Slang  and idiom as an aid to acquiring foreign language facility and how it helped and hindered me.

By Joe Sinclair


I discovered a propensity to foreign languages at a relatively early age.

It began with my studying French at school from the age of 12, was nurtured by my evacuation to a Welsh-speaking area of Wales during World War II at age 14, and then enhanced by my having acquired a number of pocket phrase books in German and Italian in addition to French, as a "job lot" when seeking one solely in Welsh.

The most effective of the three situations was undoubtedly my immersion into a Welsh-speaking environment, the need to keep up with my Welsh-speaking peers, and the pleasure of being introduced to a whole range of vulgarities in speech and song by those very peers.  It was both effective and, ultimately, a handicap, because it impeded my need or desire to learn correct Welsh.  And, by "correct", I mean that form of the language that would prove acceptable in an academic,  socially respectable, or business environment.

The most immediate effect was that my Welsh proved insufficient (actually, in an academic sense, it was non-existent) for my School Certificate History examination where a certain number of questions on Welsh history had to be answered, and higher marks were awarded to answers written in the Welsh language.  This would, in any case, have been highly inappropriate for the type of language I had acquired from my friend Willy Beynon, whose striking tenor rendition of "Ah Sweet Mystery of Life at last I've Found Thee" used to ring from his open bathroom window across the streets of the village. Willy delighted in teaching me alternative words to all the Welsh songs I was learning as a language aid.  Thus Cwm Rhondda, Sosban Fach, and Lili Lon were rendered unusable by me in "polite society" and also became a hindrance to me as a vocabulary-enhancing aid when I discovered that I often failed to distinguish the correct words from their alternative profanity.

Sorry for the digression.  My memory was titillated by that vision of a teenaged, Brylcreemed, vulgarian who may have misled me etymologically, but certainly conveyed the flavour of the language that I subsequently - and still  - believe to be one of the more important influences in gaining language proficiency.

French remained my first foreign tongue academically and I was very successful in my studies, with very high marks in the School Certificate examination.  Actually, looking back at it with the vision traditionally attributed to perfect hindsight, I suspect that my facility with foreign language study was merely an extension of my fascination with words generally, and I continued to peruse those small phrase books in German and Italian for many years, while writing poetry, essays and short stories.  It was, however, the simple accident of a month spent in Paris in 1946, on a student-exchange arrangement with a French boy of my own age, that had more effect on my ability in that language than all the previous years of textbook and schoolroom study.

That short period of immersion in French served to earn me a scholarship the following year that enabled me to spend three months in the French-speaking part of Switzerland and, thereafter, at my own expense (money I had earned picking grapes during the Swiss viticulture season), I spent some more time in Paris.  By the time I returned to England I was "speaking French like a native".

But this was still basically "school French".  My exposure to French via the connections I enjoyed while living in Switzerland and France was limited to the upper-middle class and bourgeois environment to which they belonged.  This was probably as well, given that I continued to study French right up to degree level and was able to avoid the problem associated with my Welsh experience formerly.  What had helped considerably in that environmental immersion was the degree of my exposure to idiomatic French.  My ability to express myself in current idiom at the time of my oral examination for the Modern Language Scholarship in 1947 was, I am convinced, the major reason for my success.  Learning songs and nursery rhymes that my more conventional French-speaking friends taught me was undoubtedly more beneficial to my academic advancement - albeit less exciting - than the pernicious influence of Mr Willy Beynon in Wales.

Still, the language "bug" remained with me.  I shared the enthusiasm with my closest friend from school days, who was fluent in German which I was also then studying, and slightly less proficient then I in French.  We devised the technique of compiling lists of French idioms and insulting phrases that we would then use on each other during the weekly games of social bridge that we enjoyed.  The knowledge probably didn't add much to our overall familiarity with the language, but imparted a certain "fragrance"  to our speech that seemed to enhance our feeling of eloquence. This mention of bridge has served to remind me that playing games with people in other countries was another excellent means of picking up idiomatic speech.

I had first learned to play Belote in Paris, a game I found easy to learn as it had a similar base to that of Klabjas, which I had played regularly with my father and grandfather from my earliest years.  Learning the names of the cards and the bidding sequences were a considerable aid to absorbing the atmosphere of the language.  It is always easier to learn when one is relaxed, and playing games is a very enjoyable way to relax.

In subsequent years, when living in Switzerland and Holland, I was able to similarly enjoy variations of the same game, called Jassen in the German-speaking area of Switzerland and Klabberjaas in the Netherlands.  My experience in Switzerland evoked memories of those in Wales.  I played in the bar of the small hotel where I lived during my first six months in the country.  The regular clientele soon befriended me after they accepted that I had recognised the difference between High German (that I had studied before moving to Switzerland) and Swiss German that they proudly proclaimed as their "official" language.  In fact, the official language is merely German, but if, as a businessman, one tries to conduct meetings in High German, one is as likely as not to be gtven short shrift.  The Swiss are more than proud of Swiss German, they are pompous about it, to the extent often of being quite rude and disdainful of anyone who does not speak it.  Ironically, while I was learning to converse with them, I found they had more sympathy for me if I spoke English than if I spoke German, or even French.  Yet "High" German and French are both compulsory subjects in Swiss schools.  In fact the Swiss ordinarily do not refer to "Hoch" Deutsch (high German)  but to "Schrift" Deutsch (written German) because Swiss German is not written, merely spoken.

