It’s a hot summer day on Australia’s Gold Coast. Lukas spent years back in Germany dreaming of traveling around Australia. He studied English. He got a working holiday visa. And now he has a year of life in Australia ahead of him.
He drinks his flat white. He plucks up the courage to ask the cafe manager about a job. He’s nervous. He’s excited. The manager says “Come back in the arvo for an interview.”
“Come back in the arvo for an interview.”
Lukas is lost. He’s got no idea what arvo means. He’s too embarrassed to ask. He’s B2 level — simple conversations like this should be no problem. But it is because he doesn’t know the local vernacular.
Lukas isn’t a real person, obviously. But if he was, he should have read this article before going to Australia. Because in it, he’d learn all about vernacular language and how to master it (with a bunch of interesting examples).
What is vernacular language?
Vernacular language is the language a group of people from a specific area or part of society speak. It's an informal language that’s used in every day —mostly spoken — communication. It’s the language of a region or community.
For example, the southern USA has its own vernacular. People in that area have their own way of speaking. Also in the USA is African American Vernacular English. People from that community have their own way of speaking too.
Vernacular language reflects a region or community's unique history, traditions, and social dynamics. It might sound strange and intelligible to untrained ears. But it’s a valuable piece of a culture. It shows the creativity and adaptability of communication and the people of that area.
Vernacular, colloquial language, and slang
These are three kinds of language that are very closely related. They’re easy to mix up but have some important differences. Let’s take a look at their differences.
Colloquial language is the informal language ordinary people use in everyday conversation. It includes relaxed grammar, informal vocabulary, and idiomatic phrases.
Slang is the informal language a group of people use within their group. It’s ever-changing and fun. Teenagers have their own slang. So do rock climbers. Or soccer players. Or lawyers.
Vernacular language is the language of a community — geographical or societal. Of course, there’s a big overlap. A vernacular includes slang and colloquialisms. They’re a huge part of a vernacular.
This is where it gets tough for language learners. You spend hours and hours learning standard language because that’s what’s included in all language courses. But when you visit a place with a strong vernacular, it can sound like a different language.
The thing is, if you can find a way to add these three things to your speaking skills, you’ll amaze people with your natural language.
Bonus tip: Don’t worry about vernacular or slang until you have a specific reason to. For example, if you’re living, working, or studying in a place, you need to understand the locals. In that case, you should learn this informal language. Until you do have a good reason to learn a vernacular or slang, stick to standard informal English (or whatever language you study). It’s much more widespread and useful.
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Vernacular English examples
Let’s take a look at some examples of vernacular from the USA, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. I promise all of these are real. They may sound a little crazy to you. But that’s what a vernacular is. It’s informal, creative, and often humorous language.
“Y’all” is literally “you all” in the Southern states.
“Fixin’ to” means “getting ready to do something” in the Southern states.
“Wicked” means “very” in New England.
“Bodegas” are corner stores in New York City that sell snacks and sandwiches.
“She my sister” means “She’s my sister” in the African-American English vernacular.
United Kingdom examples
“All right?” is a greeting that doesn’t need a response. Like “Hello” and “How are you?” combined.
“Leg it” means to “run away” from a bad situation.
“Nowt” means “nothing” especially in the north of England.
“Kip” means “nap.”
“Chuffed” means “very happy.”
“Barbie” means ‘barbecue.”
“Cakehole” means “mouth.” Yes, really.
“Arvo” means “afternoon.”
“Roo” means “kangaroo.”
“Daks” means “pants or trousers.”
“Keeners” are people who try too hard to accomplish a goal.
“Giver’r” means trying hard to do something impressive.
“Toonies” are two-dollar coins.
“Hosers” are foolish people.
“Toque” means “beanie hat.”
New Zealand examples
“Choice as” means “awesome.”
“Yeah nah” is a filler phrase that has lots of meanings. Usually it means “no” or “maybe.”
“Chur” means “thanks.”
“Jandals” are flip-flops.
“Mate” could be “friend” or “enemy” depending on the tone and context.
All of these vernacular examples are 100% real. This is real-life, native English. It doesn’t sound like the English people study in language schools. But when you’re in a community, mixing with people, going about daily life, this is the language you use.
Vernacular isn’t unique to English. Every language has slang, colloquialisms, and vernaculars. So no matter what language you study, you’ll come across some interesting informal language.
Tips for learning vernacular language
Learning vernacular language isn’t easy. It takes a lot of extra time after you’ve mastered the standard form of a language. Here are some tips for you.
1. Decide if it’s worth the effort
Depending on your language goals, you might not need to learn a vernacular. For example, someone learning Spanish for travel or business only needs standard Spanish. They don’t need to live in a community so the extra time spent learning a vernacular wouldn’t be worthwhile.
But, if you have the goal of living in and being a part of a community, learning the vernacular would be a good use of your time.
2. Mix with the locals
Vernacular language is spoken so there isn’t much written content to get hold of. Movies and TV shows sometimes include vernacular language to add authenticity. But there’s no guarantee that they include the vernacular you want to learn.
There are no shortcuts here I’m afraid. To master vernacular language, you need to be on the ground, interacting and learning from people in that community. Practice the vernacular as much as possible. Immerse yourself in the language. Stay in the area whenever you can.
3. Ask questions
Let’s say you’re down in the community, interacting and practicing vernacular language. You hear a phrase you don’t understand. You check your dictionary… Nothing. You check Google Translate… There’s something, but it doesn’t look right.
Vernacular language is so informal, so non-standard that dictionaries or apps might not include it. So to find out what things mean, you need to ask questions. But don’t ask your language tutor back home (because they probably don’t know). Ask the people in the community.
4. Look beyond the language
A local vernacular is a window into a culture. It reflects the culture, traditions, and history of the community. To learn a vernacular, you need to learn about the people who use it too. It’s their language. They made it (kind of, over many many years). The language and the people come together. They’re not separate things so you need to learn both.
Vernaculars are an interesting (and confusing) part of languages
Vernacular languages are the informal language that everyday people use within their communities. They are the most natural form of a language. The most natural ways for people to communicate. They’re unique, creative, and interesting.
Unfortunately for language learners, they’re also super tricky. Without access to the community, it can be hard to master a vernacular. And many of the meanings don’t make immediate sense.
Before you even start learning a vernacular though, analyze your language goals. You might need to know a regional language. But you might not. For many language learners, standard informal language is plenty.
If you do have a specific need to understand a vernacular, the best way to learn is to spend time in the area. Interact with the community. Be curious and ask questions. Learn about the people, the culture, and the history to give you a meaningful understanding of the vernacular. There’s no shortcuts here — it’ll take years of practice and immersing yourself in the community. But a world of rich, meaningful, and natural communication awaits.
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