Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

English language learners demand slang; teachers try to keep up

Jiu Hua Zhang, a 23-year-old student from China, chats with fellow English language learner Donald Chung, 28, of Taiwan.
Jiu Hua Zhang, a 23-year-old student from China, chats with fellow English language learner Donald Chung, 28, of Taiwan.
Josie Huang/KPCC
Jiu Hua Zhang, a 23-year-old student from China, chats with fellow English language learner Donald Chung, 28, of Taiwan.
David Burke, self-styled "Slangman" and author of the eponymous books, giving a special presentation to English language learners at UCLA Extension's American Language Center.
Josie Huang/KPCC
Jiu Hua Zhang, a 23-year-old student from China, chats with fellow English language learner Donald Chung, 28, of Taiwan.
English language learners at UCLA Extension's American Language Center listen to a presentation on slang.
Josie Huang/KPCC

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Jiu Hua Zhang stands in front of her classmates reading from a sheet of paper. She’s practiced the lines over and over under her breath.

“You can count on one thing,” she said, forming each word carefully. “If a critic thinks a movie is a bomb, it’ll be a smash hit.”

A movie could be a bomb or a smash hit. Not to mention da bomb.

These are the kind of things Zhang wants to know. The 23-year-old has been studying English in her home country of China since middle school. She’s among thousands of students who come to the United States with hopes of picking up 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 enrolled six months ago in UCLA Extension's American Language Center, one of multiple schools throughout California offering “street talk” classes. Because of slang’s constant evolution, there aren’t many teaching materials devoted to the subject. 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.

Hip-hop as a second language

English as a Second Language teacher Stephen Mayeux enjoys hip-hop. Why wouldn’t his students at UC Davis?

He’s crafted lesson plans around 1990’s 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

He said some educators might frown on what he's teaching; but as someone who's studied  linguistics,"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, but 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 20's, 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 proceed to write them down on his arms, later switching to a tape recorder.

Burke would go onto 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 foreign languages.

But now at age 56, he 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?'"

From the kids in his Studio City neighborhood, Burke has picked up the meaning of words like twerk - "when you walk and you jiggle your butt back and forth" and ratchet - "If you’re ratchet, you’re either crazier, screwier or you’re just a real low-life,” Burke explains.

Recently, Burke brought his compendium of slang to the 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?"


Like a cow

Listening to Burke was Jiu Hua Zhang. She realized she had "a lot" more to learn about slang and intonation.

But she’s proud of how much she HAS learned in the last half year. She pointed out 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 kettle of fish.  Or, cows... or something.