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.

Read more

Do you LOL out loud? Screen time influence on internet slang irl

Julia Baylon, Rachel Rim, Carolina Guerrero, Hebbah Elokour, and Caelynn Hwang

If you’re a college student reading this, you are a key individual in the composition of the Gen Z identity. Gen Z, today’s 18-23-year-olds, is defined by its fervent slang usage as well as its notorious association with and attachment to technology. Commonly used components of technology in Gen Z include social media platforms, such as Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, TikTok, and Discord. This study investigates the relationship between the two variables of time exposed to social media and slang-impacted conversational speech style. As slang rapidly evolves to shape communication and accommodate the construction and expression of individual identity, we begin to ponder, where does this language style come from, and to what extent does it influence our diction? Through conversational analysis and survey/questionnaire conduction, we hope to understand the explicit impact of social media on conversational slang and whether or not the results support our hypothesis, which argues that greater usage of slang on the internet and/or overall internet presence will result in a higher frequency of slang used in real life.

Our burning question

In a direct relationship with the evolution of social speech, internet slang has transformed from being a marked informal language style to an everyday form of communication. Internet slang influences both the communicative behavior that individuals in society practice along with their daily usage of language. Previous research on first language acquisition reveals that exposure to the respective language is a crucial component to the extent of production ability. Implementing the same argument, we hypothesize that exposure to the internet, where there is an abundance of slang, will affect the frequency that internet-users produce slang in conversation. This study ultimately seeks to understand our proposed research question that asks:  Does the time exposed to social media affect an individual’s conversational speech style and does this influence bleed into their different social media platforms varying informality? 

How did we approach this?

In this study, undergraduate university students will be the target population; the age range is between 18 to 22 years old. Data collection will occur in two parts, first, case studies of three to four recorded conversations, each at least 15 minutes long, will be observed to determine the frequency of slang words used by each participant. The latter half of the data collection will comprise a self-report survey, in which the participant will disclose their social media, respective user handle, and average screen time for each platform. The survey will then prompt participants to reflect and report individual uses of abbreviations, acronyms, and other slang. It concludes with a free response question of whether they think that internet slang influence has a positive or negative impact on speech.

Ultimately, we aimed to examine any correlations between screen time, app usage, self-reported analyses of slang used in real life, and actual usage of slang in real life. The participants involved in this study were unaware of the purpose of the study beforehand, as well, to elicit as natural-sounding conversation as possible. Furthermore, the participants were all friends of the co-authors, to hopefully eliminate any biases potentially introduced by the onset of an “interview-like” setting. The participants were all also friends of the co-authors since during quarantine we were admittedly unsure how to go about encountering people we didn’t already know and recording natural conversations between them.

Our Findings

We asked individuals if they used Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. If they answered “yes”, they reported their average weekly screen time based off their devices’ reports or guestimate. 

Figure 1: Self-reported screen time.                                                                                               * Reported additional socials. Only Subject F reported screen time for Facebook (2 hrs)

We asked the participants if they used any other socials not mentioned in the survey and, if the did, to list them and report their screen time.

Figure 2: Additional socials. Only the subjects who reported any screen time are displayed.


Each of the 10 subjects was asked to assess whether they used Internet slang in their spoken language. The results are displayed here in this pie chart, with the overwhelming majoring responding “yes.”

Figure 3: Self-reported usage of slang in everyday speech


Each of the 10 subjects was asked to assess whether they substituted words in their spoken language. Results appear to be mixed, but again with the majority indicating that they do so at least “Sometimes.”

Figure 4: Self-reported usage of abbreviations in everyday speech


Although Subject A(she/her) had a pretty high average screen time (see Figure 1), the frequency of internet slang used in speech and posts is very little. Looking through her different social media platforms we found that in 2020, 0% of her Instagram posts, 0% of her LinkedIn posts, and 2.5% of her Twitter posts contained slang. About 45-55 minutes of recorded speech were collected for Subject A; this data was collected in the form of a phone call with a friend and the conversation topics were school, quitting a part-time retail job, a trip   to a museum, and apartment life. The results showed very little slang used (3 instances) in the form of emphasized agreement. When the friend expressed being happy living away from home and great dislike at going home for long periods of time, Subject A said “Facts! Period.” There was just one other instance of internet speech used but it was within the same conversation. While analyzing the recorded speech, we were surprised that, in the conversation about the job she hated and quit or the conversation about her trip to a museum, she did not use any slang. The tone of the first was annoyed/frustrated, while the second was very emotional and exciting. However, the Subject used the slang when the tone of the conversation was more neutral; perhaps it was the realization of the neutrality and therefore it was an effort to make the conversation more lively, or it just so happens that she thinks moving out and getting an apartment was the best decision of her life and gets excited when others feel the same. The interesting part was that after the recording was taken and the nature of the experiment revealed, Subject A laughed and expressed that she gave us a lot of material but was surprised when informed that she had only used slang 3 times. This overestimation of slang was seen among the other participants as well (see Figures 3 and 4). In the post-conversation survey, when asked if the influence of internet slang had a positive or negative effect, she answered,

