Why teach idioms

One of the things that really gives a language its character is its idioms, yet when I first started teaching I was always a little wary of spending too much time explicitly teaching them. If I had to put it in a nutshell, i.e. summarise it clearly, I would say that my reluctance stemmed from a fear that learners would find the idioms obscure and struggle to use them correctly. 

However, experience has taught me differently.  Here’s why: 

1. Students very often describe situations for which an idiom is the best way of expressing what they want to say.  Giving them the idiom therefore expands their ability to communicate their meaning.

2. Learners are often keen to give me a translation of an idiom in their language and very often I can supply the equivalent expression in English.  For example, a Korean student told me that in Korean there is an expression along the lines of ‘someone else’s rice cake always looks bigger than yours.’  In English we would say ‘The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.’ Both of these sayings neatly and memorably express the idea that something which you already have can be appealing just because it belongs to someone else.

3. It’s actually impossible to avoid idiomatic language altogether, and many expressions which seem natural to a native speaker have a metaphorical meaning which, once understood, clarifies the expression for learners.  For example native speakers often uses the expression ‘fed up’ to mean bored and frustrated because they have had enough of something.  But how much easier is it to remember once you understand that this feeling has arisen because you have ‘eaten’ something until you are completely full of it?

4. Idioms abound in English for Specific Purposes, for example in Business English we often talk about ‘thinking outside the box’ to mean not being constrained by conventional thinking.

5. Learners don’t necessarily have to use a lot of idioms but they will need to have the most common ones in their passive knowledge if they wish to maximise their understanding of the language.  This is as true of written language as spoken.  Newspaper headlines are a good example here.

6. Finally, idioms are an enjoyable way of using language and enjoyment helps us to learn more effectively.

I’d like to leave you with one final word about how to use idioms, which is that native speakers often just refer to them or use an abbreviated version rather than using the whole expression.  Let’s look again at ‘The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence’.  We can shorten it to ‘The grass is always greener on the other side’, or even just ‘The grass is always greener’.  I think it’s great to be able to express yourself so economically.


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