How to Improve Your English Communication Skills with Pop Culture Knowledge
“I Ubered to work today.”
A friend said that to me once.
I didn’t understand her at all.
I had spent years outside of the United States, living in Madagascar. I didn’t know about Uber, a smartphone app that calls a private taxi for you.
She was basically saying, “I took a taxi to work today.” But since I wasn’t up-to-date on American popular culture, I didn’t know what she was talking about.
People in English-speaking countries often reference (mention or bring up) popular culture in everyday conversation.
When you’re not familiar with the reference, this can be confusing.
And that’s true for native English speakers as well!
I know how frustrating it is to not understand an everyday situation. That’s why I’m going to tell you some ways to better your pop (short for “popular”) culture knowledge.
A big part of improving your English communication skills is just learning what native English speakers are talking about.
Once you’re up-to-date on all the latest, you might be surprised how much more you understand.
Use Online Resources to Look Up Pop Culture References
Have you ever tried looking up a word in a dictionary, but couldn’t find it?
While dictionaries include most words, they often don’t include pop culture references or slang. That’s because these are newer and less proper ways of speaking. But they’re still very common.
Fortunately, there are some fantastic online resources to help you learn slang and pop culture references:
- Urban Dictionary. Don’t understand “swipe left” or “hella”? Look it up in Urban Dictionary, a dictionary of slang words with user-written definitions. (Just be aware that there may be offensive language or ideas.) Some words include multiple definitions, synonyms (words that are similar) and examples. It’s also the best resource for looking up common acronyms like “Lol” (Laughing out loud) or “Btw” (By the way). If you’re not familiar with acronyms, we’ll talk more about those later.
- On the Tip of My Tongue. This is a Canadian website that helps you learn different slang expressions.
- BBC’s “The English We Speak” podcast series. This BBC podcast helps you learn how English is actually spoken. Idioms, slang and pop culture references are included.
When all else fails, search using Google. Type in the word or phrase you don’t understand. Add “meaning” at the end. For example: “Btw meaning.”
If that doesn’t help, type “what is” before the word. For example: “What is Uber?”
Watch Popular TV Shows and Movies
When I talk with my family, we can easily spend 20 minutes talking about our favorite TV shows. We talk about the characters like they are our friends. We say things like, “Can you believe Sasha is marrying Ben?” or “Did you see what happened to Phil last Sunday?”
Many Americans have long and excited conversations about current TV shows or movies. If you want to be a part of the conversation, try following one or two popular TV shows. You can find some on the home pages or “popular” sections of these websites:
Americans also love to use quotes from TV shows or movies in conversation. A phrase may sound like a natural part of the conversation, when it’s actually a quote from a movie.
Even though I’m a native English speaker, I often don’t realize people are quoting movies. In my own experience, I’ve learned to just ask.
If you think a person just quoted from a movie, ask them, “Is that a movie quote?”
Or say, “I don’t get it.”
Rotten Tomatoes is another great resource to find out about any movie ever made. They also list the most popular TV shows and movies on their main page.
Listen to Popular Music
Keep up-to-date on music pop culture by listening to current music.
To find recent and popular music videos, Vevo is a good place to look. YouTube has videos on almost everything. But Vevo only posts music videos and can keep you up-to-date on new and popular songs.
If you’re just interested in songs, check out Billboard 100. It’s a well-known resource for seeing what new songs are getting the most listeners.
I also like to use Songza, a website with playlists (lists of songs). The playlists are organized by genre (type) and mood, and can help you discover new songs.
Keep Up-to-date on Popular Apps
Sometimes, popular apps take the place of common words. I already gave an example of “to Uber” meaning “to take a taxi.” But that’s definitely not the only app being used in conversation.
At the moment, a couple other examples include:
- “You can Venmo me for the coffee.” This means: “You can pay me back for the coffee (using Venmo, an app that allows you to send money to friends).”
- “We’re out of milk. Do you want me to Instacart some?” This means: “We’re out of milk. Do you want me to order some milk and have it delivered (using Instacart, an app that allows you to do this)?”
To learn more about popular apps, check out Digital Trends. They have a list of the most popular apps for 2015, and will likely keep making more lists like this.
Read Smaller Blogs
Unlike writers for big magazines and newspapers, smaller bloggers are more likely to write like they speak.
To really learn about pop culture references and common speech, find a few small blogs you like. Read them often. This way, you can read how people speak. But you can still read the words at your own pace.
