Monthly Archives: November 2013

Straight outta ESL class: learning English by learning slang

Jiu Hua Zhang of China and Donald Chung of Taiwan are studying conversational English at UCLA's Extension School (Photo: Josie Huang)

Jiu Hua Zhang of China and Donald Chung of Taiwan are studying conversational English at UCLA’s Extension School (Photo: Josie Huang)

Here’s a guest post from Los Angeles-based reporter Josie Huang

Donald Chung stood in front of his classmates at the UCLA Extension school and started to throw a fit — well, as much as the mild–mannered student from Taiwan could muster.

“I don’t know what he’s trying to pull,” Chung said. “The guy’s a total flake!”

His friend Jiu Hua Zhang chimed in: “You said it!”

The students had spent a good portion of the class practicing these expressions as part of their “street talk” course. In many foreign countries, English classes start as early as pre-school. But thousands of students still come to the US to get what they can’t get back home: the idioms, the catchphrases — the slang.

“My conversation is more academic, or more like an essay,” Zhang said. “I need to be more, like, American.”

She and Chung enrolled less than half a year ago at UCLA Extension’s American Language Center, one of multiple schools throughout California offering street talk classes. Zhang wants to get all of the jokes on her favorite American sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory.”

Chung would like to catch what commentators are saying during NBA games.

“I think it’s very difficult to understand what they’re talking about because they use some vocabulary I can’t understand,” he said, sounding frustrated.

Hip-hop as a second language

There’s a lot to learn. But because slang is constantly evolving, there aren’t many teaching materials devoted to it. Texts get dated faster than you can say YOLO.

So teachers are often left to find their own method of teaching American lingo, in ways creative and resourceful.

English as a Second Language teacher Stephen Mayeux enjoys hip-hop. So he figured his students at UC-Davis might, too.

He crafted lesson plans around 1990s hip-hop. N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” has come in handy teaching reductions in English — for example, how “out of” gets shortened.

“They’re saying ‘straight out of Compton,’” Mayeux said. “But I think a lot of people, especially Americans, we pronounce it ‘outta.’”

Mayex shares his lessons with students outside of his Hip-hop as a Second Language class through his website eslhiphop.com.

He said some educators might frown on what he’s teaching. But, as someone who’s studied linguistics, he believes “you have to treat every form or variety of the language as if it’s equally complex and valid.”

“So the English that a rapper or hip-hop artist uses is no better or worse than what a university professor is using,” Mayeux said.

Fitting in

Mayeux also uses the music to take the opportunity to teach about hip-hop culture, and give the students some context for what it is like to grow up in America.

He said that he has many close friends from other countries, and a lack of understanding about pop culture can leave them feeling left out.

“They do experience a little bit of alienation,” Mayeux said. “They feel like they can’t be fully part of the group because they’re not speaking the same lingo.”

Judy Tanka, who teaches English at the American Language Center, agreed.

”You may understand every word of the lecture,” Tanka said. “But when you have to go to your study group or you have to call a classmate, slang is going to be necessary.”

Tanka tries to incorporate slang into her everyday conversation with her students. She stays on top of the latest lingo with the help of a daughter in her 20s, but she finds a surprising number of phrases have stayed popular through the decades.

When her students tried to make up an excuse for not doing homework, she told them, “I don’t buy that.”

“And they looked at me. ‘Buy what, teacher?’ And then I explained and they loved it. Now they’re telling each other, ‘I don’t buy that.’”

For the latest slang, go to the source

As a young man, David Burke had a knack for picking up slang.

His ears pricked up whenever he heard interesting phrases. He’d write them down on his arms, later switching to a tape recorder.

Burke went on to make a name for himself as “Slangman” and published a whole series of self-titled books in which he teaches slang not just in English, but in foreign languages.

He got the idea to teach American slang after hanging out with a French friend more than 10 years ago.

“Somebody ran up to him and said, ‘Hey, Pascal, what’s up?'” Burke said. “And he froze for a second and looked up and started checking the ceiling.”

Now, at age 56, Burke gets the scoop on the newest slang by striking up conversations with young people.

“I saw a kid at the gym working out with a friend of his,” Burke said, “and I said, ‘Can I ask you guys a question, what word would I not know?'”

Recently, Burke brought his compendium of slang to UCLA’s American Language Center for a special presentation before English language learners. To complicate matters, Burke told students, slang isn’t just about words.

”Americans use a lot of grunts — I’ll show you,” Burke said.

