Good students of English can know all the English words there are to know, yet still feel like a fish out of water if they don't take the time to master English slang and idioms. Now pause from reading this for just a few seconds. Did you notice the idiom in the first sentence of this paragraph? The expression "like a fish out of water" is an English idiom for feeling like you're out of your natural environment. In this case, a student might feel a little out of place if he's sitting around a table with English speakers who use a great deal of English slang and idioms if he doesn't understand it.
To really fit in to American English culture, it helps to know certain idioms and slang. First, however, we will explain the difference between an idiom and slang words. An idiom is an expression not to be taken literally in which certain combinations of words mean something all together different than what they appear to mean. A prime example of an idiom is the phrase "it's a piece of cake", which in English means "something that's really easy or simple." So if you are taking a really easy English test, you would say that the test was "a piece of cake". You will also hear easy classes in college being referred to as "cake" classes. To foreign ears, this might sound silly, but it makes complete sense to English ears because the idiom has deep roots in the culture.
Slang is a little more tricky, because these informal words and phrases often have an element of humor or irony to them that doesn't always translate well. It also changes from generation to generation, based often on youth culture in the U.S. For instance, something that was great in the 1960s was "groovy" or "far out", but those slang terms have fallen out of circulation today. Today, someone might say something great is "sweet" or "the bomb". Of course, the word "cool" has meant great for several generations now.
There are some helpful free video resources online on YouTube that can help you learn common English idioms and slang terminology that you can use in informal conversations with English speakers. A few of them are:
- English lessons with Jennifer: The instructor in this video teaches 10 consecutive classes on American English slang.
- This English instructor describes some commonly used expressions in English here.
- An instructor walks English students through common slang terms and idioms used in the English language in this series of videos. Once you click on the first video, the others will run consecutively.
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