Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Learning (or not learning) Chinese slang

Based discussion forums, question apps and my personal experience, there seems to be an insatiable desire to learn slang in foreign languages. The only category of words/expressions that seems to outperform slang is profanity, although they could perhaps be sorted into the same category.

Personally, I don’t really understand this and have never felt the need to “learn some slang” or learn how to say “#$@&%*!” in Chinese.

Perhaps it’s a desire to become cool by using “cool” words? Perhaps just curiosity about interesting expressions (although I fail to see what makes them more interesting than other expressions)? Perhaps a desire to get a way from the oh-so-boring textbook? Perhaps a flirt with the subversive and dangerous? If you have a good explanation, please leave a comment; I’m genuinely interested!

Things to keep in mind when learning slang in Chinese

There are some reasons why you as a serious learner of Chinese shouldn’t spend too much time learning slang, however. It’s true that slang is just like other words and expressions, but the fact that they have a limited use makes them by less useful than other words and expressions.

This doesn’t mean that you should never learn slang, it just means that you’re usually better off focusing on other things first. After all, if there are three near-synonyms for something, you probably want to learn the most common and universally used one first. Then you can learn other ways of saying the same thing, regardless if they are more or less formal, regional or whatever.

Slang is limited in several ways:

  • Time – Slang changes much faster than standard language, perhaps because it tends to be spoken or, if written, informally in chat or messaging, which isn’t preserved and doesn’t last as long as printed language. This means that the slang you learn now will be obsolete pretty soon. Using old slang is a sure way to generate laughs and be very uncool.
  • Region – Slang is very dependent on where you are. Of course there’s some slang that works almost everywhere, but in general, slang works best close to where you learnt it. Why learn a region-specific informal term instead of the universal, standard one?
  • Social groups – Slang works differently in different groups. Beijing taxi drivers don’t use the same slang as youngsters who spend more time online than offline. It’s also incredibly hard to navigate the maze of social association of words and expressions, so getting it right is pretty hard.
  • Age – People of different age grew up using different words. Think about how it works in your native language. It’s very unlikely you use the same slang as people much younger or older than you.

Looking at these limitations, it seems that learning slang is not a good idea. However, I want to make it very clear that that’s not actually what I’m saying. My point is that slang should be treated for what it is: informal spoken language limited to a certain context (time, space and so on). That’s true for all language, it’s just that slang is by its very nature more dependent on these factors than standard language is.

Learn slang, but only through natural acquisition

My advice is that you should definitely learn slang, but only when there’s an actual need to do so or it happens naturally in the context in which it’s used. Furthermore, if quick progress is your goal, you should learn standard words before you learn the slang equivalents.

In other words, if you study Chinese in your own country, learning slang as a beginner or intermediate learner is more or less pointless. You will have little chance to use it and if you do so later, it might already be out-of-date or inappropriate for some reason. It also takes up unnecessary effort that could have been more wisely spent.

In addition, if you learn Chinese to a conversational level and then end up in a situation where people use slang all the time, this will not be a problem. Sure, in the beginning, it will be hard, but since you have already learnt the structure of the language, filling it with additional words and expressions is not difficult.

Conclusion

I assume that most people who want to learn slang don’t do it because they imagine it’s extremely useful. Perhaps there’s little overlap between regular readers of this site and people who obsess about learning slang in foreign languages, but if you have something to add, please leave a comment!

So, finally, learn things that are interesting because they’re interesting, not because they are slang. An excellent way to do so is to follow Liz Carter on Twitter. She provides a regular stream of really interesting words and expressions, some of which are slang. You can also check ChianSMACK’s glossary.

Do you want more practical exercises, audio versions of articles and Chinese translations? Check out my Patreon page!

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5 comments

  1. Fearchar says:

    I would definitely agree that slang is of little use for temporal and geographical reasons. Some language learners seem to be fascinated by slang that is either uninteresting or so regionally restricted as to be of little practical use. In Mandarin, it seems that some people regard PRC slang as the only “real” Mandarin, much as one hears (or even reads!) English learners’ use of US regiinalisms like “wanna” or “gonna” as if they were standard everywhere, instead of the restricted regionalisms they really are. Use 幹兒 inTaiwan, for example, and watch people fall about laughing. 😄

  2. I always try to learn the most common slang and obscene words in a foreign language so that to avoid unintentionally offending people of making them feel uncomfortable. One can easily pick up a new word from a movie or on the street and re-use it without ever realizing that it could be very offensive. Maybe this is not a big problem if you mainly use the language for informal communication, but if you use it for business then not knowing what not to say can be a disaster, in my experience.

  3. Harland says:

    A lot of why Americans learn a second language is to be ‘cool’. Not because it’s actually useful. They don’t want the boring essentials, they want the flashy parts. Thus, they can show off their insider knowledge. It’s intoxicating to a certain kind of person who isn’t learning the language for reasons of dull practicality. Being able to sling around slang is a mark that you’re not like those other sheeple. Even today people talk about old and busted memes like grass-mud-horse like it’s some kind of secret society handshake.

  4. Ben says:

    I would put slang and chengyu in adjacent, though not identical, categories. The sentence from the article “This doesn’t mean that you should never learn slang, it just means that you’re usually better off focusing on other things first” could apply to chengyu equally as well. The most significant difference would be that chengyu tend to last longer than slang, although it is conceivable that some of today’s slang could be considered chengyu in the future, such as 不明觉厉 or 十感然拒。

  5. Ashleigh says:

    I think people wanna learn slang to sound lax and not so “formally trained”
    And especially on the internet there is a crazy amount of slang used all over the world. I believe prc internet users use slang to fly under the radar of censor bots. So if one finds themselves on a Chinese server they might be super confused? But that’s kind of a special case I guess.

    Maybe if one had a gaggle of Chinese friends and their friend says something they don’t quite get. People don’t like to constantly have to explain what they meant.

    I once had a foreign professor who’s English was pretty good but us students had to be particularly careful not to throw around any slang terms he wouldn’t get (I exclaimed “THATS SICK” when one of my peers showed me a picture I thought was cool. And was met with an extremely furrowed brow and interrogation of what the heck I was talking about ) this is in the Midwest mind you so many slangness all around. It’s in our blood.
    Dunno where I was going with that////

    Slang/ swears are usually just cooler to say also, like more fun. I dunno, people think they’re cool when they say something bad in a different language.

    I do agree that slang changes too often to really be useful. But when I think of slang, I mostly think of idioms and short hand words (like ain’t) that many people use in everyday speech that are not just fad terms.

    Also people just like to know when others are talkin shiet :p

    ALLSOO the person who says gunna and wanna are only regional? I.. can’t imagine an American to have never said those two. I’m honestly shocked and my whole world is crumbling around me.

    We need a slang word for slang I’ve used it too much.

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