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Making Sense of American Slang, Idioms

UCLA Extension class helps foreign speakers understand the more subtle points of the language--and culture.


In a bright, airy classroom above the busy streets of Westwood, a group of advanced English students is puzzling over one of its toughest challenges to date:

What is the distinction between "bum" and "bummer"?

Teresa Masear, a dynamic 42-year-old who teaches this class on American slang and idioms to foreign speakers, asks a middle-aged man to define "bummer."

"A guy who doesn't work?" offers Mauricio, who often peruses the Wall Street Journal before class. "Good," Masear says enthusiastically, "but that's a 'bum.'" "Bummer," she explains, once was mostly a surfer term but is now used extensively, especially by young people in California, to mean almost anything unpleasant.

"So you can say a person is a bummer, or a situation, or a class. It's pretty useful. And you can say either just 'bummer' by itself or 'It's a bummer,'" Masear says, printing the word on the board.

As she speaks, 28 heads bend low over notebooks, their owners carefully jotting down the proper spelling and usage of yet another mysterious but possibly important American English term. Several quietly say it aloud.

For eight years, Masear, a UCLA graduate student in education, has taught the UCLA Extension class, offering insights into American--and California--culture alongside her lessons in the language. Her twice-weekly classes are almost always overbooked and many students sign up again and again.

"She's so popular, there's almost a cult of Teresa," says Julie Jaskol, a spokeswoman for UCLA Extension, which offers 4,500 classes a year in everything from home decoration to taxation.

Catering to groups that often include students from more than a dozen countries, Masear, a slender woman with a relaxed manner, says she tries to vary the material both to keep it current and to enable returning students to continue to improve their English.

But the students these days are so sophisticated and have such advanced English skills that it's much more difficult to prepare for them than it once was, Masear says. Nearly all her students have college degrees and many took English classes in their own countries for years before arriving in the United States.

The majority are professionals, sent here on temporary work or educational assignments. Several of those in the current class, for example, are employees of South Korea's second-largest television network, MBC, who were sent to the United States on three-month working holidays; nearly 100 of their colleagues have taken Masear's class in the past.

Others have been here many years but want to become more at ease with English.

"What they want is to learn the more subtle points about the culture and language," Masear says. "You can't teach them boring stuff--they won't put up with it."

Lourdes Marvan, a native of Mexico who has lived in Southern California for four years, has taken Masear's class five times and says it has helped her feel more at ease in American society.

"Half the words Americans use are idioms, and even if you speak some English, you can't understand anything at first," Marvan says. "It's so horrible; you don't feel in the culture at all."

This particular morning, Masear's students are focusing on confusing traffic phrases, from "jaywalking" to "jammed up" to the shouted police command "Pull over!" "You really don't want to be wondering what they're saying when they're trying to get you to stop," Masear says.

One man says he got a ticket for "tailgating" but didn't know what it was and was too embarrassed to ask the officer who stopped him. Two women share similar tales with their sympathetic classmates, saying they got tickets for jaywalking only days after arriving in Los Angeles.

"It's so common in my country, I didn't even think you could get a ticket for it," says Laura Radchik, 44, who moved to Southern California from her native Mexico 16 years ago.

A Spanish language teacher at UCLA Extension, Radchik says she is taking Masear's class to improve her nonacademic English.

Yumiko Tsukamoto of Japan says a word she learned in class--"whiplash"--recently came in handy after a traffic accident, when she was able to use it to explain to a doctor how her neck ached.

"It's very practical," she says of the class.

One of the most popular features of each class is a short film clip, typically packed with at least a dozen idioms or slang expressions. Movies are one of the most difficult aspects of American society for newcomers to grasp, Masear says, because they employ cultural and linguistic shorthand at a pace that can be dizzying to a foreign viewer.

Today, Masear screens part of "Clueless," the 1995 film about a pampered teenager played by Alicia Silverstone. The class chuckles appreciatively as Silverstone's character fails a driving class and then tries to persuade the instructor to pass her anyway.

The class drifts into a discussion of other phrases that trip up foreign speakers of English, laughingly exploring the meaning of everything from "spaced out" to "big hair" and "going postal."

Danielle Bloch, 40, of France says the conversations have helped push her to a higher, more comfortable level of English.

Now, after taking the class three times, "I realize I can understand American people," Bloch says with an air of triumph. "It's wonderful."

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