“I saw a picture of my newborn niece and almost died.”
“I killed it at my final exam!”
No need to be alarmed! Nobody died, nobody got killed. These people are just using English slang!
- The first person said “died” to emphasize how overwhelmed they were, probably by the sheer fact that they got a niece or by how cute she was.
- The second person used “kill” to emphasize how well they did on their exam.
For better or worse, slang is a big part of modern English. Even world leaders use it! For example, former US President Obama uses the slang expression, “screw up” (meaning “to make a mistake”), in this interview:
So regardless of whether we plan on using slang ourselves, we need to know enough to understand spoken English and respond to it. After all, you don’t want to be that person who is asked “What’s up?” and then looks at the ceiling!
But what are the best ways to learn English slang?
1. Watch Popular TV Shows and Movies
Back in his era, Shakespeare coined a lot of new words that are now common in the English language. Nowadays, popular TV shows and movies are the source of a lot of English slang words.
For example, if you want to learn US slang, shows like The Simpsons, Friends, or Seinfield are a great resource. You can also Google “classic sitcoms” or “popular sitcoms” to find many more.
Slang has also invaded mass media so you can hear it used in talk shows, sports commentary, and even some news programs.
So find something you’re interested in and watch away! Then, if you encounter some slang expressions you don’t understand, write them down and ask a tutor for help.
Songs are yet another common source of new slang, so you can also learn slang from music, but it’s definitely easier to do so with video content, where you have visual cues to help you figure out what new words mean.
2. Read Online
But do stay away from slang dictionaries like Urban Dictionary, Online Slang Dictionary, or Peevish (for British slang). Even though they seem like obvious choices to learn slang from, they can in fact do more harm than good. Some learners try to use slang expressions they found in Urban Dictionary and then sound totally ridiculous.
This happens because many entries are just jokes. In addition, slang dictionaries don’t reflect how language is used. As JStor Daily puts it, Urban Dictionary is “not as immediate as Twitter, not as specific as Know Your Meme, not as respected as Merriam-Webster, not as credible as Wikipedia, and not as popular as Reddit.”
We recommend at most using these resources as references. In other words, go to these dictionaries only when you encounter slang you don’t understand. But don’t use them as a starting point for your slang studies!
The same goes for online lists of slang words. It’s common for services in the language-teaching field to teach slang on social media or post lists of slang words on their blogs.
However, many of these lists are not to be trusted. For starters, many services do not check their content with any native speakers. So it’s better you don’t start memorizing lists of slang words. Instead, try to acquire them in context by reading online!
3. Pay Attention to Current Events
Slang is often a product of the times, especially when the times involve some earth-shattering events like possible nuclear war or a global pandemic (like the one we’re in right now).
In fact, COVID-19 has already given birth to a number of slang words (such as “Zoom university,” a reference to how many university classes are now hosted on the teleconference application, Zoom) and popularized certain pre-existing slang words (such as “Blursday,” referring to how being at home all the time causes all the days to blur together.)
To understand words like these (and the humor behind them!), you need to understand their context. You can do this by:
- Watching or reading the news. Engoo’s Daily News is a great news source for language learners!
- Observing how people talk about current events on YouTube. You can search for “YouTubers who talk about the news” to find channels like this.
4. Ask Real People
Languages are how people communicate with each other, so it’s important to ask real people your language-related questions. This is especially the case with slang, because:
- Most slang expressions simply don’t stick around, so you’ll want to check with native speakers to see if the ones you want to use are still in use.
- Many slang terms are only used by certain age groups, especially young adults. If you are in your fifties, you most likely don’t want to sound like a teenager.
- Some slang is only used in certain areas and by certain demographics. So it may be seen as inappropriate or disrespectful for people from other areas or demographics to use it!
In other words, just because you hear a slang phrase in a song or see a word in Urban Dictionary does not mean you should use it. (Not before looking into it anyways.)
And just because you hear one native speaking friend use a certain slang word, doesn’t mean you should, too. Here are two reasons why:
- The way that friend used the word may not represent how most people use it. For example, this friend may have used the word incorrectly or purposely used it in a non-standard way to make a joke.
- Even if you hear a native speaker using a slang expression correctly, you might misinterpret the meaning of the word or how it’s supposed to be used. (This happens more often than most learners realize.)
So the more native speakers you ask about a word, the better! Plus, asking native speakers about slang usually makes for interesting conversation! Native speakers from different countries also enjoy sharing slang words with each other.
5. Don’t Get Carried Away!
In our quest to sound more natural in English, it’s easy to get carried away learning slang. However, keep in mind that slang is just a piece of the puzzle. And it’s far from the most important one!
Native speakers themselves differ in how much slang they use. But what they all use is a lot of idioms and collocations; these aspects of English will make a bigger difference on your fluency than slang. They’re also more widely-used across age groups and regions.
For example, in this section alone, we’ve used the following idioms and collocations:
So if you still struggle with idioms and collocations, make sure to learn more of those before tackling slang!
Finally, don’t feel like you have to use slang or feel anxious because you’re not using enough of it. Slang is not something you want to force.
Once you talk to enough people in English, you’ll naturally develop your own style of speaking as well as a sense of what slang suits you best.
To get started, you can check out our ten “Slang Around the World” lessons under our Travel & Culture category written by native speakers.
You can also take the lessons with native speakers from those countries. For example, you can take the Irish slang lesson with an Irish tutor and the US slang lesson with an American tutor. And remember, the first lesson’s on us!