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English as it's really spoken

By Teresa MéndezStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 15, 2004


Slipping into class on a mild Thursday evening, Wadensky Bastien, who moved to Boston from Haiti 3-1/2 years ago, removes a rumpled piece of paper from his shoulder bag. It's cluttered with a week's worth of English phrases that he can't quite decipher. Glancing at the list, A.C. Kemp, who teaches the weekly class on American slang here at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, asks Mr. Bastien if he has any questions.

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"I have plenty," he replies brightly.

What does it mean to call someone a scrub?

What does it mean to tell somebody off?

A scrub, explains Ms. Kemp, is a person who is inferior. To tell somebody off is to scold or criticize.

By the end of 10 weeks, Kemp's course will have delved into everything from words with double meanings to Boston colloquialisms. The term concludes with a frank exploration of profanity. Every imaginable combination of bad words is parsed, and then carefully arranged by degree of offensiveness.

Slang and idioms are considered an informal part of the language - not necessarily the stuff of traditional courses in English as a Second Language (ESL). Yet many foreign students - even those who sat through years of English lessons - arrive here only to find themselves baffled by the funny phrases that pepper casual conversation, fill the pages of popular novels, and are bandied about on sitcoms and in movies.

To ease their confusion, and in hopes of grasping some of the more nuanced - and nonsensical - elements of the language, students are flocking to classes in everyday expressions being offered at adult education schools and colleges across the country.

Even conventional ESL courses are increasingly including slang and idioms in their curricula, together with supplemental texts like "The Slangman Guide to Street Speak."

It was back in the early '70s, during a trip to Paris, that a 15-year-old "Slangman" - as David Burke has since dubbed himself - confronted his own acute need for a better grasp of idiom. While there, he unwittingly befriended a group of French teenagers selling something called "white fairy." After describing his new friends to the family he was staying with, they explained that "white fairy" was cocaine and advised young David to keep his distance.

But when he first returned home, no one seemed interested in the dictionary that he had compiled - a careful translation of French slang into plain English.

Today, however, Mr. Burke's line of guides - in four languages - is distributed by Berlitz. He has a regular radio segment on Voice of America that draws 90 million listeners. And the Slangman is slated to become a live-action character on an animated TV show being developed for a series devoted entirely to slang and idioms.

"Where before I was considered the real bad boy of the ESL world," says Burke - who also wrote a guide to "Dirty English" - "now, every ESL teacher understands how important slang and idioms are."

A course titled "Idioms and Slang" is the most popular elective this session at the Intensive English Program at California State University, Northridge, according to academic director Bessie Karras-Lazaris. Burke, however, insists that slang shouldn't be regarded merely as an elective; he sees it as essential to fluency.

In perhaps a more formal recognition of the pervasiveness of "authentic" language in even the most proper academic settings, the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) - the premiere exam for foreign students planning to enter American universities - will soon include more slang and idiomatic expressions. Listening portions, to be released in 2005, will no longer filter out casual phrases that a professor might use in lectures.