- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Pascal Ledeur was a first-time visitor to the United States. Although he thought he spoke English fluently, when someone asked him, “What’s up?” he looked at the ceiling.

“That’s when I decided to write a book on American slang,” says David Burke, also known as “Slangman.” Mr. Burke is the author and entrepreneur behind the Slangman series, a line of books, CDs, audio cassettes and miscellaneous products designed to teach language students English vernacular.

Although he had launched his line 13 years ago with the aim to teach French slang to Americans, after Mr. Ledeur’s visit to the United States, Mr. Burke expanded his product series to teach American slang to immigrants.

And business is booming. Not only are his books now part of English as a Second Language (ESL) course requirements at New York, Harvard and Boston universities as well as the University of California at Los Angeles, but leading language services firm Berlitz International Inc. also orders from him.

The colorful Slangman books combine pictures, crossword puzzles and quizzes to translate standard English into the language of the street.

And Slangman is now a worldwide phenomenon, with a radio segment on Voice of America. Mr. Burke laughs as he recalls one man’s reaction to his booth at a book fair in Japan.

“The student walked up to me and said, ‘You’re David Burke. You’re Slangman. Your books are very cool,’” Mr. Burke says.

Language purists, however, don’t think slang is very cool at all. They argue that the acceptance of slang corrupts the English language.

“Anytime you bring slang into the vernacular, it’s a threat to standard English,” warns Jim Wallace, president of the Society for the Preservation of English Language and Literature.

Teens, in particular, are notorious for their contributions to the evolution and perpetuation of slang. Some of these donations, phrases such as “like” and “you know,” are less than advantageous, Mr. Wallace says. Teen talking, including “nonsensical words” and “valley talk,” are “ignorance, but it catches on,” he says.

However, Mr. Burke says he provides an important service for foreign students, who study standard English at home. Consequently, when they arrive in the United States, the idiomatic language spoken by people on the streets confuses them.

“If you don’t understand slang, you’re an outsider and you’re alienated,” Mr. Burke says. “You’re not going to be part of the club.”

The word slang was first used in the 18th century, referring to the language of the underworld, says Anne H. Soukhanov, U.S. general editor of the Microsoft Encarta College Dictionary. It has since been “used to establish or confirm a social identity or cohesiveness within a group or at large,” she says.

And it is our “closed societies” that contribute to the development of slang, Ms. Soukhanov says. Every group — from computer hackers to musicians to high school students to sports fans — develops its own words for communicating.

“Slang is the linguistic equal of style, and it serves the same purpose,” she says.

And as a group, foreigners are the most susceptible to feeling lost in slang. From years of attending ESL and Teaching English as a Second Language fairs, Mr. Burke has met many critics, even though he says many antislang activists sometimes slip up and include slang words in their criticisms. But Mr. Burke takes this all in stride.

“Slang is an essential part of language,” he argues. “If you omit slang from ESL studies you are teaching them a huge disservice.”

A proper understanding of slang is crucial not only for social assimilation reasons, he says, but also for smooth business transactions.

For example, having worked briefly as a tour guide for a movie studio, he recalls a “slang disaster.” The studios told a Japanese production company to “shelve the product” — meaning to halt the project. The Japanese executives bowed, returned home and produced millions of videotapes, putting them on the shelves of video stores everywhere.

In an age of globalization, Mr. Burke warns, U.S. companies must also be aware of slang meanings in foreign cultures. A word with a completely innocuous American definition can have other implications in other cultures. For example, a Ford Pinto might not be the car of choice in Brazil, where the word has a derogatory slang meaning.

A limited knowledge of slang can even prove deadly. “Whether a student uses it or not, they must understand it for their own survival,” Mr. Burke warns.

He points to a 1992 incident in which a Japanese exchange student in Louisiana, on his way to a Halloween party, mistakenly wandered into the wrong house. The property owner yelled, “Freeze.” But Yoshihiro Hattori didn’t understand his meaning and the man shot him.

Ms. Soukhanov agrees that slang is useful, but says students should first learn standard English and informal language to set a linguistic foundation before progressing to slang.

But when the time comes, the best way to learn slang, she says, is by going to movies and watching television.

“Osmosis is the best way of doing it,” she says.

Meanwhile, Mr. Burke will continue as “Slangman,” speaking to millions of listeners eight times a month. And he also hopes to expand his seminar series beyond the verbal differences to include body-language translation.

“It’s a bizarre career that I have, I’m aware,” he says.

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