Anyway, to return to the similarity between my Swiss and Welsh experiences.  Playing cards - and also Kegellen (a form of skittles we played in a skittle alley in the basement of the hotel) - my associates used to swear at each other, the cards, and the skittles with loud profanities which, at my request, they would repeat and translate to me. I later learned that their translations left something to be desired.  It was their idea of humour, rather like the way my Welsh friends derived amusement from misleading me into repeating certain obscenities.  So, in absorbing this atmosphere, I learned to assimilate the language while having to learn to discard many of the words when not in the company of "cronies".

To my shame, I once decided to "return the favour" when we were playing cards at the same time as an elderly English couple were registering for a night at the hotel.  I told my playing companions that the friendliest way to greet people in England was to tell them  "piss off!".   Fortunately, when the Englishman at the bar asked one of my friends to repeat what he had failed to hear, the landlord (who spoke impeccable English) said that he "was just saying welcome in German!"  I then hastily explained my joke to the other players and have not repeated it since. 

This has pointed up a very important rule in the study of languages, particularly in the learning and use of idiom.  This is: that it is in order to use colloquialisms in the right circumstances; it is necessary to be slightly more careful in the use of slang; and, finally, while it is in order to learn the meaning of obscenity and profanity, it should never be used.  Indeed, before using any colloquialism too freely one should be aware of the age and social standing of the group with which it is being used.  Young people have a language of their own, that is becoming more and more divorced from "correct" language, particularly with the expanded use of the internet, the cellphone, social networking, Twitter,  and the corruption that these have inspired.  Similarly there are elements of society, for example the criminal element, that has devised a language of its own.  Some of these elements you may not wish to be associated with.

Another aspect of learning languages "in situ" is that one is learning a language the way languages are learned as a child: by immersion.  This enables adult learners in a foreign country to absorb the language similarly to children in their own country.   A pair of examples will emphasise this conclusion.

In the mid-1960s, when I moved to Switzerland with my wife and daughter (then three years old), my wife was working for an American company based in Geneva, while our home was nearer to Zurich.  She was accordingly travelling much of the time, during which I was looking after my daughter, who was enrolled in a kindergarten (Kinderkrippe in Swiss German) and, therefore exposed to the local language by association with children of her own age.  Some weeks later my wife appeared on the balcony of our apartment and called out to our daughter, who was playing below, "Caroline!  How do you say stockings in German?"  "Strümpfen" replied Caroline, without missing a beat.  Then carried on playing with her friends.

On the balcony, June reveals her Strümpfen.  Caroline is unimpressed.

Some years later, I was living in Finland and having a drink with some friends.  A married couple who had been in the country a few weeks.  He was working for a major detergent manufacturer in the north-east of England; his wife stayed at home with the intention, eventually, of finding a job of her own.  He had been enrolled in an advanced language laboratory by his company, a course which lasted one month.  At the end of the month, having "graduated" satisfactorily, the couple decided to go for a weekend driving holiday, to relax and see something of the country.  The first evening they were looking for a hotel for the night, but were not sure where they were.  Someone came towards their car, and the husband wound down his window and attempted to ask for directions.  He found himself totally tongue-tied.  At which point his wife left the car and, in more than adequate Finnish, spoke to the passer-by and ascertained where the hotel was located and how to get there.

He had attended a highly expensive language laboratory and - although, presumably, able to get by in a business environment, was unable to cope with a simple domestic situation.  His wife had enjoyed a month in an immersion environment, buying food, speaking to neighbours, becoming acquainted with the way the language is spoken in "real life" and was perfectly relaxed about asking directions.

Both these examples demonstrate the effectiveness of learning a language in an immersion environment.  Playing cards was a form of immersion.  Trying to bowl down skittles was a form of immersion.  Watching TV and movies is a form of immersion. These are ways in which you can learn languages that is not normally available in a foreign classroom.

As far as slang terms and idiom is concerned, it is important to learn at least some of these if you wish to achieve real proficiency in another language. It is, however, important to know when and where to use them. This, as I said earlier, is even more important in the case of profanity.  There is a much clearer obligation on the part of a foreigner not to use profane or offensive language, than there is for the native speaker.  And, in learning slang expressions, it is important to be aware that these are in the habit of changing - today's "chic" expression may be so "old hat" tomorrow as to be virtually incomprehensible. Slang is a part of current culture. 

I made a note of a sentence I read some time ago on the internet, but no longer have its provenance: "Slang is like the junk food of language. Some seem to survive on it exclusively, some abstain completely. However much or little you like it, I don’t think you’ll get far without taking in the basic sustenance first."  I think that is a good piece of advice, but will end this article with a joke that was used to illustrate a language article in an early issue of Nurturing Potential.


A mother cat and a kitten are walking along when they are confronted by a bull mastiff.  The mother cat goes "Woof!" and the dog, with an air of surprise, turns tail and runs away.  The mother turns to her child and says "You see how important it is to learn a foreign language!"