Most ESL students love learning idioms. Idioms seem to hold a special magic. Students hear these colorful phrases and struggle to decode them, but you usually can’t guess the meaning of an idiom from the meanings of the individual words. You can understand take and pinch and salt, yet never guess that take it with a pinch of salt means to view a claim with skepticism. How would you know? Learning idioms is like cracking a secret code.
Summer conversation classes at Language ETC offer a good opportunity to incorporate idioms into class work. The atmosphere is relaxed and the curriculum is flexible, so it’s an ideal time to have a little fun with English.
I asked my Advanced Plus students why they like studying idioms. One of my students, Pablo from Argentina, responded in an e-mail:
I think that learning idioms add a lot to understand the American culture and American people. For me, learning idioms is big challenge, a big step, a high understanding. Every day I hear Americans using [idioms] all the time, in the news, in the metro, on the street, with friends. Everybody use this specific structure of words that separately means different things. Idioms sometime don’t have any sense but one time you understand the meaning, voila!
(I’m grateful to Pablo for allowing me to use his comments, here and below. These are his words just as he wrote them, and as he points out, he is still learning. The grammar has not been corrected, but the meaning is clear.)
Students often tackle idioms at the intermediate and advanced levels of ESL. But even beginning students can learn and enjoy some of the simpler ones that have straightforward meanings, like it’s raining cats and dogs. Here are a few of the idioms that our Advanced Plus students have learned:
break a habit
break a promise
break someone’s heart
call someone names
come in handy
get on someone’s nerves
get in touch with
give it a shot
give someone a dirty look
give someone a hard time
keep an eye on something
keep one’s fingers crossed
let go of
make a fool of oneself
make a living
make ends meet
make fun of someone
pass the hat
put one’s foot in one’s mouth
put one’s money where one’s mouth is
turn a blind eye to something
turn over a new leaf
There are thousands of English idioms (one scholar estimates at least 25,000!), and students can’t possibly learn them all. In selecting which to teach, I like to look for the most common ones — utilitarian phrases like get in touch with and keep track of that we use on a daily basis. The vivid but seldom used expressions like once in a blue moon are fun to learn occasionally, but one wouldn’t want to spend too much class time on them.
Some idioms are particularly hard to grasp. Among the most difficult for our class were live it down and let well enough alone. They just seemed to defy explanation. On the other hand, everyone immediately understood pass the buck when given this example:
There was a problem with my paycheck, so I called the Payroll Department. Payroll told me to ask Accounting. Accounting said to take my problem to Human Resources. Nobody in this company wants to take responsibility! They just pass the buck.
When asked to write their own sentences using pass the buck, students offered a litany of customer service and workplace woes: “My TV wasn’t working so I called the cable company, and . . .” It seems that everyone is all too familiar with buck passing. We also talked about a related expression, the buck stops here.
The first step for ESL students is understanding idioms when they hear others use them. They will need to hear and understand a given expression quite a few times before they are ready to use it themselves. Because idioms are fixed phrases and can also be clichés, getting even one word wrong can make a person sound unclear or even faintly ridiculous. Thus English learners take a certain risk when they attempt to incorporate idioms in their speech. My student again:
The learning of idioms is very important to me, but only to know the meaning, because in my point of view using idioms for nonnative [English speakers] is hard, and sometimes can sound kind of weird with different accent or pronunciation. Imagine that I make a mistake when using the wrong preposition in the middle of a meeting or a social event. Just because I don’t remember exactly the idiom. Ops!! It will be very embarrassing. Nobody understands you and then you are trying to explain what do you really want to say and after all of that, you mess up the conversation.
In our Advanced Plus class, we often teach idioms together with phrasal verbs. We study them in clusters around a key verb, like break or make or pass or put. So our lesson on put, for example, included phrasal verbs like put away and put off and put up with, as well as idioms like put all one’s eggs in one basket and put two and two together.
We don’t give the students definitions for idioms. Instead we use each idiom in a sample sentence or series of sentences that makes the meaning clear, and let the students figure it out from the context. For example:
We’re having a surprise birthday party for Mike! It’s a big secret. If you see him, don’t let the cat out of the bag.A good sample sentence leaves no doubt as to the meaning of the idiom. Based on the example, the students guess what the idiom means and talk about situations where you might use it. They then practice writing their own sentences using the phrase. Pablo says:
For me the best way to learn idioms is memorize the meaning contextually and try to find more examples or situations that help me use it. In resume, learn idioms directly for a real context. Chat or conversation is the best way.
One important thing that sometimes confuse me is that my mind create a relation about the idiom with a real picture of the meaning. Let me give you an example. When I heard for the first time “the elephant in the room,” automatically my mind associated the meaning with a literal meaning, an elephant in the room. But the meaning is completely different.
There are many books and websites available for teaching idioms. Most seem intended for intermediate and advanced learners. They are probably best used as supplementary materials, for an occasional change of pace, rather than as the primary teaching material for a class.
The Idiom Book: 1010 Idioms in 101 Two-Page Lessons, by Hal Niergarth (Prolingua, 2007). Language ETC has a copy of this book.
All Clear, volumes 1–3, by Helen Kalkstein Fragiadakis (Thomson Heinle, 2006). Each lesson starts with a short text packed with idioms; this is followed by explanations and exercises. My students enjoyed this book in Advanced Conversation last summer.
The BBC’s Learning English website has a section called “The English We Speak.” It features a new idiom each week, with an archive that goes back through 2011. Each idiom is taught through a short dialogue that is offered in both audio and print.
The Idiom Connection is a website entirely devoted to idioms. They are organized by keyword, such as “call idioms,” “hand idioms,” and so forth. For each idiom, the site gives a brief definition and a sample sentence (print only; there’s no audio).
However they’re taught, idioms retain a special importance in ESL. Students feel like “real” English speakers when they can understand, and later use, these expressions. I’ll let Pablo have the last word:
So, let me wrap it out. Once you have the idiom’s knowledge and you can use it in a conversation you will reach the benefit of that. Firstly you’ll proud about yourself, second you’ll integrate in the American society, and lastly you never will lose a conversation or a meaning. Let’s do it!