Turn on Your Camera, Foo : Slang and Visual Cues in the Classroom

Jiajun Weng, Chris Lam, Christine Chang, Terri See Lok Ho, Wei Lin

Have you ever wondered whether understanding what your classmates are saying and the seeing their cameras is essential to succeed in the course?

You’re not alone.

During this special period, education has primarily moved on to online. Many international students from UCLA taking online courses claim that they feel alienated in the class because they cannot see their classmates when their classmates are talking, and they sometimes cannot understand the online slang used by their classmates. Does the usage of online slang and lack of visual cues truly impact their learning experience?

For finding out the answer to this question, we conducted a study to investigate how the use of slang and the lack of visual cues contribute to international students’ comprehension difficulties and their feelings of alienation. The survey sample comprised entirely of UCLA students. By analyzing the data, we found that interestingly, their feeling of alienation was not affected by usage of online slang nor lack of visual cues. Furthermore, we found that their comprehension was not associated with inclusiveness. That is, it shows that one can still succeed in the class even if one feels alienated.


International students in an English-speaking country such as the United States face various challenges related to language. For instance, they struggle with the use of slang and cultural references in a classroom setting. In Bradford’s research, he found that “Teaching colloquial speech in any language can be important for acquisition and assimilation into the language’s cultural group” (Bradford, 2010). In a separate study, Albalawi found that some L2 learners indicate learning slang is helpful for students to fit in socially in college and gain confidence (Albalawi, 2014). Both articles demonstrate that learning the slang of other cultural groups is a crucial tool for L2 learners to master if they want to become more assimilated. However, some of these difficulties in comprehension can be overcome by implicit cues such as facial expressions and gestures (Sueyoshi & Hardison, 2005).

A comment about Figure 1 below showing the breakdown of UCLA students and their experience with English. Moving onto online learning platforms during the global COVID-19 pandemic, international students face new challenges like adapting to the lack of visual cues — such as facial expression and gestures — as well as the colloquial way people speak during Zoom lectures. As a consequence, international students’ ability to comprehend course materials may be compromised by the lack of social cues. With limited understanding of course material, these students could subsequently feel disconnected, or even isolated from the class, and hence disengaged with the course.

International students who engage primarily on non-English social media platforms, such as Wechat, Weibo or KakaoTalk, may have found it more difficult to navigate higher education in this virtual environment. Within this experimental study, we investigated how the use of slang and the lack of visual cues contribute to international students’ comprehension difficulties and their feelings of alienation. Specifically, we expected to find increased feelings of alienation and reduced engagement among international students in the face of online English jargon and little visual cues. However, we hypothesized that the use of slang should not significantly impact students when visual cues are present in the recorded lecture because non-verbal communication can be an important source of motivation and concentration for students’ learning as well as a tool for taking and maintaining attention (Zeki ,2009).

Figure 1: UCLA students’ distribution


Collecting Data: Setting up a Classroom

An experimental study was conducted to test our hypotheses about how the manner of people’s speech during the lecture and visual cues (i.e., facial cues and gestures) interacted with each other to influence international students’ understanding of the course materials and their feeling as a member of the class. In the current experiment, we showed our 16 international student participants one of the four Zoom lecture recordings in which we systematically varied the manner of speech of people in that class, as well as the presence of visual cues. To manipulate people’s manner of speech during class, the student confederates discussed the class material in standard English or in a colloquial manner that involved the use of English slangs, like “btw” or “hella”. To manipulate the presence (or absence) of visual cues such as facial cues and gestures, confederates in the current class video will either turn on or off their camera and showed their face and hand movement during the lecture recordings. Please see Table 1 for a demonstration.

Table 1: Matrix of variables and samples of corresponding experimental script


After the participant watched one of the four mock zoom lecture recordings, they were instructed to complete a questionnaire that assessed their understanding of the lecture content, which is about this basic psychological phenomenon called the cognitive dissonance theory. Besides the objective measure of participants’ understanding of the class material, their subjective perception of how well they understood the lecture was also assessed. Finally, we measure how much these participants feel like a member of the class and the likelihood of engaging with the lecture if they were present in the Zoom meeting room.

Results and What They Mean

Figure 2: Video On and using Slang trail; participants’ feeling of alienation


Our findings supported the initial hypothesis that having video on in these online lectures affected students’ level of comprehension. However, there wasn’t a statistically meaningful difference in feelings of exclusion. In particular, the analysis showed that there was a meaningful difference between the results of the survey question regarding subjective comprehension conducted with the students who watched the lecture with video and without video, regardless of whether there was slang or standard English used. However, even by looking at Figure 2 and Figure 3, it is clear that students felt excluded either way.

