Date of Award


Degree Name

Master of Arts




Maria Blume


Colloquial and idiomatic speech seem to be some of the more difficult areas for achieving native-like language competence in the acquisition of a second language (L2), though very few studies have been performed on this topic. Acquiring the colloquial speech of a community is crucial for second language learners who wish to achieve native-like proficiency in the target language. The majority of studies done on this area have focused on the attitude towards the teaching of colloquialisms in a formal classroom setting, or the attitude that native speakers have towards non-native speakers' use of colloquial speech and slang. Typically, L2 researchers' explain the lack of acquisition of L2 colloquial idiomatic speech by the learner's failure to achieve appropriate group membership (Fishman, 1965). This study sets out to explore linguistic aspects that could also be responsible for the hindering or helping the acquisition of English L2 slang. The main claim of the study is that in the borderland of El Paso, Texas, speakers of Spanish attempting to acquire English will acquire more rapidly colloquial speech that is lexical as opposed to colloquial speech that is phrasal. Frequency will also be tested. The test items will be divided into four groups: high-frequency lexical, high-frequency phrasal, low-frequency lexical, and low-frequency phrasal. The hypothesized pattern of colloquial speech acquisition is: high-frequency lexical, low-frequency lexical, high-frequency phrasal, low-frequency phrasal. This pattern will be limiting for the L2 learners since English colloquial speech is often phrasal, varied, and low in frequency. This hypothesis will also be followed by a commentary based upon observations and non-official surveys that lead me to believe that colloquial English is very phrasal oriented and often the phrases are neither fixed nor high in frequency.

V. Background and Significance:

For this study, colloquial speech will be defined only as informal, conversational speech. Slang is considered a part of colloquial speech. Below are some of the background studies found on colloquial speech and slang in the L2.

According to McAlpine and Xu (2008) each variety of language has special, culturally conditioned vocabulary and the character of a particular region or country is often represented by its distinct vocabulary. Therefore, this culturally conditioned vocabulary will exist in all languages, making its' acquisition important in order to achieve native-like abilities such as proper comprehension of media (television, film, etc.) and the capacity to engage in casual conversation. McAlpine and Xu used two instruments to questions whether ESL learners in Canada acquired Canadianisms. Results indicated that ESL learners' knowledge of Canadianisms was limited. They found no correlation between the time learners have spent in Canada and their knowledge of Canadianisms, but the ESL speaker's proficiency in English did play a part. However, it seems that the more relevant a Canadianism was to their life, the more likely the ESL learner was to acquire it. In analyzing the results, McAlpine and Xu came up with a conclusion that supports the present study. They listed two factors as to why overall the ESL learners demonstrated such a limited knowledge of Canadianisms: 1) A disproportionate quantity of culture-specific and culturally freighted vocabulary consists of multiword units. 2) Multiword units are more difficult for learners to recognize, to look up, and to use appropriately. This result supports the theory of my study that English colloquial speech is very highly phrasal, and thus often difficult for L2 speakers to acquire.

A research goal of other existing studies has been to compare native and non-native speakers of American English on their attitude toward American English slang (see Charkova, 2007 for a review). In 1996, Register investigated taboo knowledge in L2 learners of English. The results showed that international students knew more taboo words than neutral slang. Thus, many L2 students were able to learn isolated, more offensive words, but were unable to make a full acquisition of neutral and colloquial lexicon.

Charkova (2007) reports that the acquisition of slang in L2 has not been very highly examined. Some questions that have not been investigated are: How is slang acquired in L2 contexts? Is it governed by the same principles as the acquisition of L1 slang? What sources and methods do L2 learners use to learn L2 slang, as it is not formally taught? In what situations do L2 learners use slang? Charkova proposed these questions but did not answer all of them. Of the questions she did answer one was how is slang acquired in L2 contexts? She found that Bulgarian Foreign Language learners of English use intuition, discussion with friends, and media (i.e. song lyrics, television, etc.) as a means of learning slang. Their motivation for learning slang was to understand American media, and express themselves better with native speakers. Finally, the EFL speakers reported that they used slang with friends or in chat rooms, but 51% of college students reported that they didn't use their slang at all. Of the limited research performed on this topic, L2 researchers' have typically looked at group membership for an explanation of the lack of acquisition of slang (Fishman, 1965).

Exploring colloquial speech, slang, and culturally conditioned vocabulary is very important for the field of second language acquisition if the goal of SLA is native like fluency and competence. Colloquial speech is so much a part of a language that failing to acquire colloquialisms, or even slang, could result in the failure of mastering the language. Even if the L2 learner might not produce some of the colloquial language or slang language himself, it is still necessary to understand this language for comprehension in movies, television, other forms of media, and basic conversation with peers. However, in order to understand how this type of language is acquired, we must first define it and understand it linguistically before we can go about devising the best ways of acquiring it.

VI. Method, Design, and Proposed Statistical Analysis:

The research instrument will be a multiple choice vocabulary survey. The survey consists of 40 colloquial speech items that are split into four groups of ten: high frequency

lexical, high frequency phrasal, low frequency lexical, and low frequency phrasal. The frequencies were determined from the Brigham Young University corpus on American English

from the years 1990-2010. I used only the spoken data from the corpus and thus the number of words was limited to spoken 80 million. I checked all the items in my test for frequency to group them as high or low frequency. There is at least an 80 word difference between low frequency items and high frequency items, meaning that any high frequency item occurs at least 80 times more in the corpus than a given low frequency item . Each participant will also fill out a language questionnaire to assess their linguistic background and their proficiency in the L2. As a control, ten native English speakers will be asked to answer the vocabulary survey as well. The native English speakers will be UTEP students and peers of the researcher. The survey will be administered to thirty L2 English speakers whose first language is Spanish. The participants will be tested at the University of Texas at El Paso, and they will be selected from classes of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) 1309, 1406, and 1312. ESOL 1309 and 1406 are intermediate classes, and ESOL 1312 is an advanced class. It is anticipated that we will see a difference between the intermediate and advanced classes, with the intermediate classes having acquired at least the high frequency lexical items and many low frequency items. However, it is anticipated that the advanced class will have acquired to some degree high frequency lexical, low frequency lexical, and high frequency phrasal.

In the vocabulary survey the participants will be asked to determine the meaning of a colloquial word or phrase. The participant will not write in his or her own response, but instead will be given four answers to choose from; three choices will be incorrect and one choice will be correct. An example is given below;

If someone says, "That woman is a cougar" what does this mean?

a. That woman dates older guys

b. That woman dates younger guys

c. That woman dates older women

d. That woman dates many people

All of the answers are in a uniform sentence structure. The word or phrase that is the target is not used in the multiple choice answers. For example, in the above example with the word "Cougar" a possible choice in the answer section could not include the word cougar, i.e. That woman has a baby cougar.

The survey is expected to show that the SLA learner's have a greater knowledge of lexical items and a lesser knowledge of phrasal colloquialisms.




Received from ProQuest

File Size

89 pages

File Format


Rights Holder

Patricia Brannon Bradford

Included in

Linguistics Commons