Understanding American Slang for English Language Learners

Research PaperLiterature

Learning American slang is an essential part of learning the English language. It teaches English language learners about the casual and common terms that locals use to converse daily. It is an integral part of everyday communication and offers language students an idea about American culture. American slang showcases the development of the English language and how modern English is different from its earlier forms. English language learners must learn to identify, understand, and use American slang to effectively communicate with English speakers and gain a better understanding of the English language. This research paper will discuss American slang and how English language learners can develop a better understanding of the terms.

American Slang Definition

Slang are words that contain different meanings from their counterpart in traditional dictionaries. They are a form of informal language that individuals use daily (Elsherif & Nuseir, 2015). Different regions have unique slang that locals use to converse daily. They can be words, phrases, and expressions that individuals orally convey. From these definitions, one can infer that American slangs are informal English words that Americans use to casually communicate. The meanings of these terms will only have value to American English speakers and will be confusing to those outside of the group. However, according to Snider (2021), eight out of 10 Americans believe that they use slang. Some of these slang users admit that while they converse using these terms, they are unsure of their meanings.

The inconsistent understanding of American English speakers towards American slang is due to the exclusive and dynamic characteristics of slang. They are an ever-changing set of colloquial words and phrases that speakers use to establish social identity (Eble, 1996, Elsherif & Nuseir, 2015). Some American slang will only make sense within a particular group despite them being English words. An individual using certain American slang out of context will result in misunderstandings between them and the listeners. Additionally, since individuals mostly use slang for speaking, utilizing these terms in written form may result in a reader misunderstanding the text. Due to its dynamic nature, English language learners will need to continuously engage themselves in American slang to better develop an understanding of the terms and avoid misusing certain slang.

Formation of Slang

Since slang terms are dynamic and often originate from a social group, there are many ways that the terms can form. Some of the ways may include coinage, borrowing, compounding, blending, back-formation, acronyms, derivation, multiple processes, onomatopeia, and reduplication (Pradianti 2013). From most of these methods, social groups or individuals modify traditional terms and turn them into slang. For example, the blending method will combine words or phrases and turn them into short slang. In the southern part of the U.S., the term “y’all” is a blend of the phrase “you all”. Other methods, like borrowing, utilize words from other languages and use them as expressions. Lastly, some methods like coinage result from a social group or individual creating a new term. This formation is common in social groups as they can effectively create new terms and require their members to use them during conversations. The formation of slang will often require time and the acceptance of society regarding the term. This can lead certain slang terms to remain in a particular group while others can become everyday words.

Examples of American Slang

American slang comes from various social groups and fields. With the Internet becoming a necessity , individuals have a higher chance to interact with different groups and learn various slang terms. This can greatly benefit English language learners as they can interact with various English speakers and learn different slang terms during the engagements. They can also utilize the Internet to find the meaning of different American slang. Here are some examples of American slang and their meaning:

  • Salty - Describes an individual that exhibits butter behavior. The American gaming community mostly uses this term.

  • Ballin’ - Describes a wealthy lifestyle.

  • GOAT - An acronym for “Greatest of All Time”. The term can describe an individual that possesses great skill in a craft. 

  • Lit - Describes a person, object, or event that is cool or exciting.

  • Simp - A term that refers to an individual that tends to please others. On the Internet, users often use the term to describe an individual that is submissive or obedient towards women.

  • Trashed - Describes an extremely drunk individual.

  • Swag - A term that refers to stylish fashion or behavior.

  • Chillin’ - A slang term for relaxing.

  • Tea - A slang term to refer to an unexpected truth.

  • Rona/Vid - A slang term to refer to Covid-19.

  • Yeet - Describes a throwing action.

  • My bad! - An expression to acknowledge a mistake.

  • For real! - An expression that indicates speaking truthfully.

  • What’s up? - A greeting that means “how are you?”.

  • Rekt - Describes something or someone that is beaten or destroyed. The gaming community mostly uses this term.

Benefits of Learning American Slang

Learning American slang is integral to studying the English language since English speakers use the terms daily. American slang like “what’s up?” are common and casual greetings. According to Elsherif & Nuseir (2015), local Americans may find formal greetings like “how are you?” and “take care” unusual. American slang for locals is part of the language and provides a casual and friendly tone. Native speakers will prefer to use slang, especially towards close friends, due to its informal characteristics. Formal English, which most English language learners study, may be more suitable in a professional environment or workplace.

Aside from effective casual language, slang can allow individuals to better express themselves. According to Pradianti (2013), junior high school students use slang to say something easily, to show their anger, to confuse people, and to have fun. Since slang terms are informal words or phrases, individuals can easily remember them and use them to easily convey a message. American slang like “trashed” can effectively convey the message that an individual is extremely drunk. An individual can easily state that someone is “trashed” instead of explaining that the person drank a lot of alcohol and could not control themselves. American slang like “dumb-ass” and “doofus” can easily express anger, especially when a speaker uses them with an aggressive tone. Other terms can also express different emotions like excitement or joy. Some students admitted that they use slang to confuse other people. As mentioned earlier, slang can be words that are exclusive to a group which means that outsiders may not know their meaning. The student’s behavior regarding confusing people may be related to slang being a tool to have fun. Students may use certain slang to portray their positive emotions or translate formal words into more casual terms.

