Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

"I Think I Sound Stupid If I Try to Use Those Words": The Role of Metapragmatic Awareness in the Study Abroad Language Classroom

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

"I Think I Sound Stupid If I Try to Use Those Words": The Role of Metapragmatic Awareness in the Study Abroad Language Classroom

Article excerpt

The Challenge

The teaching of vernacular expressions (including slang and taboo) in the foreign language classroom is a source of controversy. What aspects of vernacular can or should educators address in the language classroom? How should they go about teaching vernacular?


The teaching of colloquial lexical features, including slang, in language classrooms has been a source of contention. Concerns have focused especially on teenagers' or young adults' "use of slang, vague and dirty words, often in combination with a lot of 'unnecessary' smallwords" (Stenström, Andersen, & Hasund, 2002, p. 63), and the debate has often addressed the extent to which teaching informal registers is appropriate for and useful to language learners. Fear of reproach from colleagues and supervisors, criticism from parents and educators, the speed with which new colloquial words are adopted and older ones acquire new meanings, an already packed syllabus, and the lack of readily available materials-and, in contrast, the availability of materials that often propose a decontextualized idealization of language-are also understandable deterrents (Gale & Fernández, 2016; Holster, 2005). To complicate matters, language learners who bring slang into the classroom are often told that such language is "bad" and, therefore, to be avoided (Ainciburu, 2005). With concerns like these, it is little wonder that language instructors may be hesitant to discuss the sociopragmatic importance of vernacular language with individual learners or as part of the curriculum more generally.

Despite what instructors may believe and teach in regard to slang and taboo expressions, such language sometimes has a strong allure for some language students and may be among the first second language (L2) features that students learn, particularly during study abroad (SA). Findings from SA research have suggested that a period abroad has the potential to facilitate the learning of vernacular (e.g., Dewaele & Regan, 2001; Regan, Howard, & Lemée, 2009). Consequential interactions largely outside the classroom with expert L2 speakers who are generally in the same age group can result in "the comprehension of colloquial language, and the ability to identify its association with informal situations or presentations of self" (Kinginger, 2009, p. 104). Nevertheless, research has also shown that especially at lower levels of proficiency learners avoid using such features or refrain from participating in interactions that could lead to "inappropriate" use of language for a number of reasons, including lack of knowledge and fear of losing face (e.g., Ainciburu, 2005; Fernández, 2013). This avoidance can also be found among students who know some vernacular features (Kinginger, 2009). Even at advanced levels of proficiency, learners may avoid using informal features because "the status of [the] learner may convey with it an attitude of caution and reluctance when it comes to using stigmatized vernacular language" (Kinginger, 2009, p. 103). In other cases, students may choose to use informal features but generalize their use to contexts where formality tends to be expected (Dewaele, 2004, 2008).

Taken together, these studies all point to a potential lack of metapragmatic awareness (Kinginger & Farrell, 2004; Verschueren, 2000) in the foreign language-that is, knowledge of the social meaning underlying varying and flexible linguistic forms and knowledge of how these units of an L2 "mark different aspects of social contexts or personal identities, and how these reference broader language ideologies" (van Compernolle & Kinginger, 2013, p. 284). Even students who may be aware of the pragmalinguistics of the L2 vernacular may still fail to use it in contextually appropriate ways: Such students demonstrate a lack of awareness of L2 cultural norms that would allow them to evaluate whether and the extent to which it is acceptable to use a slang expression in a given social situation (Dewaele, 2008). …

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