Teaching Colloquial English in the ESL Classroom

Let’s be honest for a moment.

Yes, we want our students to learn formal, academic English.  Yes, we want our students to write beautiful, grammatically-correct essays.  But we also want our students to be able to communicate with their peers, to make new friends and connections, and to overcome culture shock by fully participating in their new communities.  English language learners will probably not benefit (socially, at least) from saying things like, “With whom will you be attending the party on Saturday evening?”

⭐ Introducing Challenges!  Throughout this post, and in future posts, you will find several language challenges.  Look for the yellow stars to find more information.

You could make the argument that kids will pick up colloquial English from their peers, but this is not always the case, especially when they are new to the country and not yet comfortable speaking aloud.  Best case scenario: they learn some new slang and a few popular expressions from their peers.  Worst case scenario: they begin to use colloquial English improperly, or they use it inappropriately, or they inadvertently use colloquial English in academic settings.


Even Shakespeare used slang.  Source: http://stephanieerdman.weebly.com

Think back to your own experiences as a language learner — you might have learned “proper” Spanish back in high school, but did you ever learn to speak like a native?  Did you ever learn to communicate in informal or social settings?

Learning colloquial English is a crucial component of developing spoken proficiency.  There are ways to teach it and there are ways to make it fit into your curriculum.

What is colloquial English?

Colloquial English is informal or familiar English.  Register refers to the level of formality that we use in a language.  Colloquial English would be considered an informal register, while academic English would be considered a more formal register.

For native speakers, switching registers is intuitive.  We might say “Hey, guys!” one minute, and “Good morning, everyone!” the next, without a putting much thought into it.  We know that we can say, “Hi, baby” to a romantic partner, but that we shouldn’t say the same to a stranger.  “What’s up?” is reserved for close friends, whereas “How can I help you?” would make our friends raise an eyebrow.

There is also an amazing amount of flexibility in tone.  Consider the following exchanges:

Bank teller: Good morning.  How can I help you?
You: I’d like to make a deposit.


You: Hi, baby!
Romantic partner: How can I help you?
You: … did I do something wrong?

⭐ Language challenge:  Use formal speech with someone who is close to you.  Don’t tell this person why you are doing it.  Comment with your findings.

Consider the effects of using the phrases Are you serious? and What’s wrong with you? with different audiences:

Your boss: Can you work overtime on Saturday?
You: Are you serious?  What’s wrong with you?


Your best friend: I sent him, like, 15 texts last night and he didn’t answer.
You: Are you serious?  What’s wrong with you?

The word like is another great example.  Native English speakers use like to approximate conversations that they are recalling.  This use of like is widely understood, but reserved for colloquial exchanges.  Most English speakers have become so accustomed to hearing like as an indicator of approximation, or even as a placeholder, that they ignore it.  Consider the differences between the following exchanges:

Reporter: How did you get Congress to pass the spending bill?
The president: Well, at first, they were like, “No, we won’t sign this bill!” And I was like, “There will be serious consequences!”


Your best friend: What happened?
You: I told her I was gonna be like 15 minutes late, and she was like, “You’re always late.”  I was like, “I know, baby.  I’m so sorry.”  And then she was like, “Maybe we should just see each other tomorrow.”  I was like, “Fine.”

A native speaker would immediately recognize an inappropriately informal tone if the President were to address a reporter in this manner.  But a native speaker would also sense an awkward level of formality if an exchange with a close friend were as follows:

Your best friend: What happened?
You: I informed her that I would be approximately 15 minutes late.  She responded, “You’re always late.”  I replied, “I know.  I am so sorry.”  Then, she exclaimed, “Maybe we should just see each other tomorrow.”  I acquiesced.
Your best friend: … what?

There are infinite opportunities to play with language and register in the classroom.  Give your students the opportunity to identify formal vs. informal language and to experiment with linguistic registers.  The classroom is the safest space to make mistakes.

⭐ Language challenge: I challenge you to avoid using like in a colloquial context for an entire day.  Comment with your findings.  This means no I’m, like, so tired and no And then I was like… and no I don’t know… like… Can you do it?

Teaching slang

Slang is an important part of colloquial spoken language.  It tends to differ by region.  My students used to make flashcards to help them learn “New York slang”.  On one side: English slang.  On the other side: an equivalent expression in the native language and a clear meaning in English.

Slang: It’s gonna be lit!
Meaning: It’s going to be awesome; we’re going to have fun.

Slang: I’ll pull up.
Meaning: I’ll come there.

Slang: Where you at?
Meaning: Where are you?

Slang: (I’m) chillin’.
Meaning: I’m relaxing; I’m doing nothing; I’m good; I’m socializing.

For every slang flashcard they made, I also had them make a flashcard with a “big word”, because as much as they enjoyed learning slang, they also enjoyed using unnecessarily sophisticated English with their peers.  Some things I discovered on my students’ self-made flashcards:

That’s absolutely inexcusable.

That’s unacceptable.

I vehemently disagree.

You might find that your students enjoy manipulating tone and register.  On one hand, they want to fit in with their peers.  On the other hand, they want to surpass their peers in terms of proficiency in formal English.  My students don’t care much for using a moderate register.  They want to show off their English skills by mastering slang and by simultaneously demonstrating a strong command of formal English.  The same students who greet each other with Yo, how you been? submit essays that claim certain facts are indisputable.  As a teacher, I have to consider this a victory.