Lastly, understanding slang for English language learners will allow them to better understand the language and culture . Learning American slang will allow English language learners to casually converse with English speakers. English language learners will study proper and formal language, grammar, pronunciation, and definitions early in their classes. However, those will not be enough for them to effectively socialize with native speakers. Without knowledge of American slang, English language learners may experience misunderstandings during daily conversations. Native speakers may find English language learners unusual if the latter only speaks formal English. Additionally, since American slang comes from various social groups, English language learners can learn a lot about American culture by studying slang. They may gain insight into niche groups, such as gaming communities, fashion circles, and even professional fields. Learning American slang can help English language learners make friends with native speakers.

Learning American Slang

English language learners can access various sources to learn American slang. They can engage in video gaming, film watching, listening to songs, reading journals, and writing slang dictionaries to learn slang (Elsherif & Nuseir, 2015). English language learners can easily access most of these sources which will allow them to quickly learn American slang. The other sources are also engaging and entertaining which can help them better understand context clues and identify slang terms.

Playing Video Games

Video games can provide English language learners with an expansive medium where they can learn different slang. The gaming community coined various slang terms, such as “GOAT”, “Salty”, “GG”, “Buff”, “Rekt” and “Smurf”. While individuals will often hear these terms in online video games, some players have begun using them outside of the medium. This leads to some of the words becoming everyday terms like “G” for “game” and “grinding” for doing repetitive tasks for a reward. English language learners can play certain video games to learn American slang while also conversing with other players. Additionally, Laato et al. (2020), conducted a study that revealed that players of certain games may have different reactions regarding slang terms. Some players may have a positive attitude towards a term while others may find them unappealing. This indicates that playing video games will also allow the students to learn offensive slang terms which can help avoid conflicts with English speakers.

Watching American Films

American movies and television shows can contain slang within character dialogues. Directors and film writers will aim to portray casual and realistic conversations which will include slang. English language learners can watch American films and try to identify slang terms. In this medium, a viewer will need to analyze the context of the situation when the actors used slang words. For example, the movie The Wolf of Wall Street required the researchers Dewi & Suastra (2018) to analyze context clues to understand the meaning of the slang terms. Watching American films will not only allow English language learners to learn about American slang but also improve their ability to identify context clues and derive the meaning of a term.

Listening to Songs

A song is an artistic form of entertainment that can contain different meanings and unique words. Songwriters tend to use literary devices to express their message while preserving musical patterns. They may use slang terms to fit certain lines and better construct a song’s lyrics. English language learners can listen to certain songs and utilize them to learn American slang. This method will require the student to analyze and interpret the song to identify the meaning of the slang terms. English language learners will have a similar experience when reading poetry and novels. These mediums are art forms where the creators utilize unique terms to convey their message which English language learners can examine to better understand slang terms.

Reading Slang Journals

Reading slang journals is a more effective way to learn American slang. This type of journal contains a collection of slang words, phrases, abbreviations, and expressions. One journal can contain thousands of slang terms, similar to a dictionary. One example of a slang journal is the Slang Journal Collection from Ohio State University. The journal contains more than 1,840 entries that the public can access. There are also applications for English language learners that can contain American slang and will be useful in their study. English language learners can utilize these slang journals and applications to effectively find terms that they encounter. They can use a slang journal while watching films or playing video games to easily find slang terms’ meanings.

Writing Slang Dictionaries

Writing a slang dictionary involves English language learners creating their own slang dictionaries. Elsherif & Nuseir (2015) suggested that English language instructors can effectively teach slang through the activity. As English language learners write down slang terms and their meanings, they will become familiar with the words. They may conduct research or studies to identify certain meanings which will provide them with additional knowledge regarding American slang. English language learners will not only become familiar with American slang but also establish an effective approach to learning a language.


Understanding American slang is an important part of learning the English language. The formation of the different terms can teach English language learners about the dynamic characteristic of language. Learning American slang can provide benefits; such as tools in casual conversation, expressing messages, and understanding the American language and culture. English language learners can employ different methods of learning American slang including playing video games, watching films, listening to songs, reading slang journals, and writing slang dictionaries. Understanding American slang is integral for any English language learner as it expresses American culture and is present in everyday activities.

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Cfs.osu.edu. (n.d.) Slang Journals [Online]. The Ohio State University. Available at https://cfs.osu.edu/archives/collections/slang-journals. Accessed December 9, 2021.

Laato, S., Inaba, N., & Paloheimo, M. (2020). The Effects of Team Choice in Ingress and Pokemon GO for Players’ Social Circles and Attitudes Towards Game Slang. AIS eLibrary. Available at https://aisel.aisnet.org/hicss-53/dsm/games_and_gaming/3/. Accessed December 8, 2021.

Pradianti, W. (2013). The Use of Slang Words Among Junior High School Students in Everyday Conversation. English Education Department of Indonesia University of Education. Available athttps://ejournal.upi.edu/index.php/psg/article/download/362/251. Accessed December 9, 2021.

Snider, M. (2021). Slang Words: Most LIke to Use Them, But Not All May Be ‘On Point’ to Their Meaning [Online]. USA Today. Available at https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2021/11/10/slang-words-2021/6358772001/ . Accessed December 9, 2021.

Sviatoslav, T. (2019). Video Games Slang.Scientific journal «ΛΌГOΣ. The art of scientific mind» , (4). Available at https://ojs.ukrlogos.in.ua/index.php/2617-7064/article/view/227/209. Accessed December 9, 2021.

Williams, K. (2018). A Guide to American Slang [Online]. Inlingua. Available at https://idc.edu/a-guide-to-american-slang/. December 8, 2021.

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