English as it's really spoken

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"I have plenty," he replies brightly.

What does it mean to call someone a scrub?

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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.

Inspired by a group of Brazilian busboys in her Intermediate English grammar class, Kemp first offered slang class at the Cambridge Center in 1996.

"Apparently, if you work in the food industry, you are constantly exposed to profanity," she says. The busboys "would come in and ask me questions that were really awful - and they didn't know it."

This is one of the most compelling reasons, says Burke, for teaching a foreign student slang. He points out that to avoid pitfalls, students must be able to recognize profanity and other colloquial forms - even if they don't use them.

In a particularly dramatic example of why a working knowledge of slang is so important, Burke recounts the story of a Japanese student who, in 1992, was shot by the owner of a home he had mistakenly entered in Baton Rouge, La., because he didn't understand the command: "Freeze."

Not all linguists love the idea of formalizing the study of idiom. "There's probably a place for incidental instruction of slang" in classes, says Ari Sherris, a research associate at the Center for Applied Linguistics. But he doesn't believe it needs to be a "central part of a curriculum for children or adults." And for the K-12 English language learners that he has studied, "slang pretty much takes care of itself."

There is also the danger that "slang expressions that would otherwise have an early death might get an extended life" through instruction, says Jim Wallace, president of the Society for the Preservation of English Language and Literature.

But Kemp's concerns are more immediate. Of her early classes with the Brazilian busboys, she recalls: "I was mortified answering their questions, and I would try to hedge around. But there was no way I could tell them what these things meant without being really explicit." Though she still blushes from time to time, she says, "I guess I got used to it."

In Kemp's class, nothing is sacred. The students are free to ask anything - and they do.

Her website www.slangcity.com offers many of the same definitions of sensitive terms that Kemp does in class - including body parts and sexual slang. A few native speakers might even find her translations of hip-hop lyrics useful.

Not necessary for her Thursday night students, though.

Sohrab Alavinia, a visiting scholar from Iran who is studying the philosophy of quantum mechanics at Harvard University, sports a walrus mustache and shares a love of hip-hop with Bastien, who hopes one day to earn his MBA from the University of Massachusetts.

When Kemp mentions the word "shorty," Bastien instantly explains that in the parlance of hip-hop artist 50 Cent, a shorty is a beautiful girl. Or a girlfriend, adds Kemp.

Some of the less edgy, slightly mustier idioms that Kemp covers may be of questionable value. For example, "Is the pope Catholic?" doesn't necessarily seem a fitting response to the question of whether students will be in class the next week.

But as Kemp takes the final few minutes of her last class to pass out certificates of achievement, it becomes clear how far her students have come. Grinning, Bastien turns to her and offers as parting words an idiomatic expression to make any slang teacher proud.

"Time flies so fast," he says.

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