“For example, ‘I don’t know’ becomes ‘I dunno.’ ‘I dunno’ becomes the shoulders-up grunt, ‘uh-uhh-uh.'”

Burke got students to try out the “uh-uhh-uh.”

“How many cars on the freeway right now?”

“Uh-uhh-uh.”

ESL students at UCLA's Extension School (Photo: Josie Huang)

ESL students at UCLA’s Extension School (Photo: Josie Huang)

Like a cow

In the audience was Donald Chung and Jiu Hua Zhang. They hung on Burke’s every word.

In their short time in the US, they’ve managed to incorporate slang into their everyday conversations.

Chung is a fan of “what’s up!” Zhang says she no longer enters a room saying ”Good morning, everyone.”

“We just say, ‘hi, guys!'” she said brightly.

Zhang is feeling pretty awesome about this. Or as kids in China say: “hĕn niú” which translates into “very cow-like.”

But Chinese slang — that’s a whole other lesson for another day.


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When Alina Simone (not her real name) met Alina Simone (not her real name either…)

Singer Alina Simone in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, Russia (Photo: Andrei Konst)

Singer Alina Simone in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, Russia (Photo: Andrei Konst)

Here’s a guest post from writer and musician Alina Simone

At a party two years ago, a man I didn’t know came up to me and delivered an extraordinary piece of information: his friend was legally changing her name to mine. I was a singer, and it turned out this friend had wandered into a recent show, seen my name on a record album, and literally left the venue calling herself “Alina Simone.”

My friends thought it was funny that another woman my age, who lived in the same city, would change her name to mine. I thought it was funny too, but for a different reason; Alina Simone wasn’t my real name. I’d switched from my father’s last name, Vilenkin, to my mother’s, Simone, when I was 24, after receiving an envelope addressed to one “Alina Vileskin.” Alina Simone was a better stage name, I decided, and besides, I’d grown tired of spelling my weird last name, and constantly explaining where I was born, and how it was that I’d come to America, which was hardly the most interesting thing I could think of to talk about.

At the end of the year, curiosity got the best of me and I decided to find the “other” Alina Simone and ask her out for a drink. We met at a bar in Midtown and she told me her story. She’d just been through a traumatic divorce when she happened upon my name. The man who she’d moved to this country to marry — leaving her family, her language, her country behind — had left her for another woman. She felt unmoored, but was ready to make a new life for herself. She’d moved to a new neighborhood, started running marathons and, after more than a decade in America, decided to finally become a US citizen. Now all she needed was a new name.

I came away inspired by the new Alina Simone, dazzled by the power of self-invention that a new name can help bring about. My only advice to her — one Alina Simone to another — was that if anyone ever accused her of stealing her name from the singer Nina Simone, to tell them Nina was born Eunice Waymon.


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Germans on Twitter say ‘ja!’ to Nein Quarterly

Eric Jarosinski (Photo: Caitlan Carroll)

Eric Jarosinski (Photo: Caitlan Carroll)

Here’s a guest post from Frankfurt-based reporter Caitlan Carroll

“Nein Quarterly” has attracted more than 40,000 Twitter followers with its wry observations on everything from US politics to the sexiness of the German umlaut.

Here are a few Nein Quarterly quips: “What’s so awesome about nihilism? Nothing.”

“You call it happiness. I call it Acute Despair Deficit syndrome.”

“My Doppelgänger wants to start resembling other people.”

The man behind the Twitter feed is Eric Jarosinski, a German professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Jarosinski grew up in a small town in Wisconsin. His early experience with German culture came in the form of kitschy folk fests and polka nights, but he got to know the real Germany after spending time in the country and mastering the language.

“German for me was a lot like learning math which I was resistant to,” says Jaronsinski. “But I learned that it became something very different after I could make the language my own in some form and in fact, that’s something I encourage my students to do is to make puns in German.”

Puns and word play are trademarks of Nein Quarterly. His jokes jump from Marxism to pumpkin spice lattes—all told from the perspective of a depressed German philosopher pining for another time and place. It’s a persona Jarosinski loosely models on the real German philosopher Theodor Adorno, who died in 1969.

“More than anything I’ve tried to develop the persona of a loveable misanthrope who comments on most anything he encounters and feels like he has something to say about most everything he encounters.”

Jarosinski says he started Nein Quarterly over a year ago as a way to relax while writing a book about the concept of transparency. “Essentially this gave me a voice at a time when I found there was very little I could put on paper but there was a lot that I could type into my iPhone,” he says.

