How to Learn Modern Expressions in English

The English you hear on the streets (which is the English you want to speak) is different from textbook English.

Textbooks and novels don’t always teach English learners about modern, everyday English.

Let’s look at a little example.


What Makes Modern English So Important

Last week, I was reading the classic novel “A Little Princess.”

It was written in 1905. The language of the book is English, but the English doesn’t sound the same as my usual English.

The narration and dialogue was filled with words and phrases I had never used or put together. It was like eating cake with jalapeño peppers (spicy peppers). Weird!

For example, look at this line of description from the story.
“Presently, she lifted her face and shook back her black locks, with a queer little smile.”

None of the words are hard, but they aren’t written in a way that would sound natural to any modern reader.

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To begin with, the author writes “presently.” Instead of that word, I would write “soon” or “shortly.”

She uses the word “locks” where you or I would write “hair.”

Worst of all, she uses “queer” as an adjective for “strange”!

In a modern story, the same sentence would look like this:
“Soon, she lifted her face and shook back her black hair, with a strange little smile.”

The lesson from this little exercise is that we need to use words in context—the context of the modern world.

We need to know what words mean and how they’re used today. Otherwise, you’ll sound like a textbook. Or worse, you’ll make some offensive errors.

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“Okay, great,” you say. “How do I do this?”

How to Learn Modern Expressions and Speak English Like a Cool Kid

Before we dive into what it takes to learn modern expressions, it’s worth your time to become familiar with FluentU. This language learning program lets you watch videos that native English speakers actually watch, so you’ll get to hear all kinds of modern English expressions and phrases used in context.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

You can try FluentU for free for 2 weeks. Check out the website or download the iOS app or Android app.

P.S. Click here to take advantage of our current sale! (Expires at the end of this month.)

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Once you’ve started practicing your modern English with FluentU, another great way to learn words in their modern context is to read fun articles.

You want articles that are trying to be funny and relate to modern readers in a humorous way—articles that are in no way trying to be serious.

In these fun articles, English is used most casually, almost like spoken English. Writers pay attention to sound and phrasing. They want to sound cool and interesting, and they want their articles to be readable (easy to read), so they won’t use difficult words.

They use expressions and idioms naturally, so you can get closer to using that list of 20 idioms you just memorized.

english modern expressions

Let’s use an example. There’s a fun website some of you probably know called Buzzfeed.

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It collects articles that discuss the most shared and talked about topics in English speaking communities. They reference popular culture and current events topics, and use lots of pictures to help you understand.

Let’s give it a try, shall we?

1. Find an article you think is interesting.

I picked this one: “39 Things Newly Single People Say And What They Actually Mean.” I like it because it’s actually about English speakers looking at their own use of language.

What do people say in English when they’ve just ended their relationship with their boyfriend or girlfriend?

So, through this article we can learn together and have a bit of a laugh.

2. Understand the tone and main idea of the article.

Knowing tone (the way things are said) and the main idea is important for you to know what’s going on and read the English properly.

Be careful, because many fun articles are sarcastic (making fun of things in a serious tone).

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The article we’ve chosen about sad single people is easy to understand completely because it’s a humor article.

What’s the tone of the article?

Since it’s a humor article, the tone is going to be light-hearted, happy and funny. It’s going to be making fun of people for not saying what they’re really thinking all the time.

It’s probably going to make single people feel like they’re not alone, and like the feelings they’re experiencing are normal and okay.

What’s the point of the article?

It’s going to look at English phrases that people commonly say after they’ve had a breakup (ended a romantic relationship).

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A quick look at the list shows that what people say is very positive.

However, we all know that, after a breakup, we don’t feel positive. We don’t think positive things.

We feel the opposite. We feel so terrible that we may not remember what it is to feel positive.

This is where the “what they actually mean” part of the title comes in. It’s going to rewrite the positive phrases we say to express the negative feelings we feel.

Here, we can see that each positive expression is followed by a negative expression.

3. Read it once, quickly, and enjoy it.

If you don’t understand, skip it. Enjoy the funny photos and laugh at what you do understand.

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Why are we doing this? First, because it’s fun. It’s good to link English to things that make you happy. This will help your motivation.

Second, even when you don’t completely understand, you’re still becoming familiar with seeing modern words and phrases. You brain will remember what you’re seeing. Next time, it will be a little better.

Think about how a child learns to speak. A baby listens to everything. She doesn’t understand the words you’re using, but she hears all the sounds. She hears that they go in a particular order and she slowly begins to give those sounds meaning. It’s a long time before she uses them herself. When she does start to use those English words, she usually uses them correctly.

Why? Because it sounds right.

4. Read it again, and focus on learning five new words or expression.

That’s right. Only five.

I’ll walk you through how it’s done.

In this example, let’s look at expression number 19 in that Buzzfeed article. It’s a bit tricky.

“I am SO over him/her.”

First of all, hear it in your head. You know that because SO is in capital letters, that’s where you should put the stress (emphasis).

You’ll say “SO” more loudly or strongly than the other words.

The problem here is the use of “over.” What does it mean to be over someone?

Well, we do know that this is the positive expression that the person is saying. The next line, the negative expression, can help us understand.

The negative expression next to this positive expression is: “why can’t I stop thinking about them?”

This negative expression is the opposite meaning of the first phrase, which is positive.

So being over someone means that you’ve stopped thinking about the other person.

“I am SO over him/her,” literally means “I don’t think about him (or her) anymore.”

This article is telling us that people often say they don’t think about their ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend after a breakup, but they’re lying.

They actually can’t stop thinking about them!

5. Pick one of the new phrases and use it sometime during the day.

This will feel awkward, especially if you don’t usually speak English to other people.

You can make this feel less awkward in two ways.

A. You can find a friend to practice your expressions with. Hopefully, this friend will also be a similar English level to you. Tell them that you’re going to practice your expressions.

B. Talk to yourself. If you don’t have anyone to talk to in English, practice by speaking out loud to yourself. You can hear yourself say it and practice the pronunciation and speed.

Why do you need to do this?

Because when you practice an expression, you’re being creative with language. You’re using it, rather than memorizing it.

English isn’t just in textbooks, novels and articles anymore. It’s part of your daily life and your way of thinking.

Let’s take the example again of the phrase “I am SO over him/her.”

You have to think about using this phrase creatively or you’ll forget it.

Hopefully, you haven’t had a recent breakup.

But this is the phrase yo’re going to use today, so you have to try to use it in other ways.

What else can you be “over” besides a person? What is something that you thought about all the time, but now you don’t?

Sometimes, this can be food. Maybe you’ve been on a diet and you don’t eat pizza anymore. You could say, “I am SO over pizza.”

Sometimes, this could be old music you loved that you no longer think is good. “I am SO over ‘Gangnam Style,’” you could say the next time you hear it and feel annoyed.

It could be a place, a hobby, a book–anything will do.

Now you can see how useful this phrase is, and you’ll remember it the next time you want to express this feeling.

6. Let’s summarize the process.

1. Find a fun English article that you want to read.

2. Understand the tone and main idea of the article.

3. Read it first for fun.

4. Learn five new expressions.

5. Use one new expression during the day. Use it creatively.

6. Go do it. Now.

After all, being fluent in English means actually using English.

I’m so over speaking old, boring English!

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:


If you want to watch it, the FluentU app has probably got it.

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.


FluentU lets you learn engaging content with world famous celebrities.

For example, when you tap on the word "searching," you see this:


FluentU lets you tap to look up any word.

Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.


FluentU helps you learn fast with useful questions and multiple examples. Learn more.

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 the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store. Click here to take advantage of our current sale! (Expires at the end of this month.)

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