“I think a little bit of both. It’s fun to use and say when with friends or in public. It also helps to reduce tension in conversations or with strangers. However, it is embarrassing and worrisome when people only speak like that or use the slang in essays, emails, etcetera.”

Additionally, Subjects E(he/him) and H(he/him) were also of note due to their significant presence on gaming platforms such as Discord (see Figure 2). During roughly 17 minutes of recorded speech, we were surprised to learn that there was little slang used (sick made an appearance a few times, as well as the occasional expletive), given that the gaming culture has evolved to contain speech community-specific language, which was confirmed in the post-conversation study and their Discord posts. Although their slang was not as active in their other social media platforms, Subject E had 68.7% of posts show slang and Subject H had 31.8% of posts show slang on their Discord (ACM Studio). This large difference between them can be attributed to Subject H’s position of co-presidents of ACM Studio, so his posts tended to be announcements, therefore, a bit more formal. The context of the conversation was generally relaxed and took place while cooking dinner. The topics of conversation strayed away from gaming topics, as there was a third individual present (not included in the study, as she is a co-author of this blog) who isn’t as big in the gaming community. Instead, the conversion-focused on classes, general Instagram-related topics, career focuses, and the like. However, in the post-conversation “debriefing” survey, the participants indicated a higher usage of gamer slang when talking to other gamers/about gaming-related topics. This included words such as pog, gg, F (..to pay respects), and broken (as in someone or something who is unfairly overpowered). As was discovered with Subject A, Subjects E and H also overestimated the extent to which they used slang in their everyday speech, indicating on the post-conversation survey that they believed their speech to “often” or at least “occasionally” use slang words.

The larger sociolinguistic picture

When trying to rationalize how little slang was used by the subjects, the words of sociolinguist Vera Regan came to mind. During her TEDxDublin, “What your speaking style, like, says about you” talk, she discusses how people’s language reflects their values, their goals, and their perception of themselves (2014). So, although Subject A is constantly exposed to internet slang, she will only choose the words that best represent her, as she is right now and who she wants to be in the future. As researchers, it highlighted for us how language is not only a tool for communication but also a form of creative expression that can hint at identity markers (like where we work, where we are from, our interests, etc.) like our style and choice in clothes.

In conclusion, throughout our study, we came to three main observations. The first observation states that some participants may have overestimated the extent to which they use slang in their speech. According to Kim and Ra, a higher frequency of the use of slang in one’s speech might be highly correlated to the limited means of communication that is available to reflect or express emotions, whether it is in written text or on social media (Kim and Ra, 2003). On the other hand, in real life, conveying emotions can come in the forms of facial expressions, voice tones, etc. Future studies investigating the effect of the use of emojis and uppercase letters would be interesting and may be useful to expand on the topic. Based on the data that we collected, our second observation stated that gender has little to no observable variance in our results. Our last observation indicates the conclusion that the topic of the conversation only seems to apply to the usage of speech in specific contexts. For instance, the speech observed of participants during playing a certain online game has sparked specific slang used in that specific game or common around social media platforms.

For future direction, it would be interesting to perform a study relating to specific speech communities. Our study unintentionally tapped on the gamer community, and an in-depth study on the usage of gamer lingo exclusively, correlated to the context in which it’s used (both online and in real life) could provide more detailed insight.



We would like to acknowledge everyone who participated in our study, especially the conversation participants who, after agreeing to participate, were told: “We’re gonna record our conversation for a bit. Don’t worry about it, okay? And no, sorry, we can’t tell you why until after. Just talk normally.” and then had to deal with the resulting confusion for a few minutes after.



An H. Kuppens (2010) Incidental foreign language acquisition from media exposure, Learning, Media and Technology, 35:1, 65-85, DOI: 10.1080/17439880903561876

Kim Y.S., Ra DY. (2003). Constructing an Internet Chatting Dictionary for Mapping Chatting Language to Standard Language. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 2713. DOI: 10.1007/3-540-45036-X_72

TEDx Talks. (2014, November 21). What your speaking style, like, says about you | Vera Regan | TEDxDublin [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/jAGgKE82034

Read more