The Most Fun Way to Learn a Language – The Atlantic

Until a few years ago, I couldn’t speak Spanish without sounding about half a century older—and much more religious—than I am. The language is the first one I learned, but I was taught it primarily by my Dominican grandmother, a woman so pious that she routinely brags about her prayer regimen bruising her knees. Consequently, I wouldn’t say I was going to the grocery store without a compulsory “God willing”—si Dios quiere.

My grandma helped raise me in the Dominican Republic, but I moved to the U.S. as a child, where I mostly spoke English. So I wasn’t aware of how I sounded in Spanish until adulthood, when I returned to Santo Domingo and tried to socialize beyond my grandmother’s milieu. Around people my age, I struggled to approximate a personality. In an attempt to fit in, I self-imposed reggaeton studies, at the remedial level. The Dembow artist Kiko El Crazy got me up to date on la pámpara (roughly, “It’s lit” or “extremely good,” in English). The rapper and singer Bad Bunny gave me more terms for male genitalia than my abuela’s prayers will ever forgive. Soon, my Spanish widened past the vaguely apostolic version I’d learned at home. Slang was teaching me something fundamental: that unlike what many of us internalized in school, language is not a fixed algorithm to decode. It is fluid and flowering, as changing and heterogenous as we are.

This year, you may have resolved to improve your heritage language or to learn an entirely new one. You wouldn’t be alone: In one 2022 survey, Millenial and Gen Z respondents ranked picking up a “new language” as third and fourth, respectively, among their top skills to learn in the new year. Yet sharpening a language you might not regularly speak is no easy feat when snide comments from fluent relatives and a lack of everyday ways to practice can make generational language attrition feel inevitable.

That’s why I’m giving up on the idea of language “mastery” and its implied flawlessness. I will no longer chastise myself for slipping up in Spanish or German (my father’s native tongue, in which I also sound like a septuagenarian), or for sounding a little dated. Instead, I propose that heritage-language speakers, or anyone who’s honing another language, ditch Duolingo and take the Bob Ross approach toward language acquisition: 0 percent mistakes, 100 percent happy accidents. Language learning need not be an ego-boosting pursuit of perfection; instead, think of it as a messy attempt to reach for the world. And picking up some slang is an ideal way to embrace this perspective.

One reason for this resolution is that slang’s creative twists uniquely engage our attention. In Slang: The People’s Poetry, Michael Adams, an English professor at Indiana University, discusses a study in which researchers measured the brain activity of people reading Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus. They found that when Shakespeare used language inventively, such as turning a noun into a verb (he “godded me,” as in He put me on a pedestal), subjects’ brains got especially active. This noun-verb switch is an example of what linguists call a “functional shift,” and it’s one tactic of slang (think of I’m shook). Slang’s flourishes and witticisms—its fresh lunge at the world—wake our brains up.

This linguistic inventiveness can also remind us that languages have fewer hard-and-fast rules than we might think. That can change our very orientation toward language learning. Turning a noun into a verb, or vice versa, is part of linguistic evolution; so is riffing between two different languages. Take the common, informal Dominican words poloche (from the English polo shirt) and guachimán (from watchman, often used for security guards), which reveal how porous the boundaries between languages can be.

Slang can also connect us to a current, if ephemeral, version of a culture. Although “slang” is a slippery category, we might understand it as a vital way to make sense of others’ lives right now. People constantly workshop language to best reflect their community, time period, and identity, Jonathan Rosa, a linguistic anthropologist at Stanford, told me. Slang is one output of this ongoing improvisation, and by trying to grasp it, we learn the language not just of a place but of a time. Slang tethers us to a land—even if we’ve left it—and to our unrepeatable present.

For heritage-language learners, slang can also help us audition unexplored parts of ourselves. For instance, when I first used the Dominican slang word bacano (roughly meaning “This is awesome”) in conversation, I experienced myself in Spanish as not just a daughter and granddaughter but as a 20-something with my own opinions and ways to say them. When you’re not fluent in your family’s language, you might default to the role of student, child, or interloper. On X (formerly Twitter), users lamented the “old fart” and “oddly formal caveman” roles they took up in other languages. Slang can liberate you to figure out who you want to be in your heritage language, outside of family influences. By developing that identity, you can widen the circle of who you more intimately relate to. The purpose of colorful vernacular is primarily relational, not about exchanging information or coordinating on a task. Even if we don’t speak a language with total ease, we can wield slang to better understand and bond with others.

Most of all, though, learning slang is fun—as language ought to be. Of course, slang must be handled with care: Finding the appropriate social venue for the particular vernacular is a skill in itself. Since I value my one life, I would never dream of saying bellaca around my abuela (vaguely, um, “riled up”). But when you spot the right moments, enjoy yourself. “Once upon a time, we were all casually clever, inventive, playful, vivid, rebellious speakers,” Adams writes in his book. “Sooner or later, responsibilities mount and we quail at the linguistic risk.” I doubt I’ll ever fully sound my age in Spanish, and I’ll likely keep prefacing my plans with an acknowledgment of the divine. Yet conquering some linguistic hill of vocabulary and grammar is no longer the goal. Instead, I want to savor language’s abundant ways of translating experience. If I mess up, that’s okay. Soon the slang will change again, and I’ll get to play some more.