Like many parents, Lyndie Chiou is sometimes flummoxed by the slang her three kids use. Cringey was a recent addition: “We were hanging out with some family friends and my 11-year-old told them how ‘cringey’ my favorite television shows were,” Chiou laughs. “I could guess from context what she was referring to.”
If your child’s shifting vocabulary has left you scratching your head, too, there’s good news. Recent research indicates that using slang—invented, informal vocabulary—comes with real, measurable benefits for children: When schools incorporate slang into their curriculum, students become more flexible in engaging with the world around them. And when children can roll with the punches—linguistically speaking—improvements in reading comprehension, persuasive writing, lie detection, and empathy have been shown.
Plus, it’s OK for kids to create variations in their spoken language “There's no one right way or wrong way to use language,” says Christine Mallinson, a linguist at the University of Maryland. “There are only different norms and conventions.”
Those different conventions reflect the always-evolving nature of language—and that one “proper” way of speaking just isn’t appropriate for every single human. “Someone actually sat down and decided ‘This is the way language should be,’” says Lancaster University’s Sascha Stollhans, a co-leader of the UK-based Linguistics in Modern Foreign Languages project and author of the study above. But, he adds, people are more complex and diverse than that.
That’s why slang has likely existed as long as speech has, says Tony Thorne, a lexicographer at King’s College who has been collecting and analyzing novel words for decades. In the historical record, slang first popped up among criminals in 15th-century Europe.
“Slang was the language of hustlers, swindlers, and peddlers,” he says. “They all used slang because they wanted to hide what they were saying, and they had to invent new words for new kinds of crime.”
As it did with medieval criminals, slang often originates within “in-groups,” or small groups of people who share bonds, interests, or activities. “They could do the same kind of job or are fans of the same sport; they could be gamers or follow a particular YouTube star,” Thorne says. Slang happens when existing words fall short in describing something novel or specific to that group.
As a result, it can be wonderfully inventive, employing metaphor, imagery, and rich figurative language—like “hangry,” describing a hunger so intense it drives its sufferer to anger. And as slang jumps from group to group, its meaning often evolves: “Dude” morphed from meaning a well-dressed man in the 1890s to a term cowboys used for city slickers in the 1900s to a synonym for “guy” among the surfer crowd in the 1960s.
Children, with their rapidly developing brains and new experiences, are particularly adept inventors of new words. Though Stollhans says it can be a way of asserting independence from parents and bonding with peers, this linguistic innovation is just another example of how play promotes their social and intellectual development.
“Kids are playful with language, they love language, they’re creative with language,” Mallinson says. “And allowing kids that linguistic creativity and outlet is good for their wellbeing—it's a way for them to connect with others.”
The benefits of slang
Even if it drives parents crazy, the use of slang has definite cognitive and emotional benefits for children.
Playing with language fosters creativity and motivates kids to explore language’s potential. For instance, Mallinson’s children, ages seven and eight, assign nicknames to everyone in the family based on the first letter of their proper names or identifiers. In their familect (the language unique to a family), “mom” becomes “mots” and “dad” becomes “dots.”
That creativity can have powerful results. According to Mallinson, children who have the ability to be creative with language are better at identifying deceptive language, tailoring messages to different people, and deciphering ambiguity.
For instance, Stollhans asked students to find examples of slang in the tweets of political figures and consider how word choice helps them connect with certain groups of people. “Engaging with language critically might also help them spot fakeness or manipulative language,” he says.
And that gives kids a critical awareness of how language is used in different contexts. The vocabulary, tone, and pronunciations kids would use with their parents, for example, might be completely different from the language they’d use while hanging out with friends.
In fact, slang provides the perfect practice for untangling how words are defined versus what they might imply. Briana Richardson, a sixth-grade teacher in Mississippi, uses “bruh” to illustrate how context can dictate different meanings for the same word. “When kids come in and they see someone they haven’t seen in a while, ‘bruh’ means they’re excited,” she says. But in response to a parent giving them extra chores, “bruh” expresses exasperation and dismay.
“We shift language all the time, every day, depending on who we're talking to, and what context we're in,” Mallinson says. When kids are trained to code switch, or adapt written or spoken language to their audience, they’re better equipped to evaluate the words of others, too.
Backlash against slang
Despite the benefits, slang is often discouraged. What, exactly, are detractors afraid of?
“A lot of adult pushback on kids’ language can come from home,” Mallinson says. “This might include everything from correcting their pronunciation to things like rebuking them for using non-standard phrases like ‘that sucks’ or ‘whatever.’”
Others simply worry that slang decreases a child’s ability to learn standard grammar. But according to Stollhans’ research , incorporating slang into the curriculum actually improved students’ language skills. He theorizes that when students are exposed to diverse language examples, they’re more willing to try new words or phrases, and experiment with complex sentence structures.
Sometimes the objection to slang has a darker—even racist or classist—purpose. For instance, Stollhans says that in the UK, slang from people who live in the north is often frowned upon by wealthier people farther south. And though many versions of English are spoken around the world, British or American is considered “standard.”
“But why is British or American English more valuable than Indian English or English from the African continent?” Stollhans says.
Fun with slang
So how should you go about incorporating slang into your interactions with kids—and making sure they get all the benefits the creative language offers?
Evelyn Lucero, a literacy coach at an international school in Vietnam, suggests that parents start by using children’s literature as a way to introduce slang into their conversations with kids. Her students recently read Ghost by Jason Reynolds, which is set in contemporary Brooklyn and includes language that kids might encounter in real life.
Meanwhile, Andrea Zimmerman, an eighth-grade teacher in Tennessee, integrates slang into history projects, which can be easily replicated at home. In one creative activity, students write and perform the preamble to the Constitution in different informal styles. Imagining how Yoda or a Kardashian might interpret the text sparks laughs as well as a deeper understanding of this 230-year-old document. Families could do something similar with skit nights at home. Give kids a list of slang from your childhood and ask them to construct a scene around it. Then redo the scene for them using slang that they choose.
And for parents who might balk at speaking a language variant that they’re not familiar with, Stollhans recommends just asking their kids to teach them. Kids love taking on the role of teacher, he notes, because it gives them an empowering sense of agency.
“Language variation is a gift,” Mallinson says. “It’s a measure of who we are as humans.”