When I think of colloquial English, I am reminded of the time I put a “late log” at the entrance to my classroom and asked latecomers to write their names, their time of arrival, and their reasons for being late.  I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or do a facepalm when a student wrote that she was late because she was “lollygagging”.

Why should I teach the difference between academic English and colloquial English?

How many times have you seen your students write gonna and wanna?  It’s easy to tell students that these are “wrong” and that they are “not real words”, but is this the whole truth?

I usually tell my ELLs that we can say gonna — in fact, most of us do — but we can’t write it in any formal situations; we have to write going to.  Telling your students that gonna is not a word is not as helpful as explaining how people use it in spoken English and in informal written English.

Not convinced?  Are you up for another challenge?

⭐  Language challenge:  I challenge you to avoid saying gonna and wanna for an entire day and.  No I’m gonna ask her and no I wanna see that movie!  Say the full words aloud.  Comment with your findings.

It’s important to be mindful of your own spoken English as your students have most likely heard you using colloquial language more than you realize.

You: Don’t say gonna.  It’s not a word.
Student: You say it all the time.

Teaching colloquial English alongside its academic counterpart is a great way to help your students feel comfortable experimenting with language.


Source: ParkWhiz

Is colloquial English the same as real-world English?

Not always.  Real-world English is the kind of English that we encounter in everyday life.  It can be formal or informal.  It can be full of abbreviations that are commonplace for native English speakers, but unfamiliar to newcomers.  Imagine being new to the country and trying to figure out if you can park your car here (see image).




Just when you thought teaching academic and colloquial English was enough…

What about profanity?

Sooner or later, your ELLs will be exposed to profane language.  This taboo topic is worth discussing because (a) they might repeat profane language without knowing exactly what it means, (b) they might use profanity in a grammatically inappropriate way, which, I must argue, is awkward and socially isolating, and (c) they might offend people if they do not realize that their word choices are obscene.


Source: https://www.playusa.com/delicate-moral-sensibilities/

If your ELLs are picking up profane language from their peers, you might need to have a conversation about what their words really mean.  If you teach younger students and if you enforce consequences for using profanity on school grounds, remember that ELLs are rapidly acquiring new vocabulary and might need to be told that certain words cannot be said in school.  If you teach older students or adults, don’t be surprised if they ask direct questions about profane language.  Some ask because they want to learn how to use it.  Others ask because they want to understand something they heard.  Use your discretion, and talk to your supervisor if necessary, but don’t disregard the matter entirely.

I’m not saying to teach profanity to your ELLs.  I’m saying to address it if it comes up.  Your students might not understand the difference in connotation and register between the F word and more innocent substitutes.

Here is an interesting article on the subject, which proposes the idea that perhaps “an
ESL classroom may be one of the better places (i.e., a more responsible, mature
environment) where L2 speakers can receive explanations about the usage and
paradoxes involved in swearing.”  This article focuses on adult language learners, of course, but it provides an interesting insight into the use of obscene language by English language learners.

How do I fit this into my curriculum?

  • If you’re teaching a novel, point out examples of colloquial English.
  • Do regular conversation/speaking practice.
  • Challenge students to “translate” something from colloquial English to formal English, and vice versa.
  • Incorporate role playing into your lessons.  Give students a task and let them explore it in conversation.
  • Encourage students to bring in examples of colloquial English for classroom discussion.

⭐  Don’t forget the three challenges!  Share your results in the comments.


9 thoughts on “Teaching Colloquial English in the ESL Classroom

  1. When I taught ESL I found my students who watched a lot of English language TV or listened to contemporary music in English would use colloquialisms more. but they were often, also the more fluent speakers. I wouldn’t tell them they were wrong to write it or say it, but I would show them the more formal way of saying the same thing and recommend they use the formal version in any essays they wrote.


    • I learned my colloquial Spanish and Russian from music and movies… but I found that if I use informal Russian, especially, people assume I’m a fluent speaker and I’m not. I am proficient in Spanish but I learned the formal language before the colloquialisms. With Russian, I just pick up what I hear and read. I’ve had more than one “I don’t know how to say that, so let me show you on Google Translate” moments right after having what appeared to be a normal conversation with someone.

      Liked by 1 person

      • So it goes with language learning.
        I’ve also had students come into Spanish class trying out some phrases they learnt ‘on the streets’…. I told them, some of those phrases needed to stay out ‘on the street ‘and not in my classroom! Lol.
        But again, those are the students who when they travelled were most comfortable speaking and people would assume they were the most fluent.

        Liked by 1 person

      • This is an important point — is our goal to create good communicators who are comfortable using the target language? Or is our goal to get them to pass statewide exams? Obviously kids need to pass their exams, but having students who are comfortable using the language is what we strive for. If kids pass an exam but can’t ask where the cereal is at the grocery store… is that a win?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post. I think it’s important to show students the difference between formal and informal vocabulary. Most of my students are teen-agers and they know more swear words than me. I think it’s just natural. When I started to learn Spanish I learnt all the swear words first, then worked my way back.

    Unfortunately, these teens have parents, so it’s a delicate situation. I have a class of adult students and we speak ‘normally’ most of the time and I try to teach them what I can.

    Would love to teach more slang, I’m from London so cockney rhymes would be fun too.

    Thanks for the inspiration.

    Barry O’Leary


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