speaking this kind of language
without really grasping the source," she says. For example, she says,
adults who use the word "phat" will be heard as saying "overweight," rather
Jie Teng, a 28-year-old business-school student from Hunan Province, China,
is reluctant to use slang, because it's so easy to mess up. She has sworn
off "hook up," which she recently used to mean "preoccupied," not realizing
that it has other meanings. "I used it the wrong way and it was kind of
embarrassing," she says.
Five Terms to Love and Five to Use With Caution—Literally, Dude
Here is some of the slang terms that students of English most want to learn
and some of the words that are the most difficult—or risky—to use.
*The Most Popular Slang *
*Dude*—This term—as in "Hey, dude!" and "Dude, what's up?"—has had an
unusually long shelf life for slang. "Nonnative speakers are sometimes
curious if there is a female version of 'dude,'" says Amy Gillett, author
of "Speak Business English Like an American." "But these versions—'dudette'
and "dudess'—never caught on."
*Chilling*—Hanging out, doing nothing. "Nonnative speakers who strive to
sound cool will learn quickly to drop the "g" on the end," says Ms.
*Psyched*—"It's easy to use—you can basically drop it in anywhere you would
normally use 'excited,' says John Hayden, cofounder of a website called
*Man up*—To "be strong, do what is expected of you." "This one is popular
because it's current—you hear celebrities use it often," says Mr. Hayden.
*Big deal*—To native speakers, this phrase may not even sound like slang,
but Mr. Hayden calls it "gateway slang": "You can learn it and use it
easily without much risk of misuse."
*The Trickiest Slang*
*What's Up?/Wassup?*—In its shortest form ('sup?), it can be hard to
understand. It's also hard to answer, says Ms. Gillett. Students "need to
learn the acceptable replies—not much, nothing much—instead of replying,
'Fine,' 'Good' or 'OK.'"
*Shut up!*—This phrase can be rude. But "with a smile and rising
intonation, it could mean 'I don't believe you' or 'Really? Tell me more,'
" says Ms. Gillett. Or if you stress the 'shut' and stretch it out, it
could mean, 'No way!' or 'That's hard to believe!'"
*Freak out, freak*—You can freak, freak someone out or have a freak-out,
but you can't have a freak. "The flexibility of this term makes it hard to
know where its limits are," says Mr. Hayden.
*Hook up*—This term shouldn't be used in any kind of romantic overture, as
it can refer to many kinds of activities, including kissing and sex.
"Nonnative speakers are always heartened to learn that native speakers
don't really know what it means either," says. Ms. Gillett.
*Literally*—While this can mean truthfully or without exaggeration, English
students learn it can be used to exaggerate. Example: "We have literally
been waiting for a table at this restaurant for a million years," says Mr.
*Write to * Alina Dizik at alina.dizik at dowjones.com
<alina.dizik at dowjones.com>
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