Teaching idioms and slang is quite a subjective topic. I believe that it is an integral part of teaching. I agree with the school of thought that says that slang and idioms are an every day part of our language and it is important that foreign students are aware of the most common forms they are likely to encounter, the appropriate use of these language forms and what is considered to be taboo in polite society.
An important matter to consider is that although students can find endless reference books on almost every other form of the English Language, slang and idioms are not considered part of the syllabus and paid no or very little attention.
If we do not teach idioms how is a student ever going to cope with phrases such as – To bury the hatchet, to be in the same boat and to kick the bucket, and to go straight over my head? If you do not know what they mean there is no formula to work out their translation, the words bear no resemblance to what we are saying.
When I started to consider the subject I became aware that nearly all conversation contains idioms, they are something natives of the language take for granted and understand without giving them a second thought.
Slang and bad language are things that foreign students are likely to encounter outside the classroom and it can take the form of racist or offensive language. It is surely our duty to make sure that they are aware this and the impact such words can have whether they are directed at them or used by them.
Students are naturally curious about slang in another language and they will experiment with its use. It is very important that as teachers we make them aware of the implications that using bad language can have. Because slang and swear words are used in songs students might think it is acceptable to use this kind of language in everyday conversation. An example is James Blunt’s song “You’re Beautiful” in the unedited version he sings, “I could see from her face she could see that I was high.” This sentence contains a swear word and there is idiom in there too! We need to make sure that students do not use slang and bad words indiscriminately.
How do we teach these subjects?
What approach should we take? There are a number of things that we need to consider. The age group we are teaching, the ethnic group we are teaching and the levels to which we should go. Teaching slang to young children is probably not advisable although generally they will already have ideas of their own! I do not think at the early stages of the learning process it is something they need or should be exposed to. We need to be aware that some ethnic groups will be very offended by teachers discussing swear words and bad language. We need to explain our motives very carefully before on embarking on this subject. There are certain boundaries that we should not cross and we need to responsible when dealing with sensitive areas of the English language.
My initial approach both these language forms would be to ask the class to write down all the slang words or idioms that they know. This opens up the class to discussion about how bad a word is. What is acceptable and what is likely to cause serious offence or to be misinterpreted.
Once the students have offered their own examples I would write some more on the board and ask to students to guess their meaning. This will get them interested, involved and hopefully provoke discussion.
I think that there is very little point going into the various types of idiom and their grammatical complexities they have to be learnt.
We do not need to spend extensive time on these two language forms but equally they should not be ignored or avoided.