Figure 3: ’Video Off and using Slang trial; participants’ feeling of alienation


The same was true regarding our initial hypotheses about slang usage. The study showed a statistically meaningful difference in level of self-reported comprehension, but not on the feelings of exclusion. Visually comparing Figures 2 and 4 shows that the responses to the question about alienation were not meaningfully different when video was on vs. off in Figures 3 and 5. Even a cursory review of the results of all the survey questions that attempted to measure feelings of exclusion and alienation showed high levels across the board, boding negatively for online classes as a whole.

Figure 4: Video On and using Standard English trial; participants’ feeling of alienation


Figure 5: Video Off and using Standard English trial; participants’ feeling of alienation


And perhaps the most important result came from comparing the interaction factors of video and slang in the comprehension question. What our study found was that while there is a statistically meaningful difference in individual comprehension in response to both factors, i.e., video and slang, there was not significant interaction between them when it came to self-reported levels of comprehension. That is to say, contrary to our initial hypothesis, a factor like having video on doesn’t necessarily interact meaningfully with the differences caused by slang usage in comprehension.

Figure 6: The rate of participants correctly answering the quiz questions


However, when it comes to the actual analysis of the answers to the quiz questions, not just self-reported comprehension, there is a noticeable interaction factor. Figure 6 shows that when slang is used, the presence of video had a significant impact on actual comprehension as measured through the quizzes, whereas video had less impact when standard English was used. 

There are, of course, various factors that could be complicating this kind of analysis. The subjects chosen for the mock lesson, were it more or less visual, may have more of an effect on how these two variables interact. The length of the lesson may have an impact on all these variables depending on how often it becomes relevant that video is used or not. This study is not necessarily definitive but poses some important questions on how all of these variables can be utilized by educators in aiding comprehension and limiting alienation in classrooms.

Conclusion: The Classroom and Beyond

All in all, more research should be done with regards to the virtual learning environments that most of the world was thrown into due to the pandemic. There may be many key improvements to education in general, whether online classes are here to stay for a while or not. From our initial hypothesis that English slang negatively impacts international students’ engagement with and understanding of classroom material, we find that comprehension may be hindered by slang usage and a lack of visual cues, independently; however, international students seem to feel like they do not “fit in” with the class regardless of these variables, and their aptitude does not seem to suffer because of that in general.

We live in an ever growing technologically dependent society, yet online meetings can often feel like an obstacle and/or a divider when compared to in-person classes. In the article “Depression and Everyday Social Activity, Belonging, and Well-Being,” Michael and Todd stated that “When people experience positive social interactions, they should be more likely to feel a sense of belonging.” Alongside virtual meetings in the workplace, there is a lot that can be done by the hosts to improve distracting and frustrating video calls. Based on this small study, we recommend professors and teachers to encourage students to turn on their videos, with the caveat that there may be personal and privacy challenges. We can say that there may be evidence that doing so will help students’ comprehension of the material. We also suggest addressing slang and jargon when it arises in the classroom, making sure to at least clarify rather than exacerbate what may negatively impact some students’ learning outcome.

There are an endless number of questions to be asked in the realm of education research, with regards to both online and in-person mediums. Perhaps this experiment may be repeated with a live virtual classroom setting to really capture engagement and chat-box interaction data. Furthermore, there is something to be examined in asynchronous learning, i.e., these pre-recorded lectures in the study that subjects independently and asynchronously watched. In a pandemic that generates so many struggles, personally and in education, there is the possibility that Zoom lectures are a breakthrough to education access the world needs; we just need to optimize and adapt to it, rather than conceding at its shortcomings.


Further info

The PowerPoint form of this blog entry

A TedTalk which talks about the relationship between inclusiveness and your manner of speech




Albalawi, A.S. (2014). Saudi L2 learners’ knowledge and perceptions of academic English slang. [Order No. 1566835]. Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

Bradford P.B. (2010). The acquisition of colloquial speech and slang in second language learners of English in El Paso, Texas . [Order No. 1484150]. The University of Texas at El Paso.

Steger, M. F., & Kashdan, T. B. (2009). Depression and Everyday Social Activity, Belonging, and Well-Being. Journal of counseling psychology, 56(2), 289–300. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0015416

Sueyoshi, A. & Hardison, D.M. (2005). The Role of Gestures and Facial Cues in Second Language Listening Comprehension. Language Learning, 55: 661-699. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0023-8333.2005.00320.x

Zeki, C. P. (2009). The importance of non-verbal communication in classroom management. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 1(1), 1443-1449.

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