I like reading travel blogs like The Everywhereist. Maybe you like sports, music or fashion. I promise, you will find a blog about a topic you like. Follow the blog (or blogs), and read them several times a week. You can also use Facebook pages to learn English.
Some great blogs on common topics are:
- Parenting: People I Want to Punch in the Throat
- Fashion: The Small Things Blog
- Fitness: FitBits (in British English)
- Food: Smitten Kitchen
- Everything else: Medium
To find new blogs, try looking at the Weblog Awards for recommendations.
Pay attention to how bloggers write. Make a note of words or phrases you don’t understand. What words do they use? What words do they not use? Is the grammar different? What pop culture references do they use?
Listen for New Trends in Speaking
You probably already know that spoken English can be different from written English. For example, instead of saying “going to,” we might say “gonna.”
Recently, young people have begun to shorten words. So, instead of saying “totally,” they will say “tots” (pronounced “totes”).
Again, reading informal blogs will help you learn these new ways of speaking. Urban Dictionary will help explain some of them, too. But you will learn about them best by listening to music, watching TV and reading blogs and magazines.
Know Your Text Acronyms
Acronyms are letters used as an abbreviation (shorter way of saying something). They are often used when communicating in English.
Most popular acronyms were originally used only in text and online messages. Now, we sometimes use them in everyday spoken English. When learning text acronyms, you should understand both what the acronym is short for and how you would say it out loud.
You might see these written with or without all capital letters. For example, you might see “lol” or “LOL,” but they mean the same thing.
Some very common acronyms that English speakers use in texts (and sometimes spoken English) are:
J/k or Jk (Just kidding)
We use “j/k” or “jk” when we want to explain that we were joking about something. For example:
“You’re so dumb, jk!”
Lol (Laughing out loud)
Use this to show that you are laughing or that something is funny. If something is really funny, you can write “lmao.” Usually, you will only see “lmao” in written conversation, but you will sometimes hear “lol” in spoken conversations. Usually, when speaking these popular acronyms, people will say each letter (“L…O…L”). But sometimes they will say this one like “lawl.”
Btw (By the way)
Use this when you’re adding on information. For example:
“What are you bringing to dinner?”
“I’ll bring wine. And I’ll be there at 6, btw.”
We don’t actually say “sry.” But sometimes we write “sry” instead of saying “sorry.”
Atm (At the moment)
This means “at the moment” or “right now.” For example:
“Hey, can you talk?”
“Sry, I’m busy atm.”
Wtf (What the f***?)
Use this when you are surprised (but not happy) about something. Or use it to say that something is weird or confusing. For example:
“My brother stole $20 from me!”
“Wtf? That’s not OK!”
“We ate crickets at lunch.”
“Wtf? Really? That’s weird.”
Use this if you do not want to continue the conversation. We mostly write this.
“I don’t understand. What are you asking?”
“Nvm. It’s not important.”
Omg (Oh my god)
Use this when you are surprised. It can be for a good thing or a bad thing. You will often hear this in spoken English.
“My sister is getting married!”
“Omg! That’s wonderful!”
Brb (Be right back)
Use this to say you will return shortly.
Idk (I don’t know)
This is an easy one, but just in case you need an example:
“What time is the party?”
“Idk. Ask Sarah.”
Know When to Use Informal Speech
Of course, knowing pop culture will help your English communication with friends. It will help you sound like a more natural, native speaker. But you also need to know when not to use this popular knowledge in conversation.
When you write or talk to friends, you can use any of these references. However, if you are at work or a professional setting, it’s not usually appropriate.
You should never shorten words (like saying “tots” instead of “totally”) in professional settings. Save the pop culture references for after work!
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions
In the end, learning popular knowledge should be fun. Take notes. Try new words when you’re practicing English online. And if you don’t understand something, you can always ask your friends.
More times than not, this will start a great conversation.
Whether it’s Uber or the TV show “Game of Thrones,” there’s usually a simple explanation.
So don’t be afraid to ask.
The more you learn about pop culture, the easier English communication will be for you.
You’ve got this.
And One More Thing...
If you like learning English through movies and online media, you should also check out FluentU. FluentU lets you learn English from popular talk shows, catchy music videos and funny commercials, as you can see here:
The FluentU app and website makes it really easy to watch English videos. There are captions that are interactive. That means you can tap on any word to see an image, definition, and useful examples.
For example, when you tap on the word "searching," you see this:
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The best part? FluentU remembers the vocabulary that you’re learning. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You have a truly personalized experience.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or from the Google Play store.