It’s all Greek to me’… The Importance of Mastering English Idioms




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It’s all Greek to me’… The Importance of Mastering English Idioms


Raluca Sarghie, Romania


Raluca Sarghie (MA) has been an EFL teacher in Romania for 7 years now. She currently teaches at Mesota National College in Brasov, a city in the central part of Romania. In 2012 she won the Hargreaves IATEFL scholarship, sponsored by Cambridge ESOL. She has always been interested in the study of collocations as they are a basic part of the English language and also one of the hardest aspects to learn.

E-mail: mailto: raluca_sarghie@yahoo.co.uk





Menu

Why are idioms important?

Why are idioms difficult?

What is to be done?

Idioms at work

Conclusion

References


Do you have students who tear their hair out over idioms and who fail to pass their examination with flying colours because of them? What should teachers do with their students when they feel they are always in the dark when it comes to idioms?


Why are idioms important?


The main reason why we have to shed light on idioms is because they are used in a variety of contexts and situations. Teachers of English as a foreign language usually concentrate on exam preparation and a focus on idioms is a must because they are everywhere. They are used both in spoken and in written language and thorough understanding of their meaning is essential especially in C1 and C2 exams, in which candidates are required to use a very high level of English. Good knowledge of idioms is essential at advanced levels in order to make their English sound more native-like and less awkward. Otherwise they tend to:

  • Paraphrase the idiom they are not familiar with and in this way produce sentences that are too long and flat.

  • Use word-for-word translation from their mother tongue to English and produce meaningless constructions.

  • Overuse general words when not knowing the proper idiom.

As a result, what they write may sound simple and rather unsophisticated.


Furthermore, it is widely agreed by teachers and researchers (for example, Michael Lewis, Jimmie Hill, Peter Hargreaves 2000) that grammar rules are too general to provide guidance for idioms and therefore, there are students who attend daily classes, are very good at grammar and vocabulary and are able to produce lovely coherent sentences and conversations but find themselves unable to follow a conversation when amongst native English speakers. This happens because idiomatic expressions are used very widely and in order to achieve a native-like command of the language as is required for C1 and C2 levels students must become familiar with idioms.


Thus, in order to make students feel comfortable and perform like native English speakers in advanced level exams, the teaching of English idioms has to be part of our lessons. Several researchers have pointed out that the use of idiomatic expressions is a sign of good English and improves learners’ oral fluency, reading speed and listening comprehension (Brown 1974, Wray 2002).


Why are idioms difficult?


However, the most difficult part about mastering idioms is that knowing all the individual words may not help students understand the exact meaning of the phrase. For example, the idiom ‘go Dutch with somebody’ is made up of relatively easy words. Nevertheless, the meaning as a whole is different from the meaning of the individual words, so the overall meaning is not obvious. Another major difficulty is the influence of the mother tongue; Wray (2002) notices that “in English you run a business, but in German you lead it […] In English you smoke a cigarette, but in Hindi you drink it […] In English you lie in the sun, but in Russian you lie on it (p. 73)”. Thus, it is obvious that students tend to transfer idioms from their own language into English without realising the grammatical or lexical errors that might occur.


What is to be done?


Needless to say, more exposure to ‘tricky’ texts such as short stories, jokes, advertising or to real-life situations is needed. If students cannot make head or tail of the meaning of idioms they won’t be able to communicate properly and feel confident when tackling advanced level exams. Additionally, through thorough practice, students with advanced English take to idioms like a duck to water, using idioms naturally, as native speakers do, and so making their utterances livelier and more interesting. They have to be encouraged to read, listen to or watch TV programmes, record the idioms in their notebooks and then use them in writing assignments. Also, visual strategies to present idioms in picture form may be successful.


Idioms at work


An idiom a day keeps bad marks away


At the end of each class I encourage students to take turns and come up with an idiom. The other students have to try and guess its meaning from the context, without using a dictionary. For example: “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” This activity has proved very popular and has given us some extra ‘authentic’ language.


C is for category


The activity of categorising is all about considering similarities and differences. Some students realised the impracticality and the problem of noting down randomly all the idioms they came across, and started to categorise them. Idioms can be grouped in a variety of useful ways in order to help learners remember them. Therefore, I ask students to group idioms by meaning, by verb or other key word.


Who’s who?


This activity focuses on idioms concerning people in the classroom and all the students get excited and involved as they have to deal with humorous and ironic idioms such as: Who’s the teacher’s pet/ top of the class/ a real know-all/ a couch potato/ a lazy-bones/ the busy bee/ a bit of a big head?


The Romanian pancake


This is an activity designed to revise idioms and it can be used with all levels. I give one slip of paper or card with a different idiom on it to each student. On the other side of the card I ask them to draw a picture corresponding to the idiom. As with learning all vocabulary, visualising some element often helps. Then I collect the slips of papers or cards and arrange them on the teacher’s desk with the picture facing up. Students choose a card and in turn identify the idiom suggested by the drawings. If they are correct, they flip over the card (hence the ‘pancake’) and keep it. The winner is the student who manages to collect the most cards.


Idioms like shelling peas


On a slip of paper students write an idiom they are more familiar with or that they like the most. On the other side they write an idiom they find difficult to remember (individual words offer no help in deciding the meaning). The words are then written in two lists on the blackboard and everyone works together to practise the difficult idioms until they become easy.


Body idioms


Ask students to draw a person in the middle of a slip of paper. Draw arrows to different parts of the body and for each one write an idiom using that part of the body.


Conclusion


All in all, the use of idioms is an essential feature of a high level of proficiency in the English language, enabling non-native English speakers to convey a great deal of meaning while using very few words, adding colour to the language and increasing chances of academic success.


References


Brown, D.F. 1974. Advanced vocabulary teaching: the problem of collocation. RELC Journal, 5, 1-11


Lewis, M. 2000 Teaching collocation: Further developments in the lexical approach. London: Language Teaching Publications


Wray, A. 2002. Formulaic Language and the Lexicon. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.


Please check the Teaching Advanced Students course at Pilgrims website.


Please check the English for Teachers course at Pilgrims website.

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