What started as a lark has turned into something more serious. Jarosinski is in Germany to meet with publishers to talk about future writing projects. Interest in Nein Quarterly is running high in Germany at the moment, especially among intellectuals.

Elka Sloan, a professional translator in Frankfurt, reads the Twitter feed for the word play. “The plays he does with sort of nihilist statements, the way he twists around famous quotes from philosophy and the way he breaks the German intellectual tradition through this satirical lens is, I think, the hilarity of it,” says Sloan.

It got Helmut Wicht laughing too. He teaches anatomy at Goethe University in Frankfurt. “I think the first tweet which actually made me follow him immediately was the famous one it must have been like a year ago on philosophy,” he says. “Three lines. First line: ‘Ontology – what the f—? Epistemology – Why the f—? Phenomology – The f—.'” (In the original tweet, Jarosinski spelled out the f— word.)

“And in that very moment,” says Wicht, “I hit the follow button.”

Wicht says Jarosinski has found Germany’s enigmatic funny bone. He jokes like an insider. “He is playing with that. He gives us the feeling that ultimately, finally there is someone out there in the Anglo-Saxon world who loves and understands us.”

That view from the outside is something that Germans crave, and Jarosinski knows it. “I have had people tell me that. That that is something that they have liked,” Jarosinski says. “How does an outsider perceive us? And in particular, an outsider who knows us somewhat—I think that has something to do with it as well.”

Jarosinski is raising money to support a Nein Quarterly blog he plans to launch at the end of this year. He’ll feature writing from many different contributors. He describes the blog this way on his website: “Words. Thought. Art. Umlauts. Despair.”


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A welcome addition

If you like the kind of reporting I do in the podcast and in this blog, you’re going to love this: a new digital online magazine devoted to in-depth language reporting. It’s the brainchild of Michael Erard, who’s made several pod appearances.

I’m in the Kickstarter video, as is my multilingual soccer T-shirt:


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Jane Austen portrait chosen for British £10 note makes her look “like a doll”

(L) Sketch of Jane Austen in 1810, (C) a 1870 portrait of Austen based on the 1810 sketch and (R) Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen

(L) Sketch of Jane Austen in 1810, (C) a 1870 portrait of Austen based on the 1810 sketch and (R) Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen

From 2017, Jane Austen’s image will grace British banknotes. She’ll join the likes of Charles Darwin and Adam Smith.

Give or take a few anti-feminist hecklers on Twitter, the choice of Austen has been a popular one. That’s been the easy part. Choosing how to portray Austen has been far more vexing. Jane Austen, after all, is something of British national obsession. People do not agree about who the “real” Jane Austen was, as the Bank of England has discovered.

“We heard that the bank was going to put Jane Austen on the banknote and I emailed them a portrait that we considered was suitable,” says Elizabeth Proudman, who chairs the Jane Austen Society.

There’s not much to choose from when it comes to pictures of Austen. There are a couple of purported images of the novelist. But the only undisputed contemporary portrait is a sketch from 1810, done by Austen’s sister Cassandra. Austen sits unsmiling, a little tired looking, her arms crossed.

“It’s not a particularly attractive picture,” says Proudman.

Not attractive enough, it seems, for a £10 note.

There’s another picture. It was published in a biography of Austen 60 years after the sketch. It was somewhat based on it, but jazzed up: a rounder face, no sign of fatigue, bigger eyes and a nice frilly bonnet.

“This is the best image of her we can have,” says Proudman.

And that’s what the Bank of England thinks, too. But not Austen biographer Paula Byrne.

“It’s a Victorian, highly sentimentalized makeover,” says Byrne. “She looks like a doll.”

If Jane Austen looks like a doll, what does that say about her novels? Are they really that cosy and cuddly?

“She’s a subversive writer,” says Byrne. “She’s a feminist, she writes about social class. It perpetuates this ridiculous myth about the safe Jane Austen.”

So much for agreement over putting Austen on Britain’s currency.

Still, if the late Victorians airbrushed Austen, they didn’t go nearly as far as we have. Anne Hathaway, star of the 2007 movie Becoming Jane, is as glamorous as that 1810 sketch is not.

Of course, the argument about Austen’s image isn’t just about her, or feminism. It’s also about the people that Brits choose to memorialize: upholders of power, or those who rail against it.

Jane Austen may or may not have much to do with that larger debate; alas, she’s not around to chime in. It’s a good thing, really, that she created characters who have lived on, and been re-interpreted time and again — in Britain and far beyond.


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