Author Topic: Today, there’s no reason anymore for us to aspire for English slang  (Read 8921 times)

Joe Carillo

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In our youth, as nonnative English speakers still grappling with the language, not a few of us surely had envied friends and acquaintances who spoke English slang. Even if hardly understandable, their glib and seemingly worldly-wise English could not but wow us! Indeed, it was difficult not to think that deep English slang was the epitome of proficiency and the mark of excellence in speaking English. This thought obviously heightened our feeling of inadequacy in speaking English, prompting some of us to cultivate and affect English slang ourselves, often with socially ludicrous results.

That, of course, was at a time when English slang was still perceived by many as the sophisticated way to speak rather than an undesirable vestige of regional English that’s mighty hard to shed off.  Today, however, straight English without heavy accent has become the global norm; as proof, we need only look and listen to the choices of CNN, BBC, and Al Jazeera for their multinational English-speaking news anchors and reporters. Definitely, with English now truly a global language, slang is no longer the English pronunciation of choice for both native and nonnative English speakers. As I explain in “Don’t worry about English slang,” an essay I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in 2008, there’s absolutely no more reason in the world for us to aspire for English slang. (March 19, 2011)       

Don’t worry about English slang

A reader of my English-usage column in The Manila Times, Raul Galleros, has posed this very interesting question about English slang:

“What is the best way to understand deep English slang? I have difficulty understanding its pronunciation. When I am watching a movie or a talk show on television, I find it hard to understand the dialogue of people talking in very deep English slang. I make an effort to watch a lot of English movies and TV shows to develop my comprehension, but it seems I am not making any progress. In contrast, when I hear Filipinos speaking in English in a movie or on TV, I can easily understand and absorb their language.”

Here’s my open reply to Raul:

Unless you are a serious student of English linguistics, don’t worry too much about not understanding the deep English slang you hear around you. It doesn’t mean that your English or your listening comprehension is deficient. It simply means that the English you are hearing is not meant to be understood by you, and that you really don’t belong to the group or community that uses it. Slang is a special-purpose coded language that’s meant to exclude you and other people from the coterie of friends, contacts, or initiates that uses it.

And there’s absolutely no need for you to actively learn any form of deep English slang. You’ll acquire it simply by the company you keep or by sustained exposure to it. The more prevalent a particular slang—whether it’s gay-speak, drug-speak, gangsta rap, Ebonics or Black English, Cockney, Singlish, Chinglish, or our very own Taglish—the more it will insinuate itself into the language through the movies and the mass media, particularly TV and radio. But if you are befuddled by any of them, don’t ever feel that your English is inferior or inadequate. The problem is not with you; the problem is with the scriptwriters, the talk-show hosts or guests, or the video or radio jockeys. They are forgetting one cardinal rule of communication: to use language understandable to the great majority of their mass audiences. By using deep English slang, they are failing to get their ideas across to you and to others like you.

It’s possible, of course, that you are watching movies and TV shows or listening to radio shows that are not really meant for you. A good number of Hollywood movies that reach us, for instance, are made for predominantly American Black target audiences; this is why those movies often use rather heavy Ebonics in their dialogue. And some TV and radio shows cater to special audiences appreciative of heavy metal or gangsta rap English. So what do you do? Avoid them and choose only those that use the kind of English you are comfortable with.

Naturally, it will be much easier for you to understand and absorb the English of Filipinos appearing in the movies or speaking on TV or radio. This is because the best of them use Standard American English, which is the kind of English that the Philippine educational system is trying its best—but not entirely succeeding—to teach Filipinos to write and speak from grade school onwards. This English is easily understood because it deviates little from the vocabulary, grammar, structure, and semantics of the English that’s formally taught to us—and it’s spoken without the infuriating twang or drawl of some native English speakers or the jaw-dropping peculiarities or flourishes of some nonnative ones.

So, Raul, don’t worry too much about not understanding deep English slang. And don’t even bother learning it unless you are keen on joining an exclusive gang or fraternity that requires members to speak its particular English slang. You can find much better use of your time by continuously improving your Standard American English instead of engaging in linguistic jaywalking, which is what speaking in deep English slang of whatever kind actually amounts to. (March 5, 2008)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in
The Manila Times, March 5, 2008 © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.