This is a blogpost I wrote for ELT Knowledge – home to the journals English Teaching Professional and Modern English Teacher.
As English confirms its position as the global lingua franca and the language of international trade, business and tourism, there has been more and more talk in the English teaching world regarding the necessity of teaching idioms.
Seidlhofer (2004) warned of the dangers of unilateral idiomaticity, whereby the use of idioms by a speaker could result in incomprehension on the part the interlocutor who is less acculturated to native-speaker norms.
In other words, the use of idioms could be to the detriment of mutual intelligibility and serves no purpose except to perpetuate the native-speaker’s target culture, which is usually taken to mean the American or the British culture.
Now, before you get up in arms about this and start bellowing, ‘But my students want to be taught English idioms!’ from the rooftop of the nearest language school, let me reassure you that I am not entirely comfortable with lumping all English idiomatic expressions together and damning them all at one go.
So first of all, let us consider this. What is an idiom?
The online dictionary www.dictionary.com defines ‘idiom’ as ‘an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements’, while the Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary defines it as ‘a group of words whose meaning is different from the meanings of the individual words’.
Both dictionaries then proceed to give examples of idioms such as ‘to kick the bucket’ and ‘to let the cat out of the bag’.
The meanings of these fixed expressions are clearly far from the meanings of the words themselves (‘to die’ and ‘to tell a secret by mistake’, respectively), but are idioms always so easily defined?
Look the following dialogue for example. Can you spot the idioms?
Rachel: Hey, why are you feeling so down?
Michael: My pet hamster passed away last night.
Rachel: Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. I know, how about some retail therapy to cheer yourself up?
Michael: I can’t. I’m broke. I blew all my money on this tiny hamster coffin. It cost a bomb.
Rachel: I’ll treat you to something nice. Come on, let’s go.
Michael: I can’t. I’m knackered. I stayed up all night last night mourning little Lord Nelson.
Rachel: Look, at the end of the day, you can’t beat yourself up like that. You’ve got to get over it.
Michael: I can’t. I’m dying inside…
Rachel: Alright then…whatever.
You could comfortably categorise ‘it cost a bomb’ as the same kind of idiom that ‘to let the cat out of the bag’ is.
But how about ‘passed away’, ‘cheer yourself up’, ‘blew all my money on ~’, ‘stayed up’, beat yourself up’, and ‘get over it’?
Are you arguing that these are phrasal verbs?
But don’t most phrasal verbs have meanings that are not derivable from the individual meanings of its constituent parts?
Are phrasal verbs naturally idioms then?
How about ‘feeling down’, ‘retail therapy’, ‘I’m broke’, ‘I’m knackered’, and ‘at the end of the day’?
Arguably, these are expressions that might have started out as idioms, but through common and frequent use, have earned a place in our cognitive processes as directly representing a different meaning to its linguistic origins? Most teachers might not even consider ‘broke’ an idiom, and would take its meaning of ‘without money’ to be simply another homonym of the word ‘broke’.
Another example of this is the above adjectival past participle ‘knackered’ (meaning ‘tired’). Originally meaning ‘to kill’, sending your horse to ‘the Knacker’s Yard’ meant that your horse was due to be slaughtered due to old age. However, even in late 1800s, ‘to knacker’ had already taken on its idiomatic meaning of ‘to tire out’.
But would English speakers from the USA, Jamaica, India or Singapore understand/use the word ‘knackered’ when they want to say that they are ‘tired’?
The online etymology dictionary www.etymonline.com states that the word ‘idiom’ was first seen in French in the late 1500s to mean ‘form of speech peculiar to a people or a place’, and in Latin and Greek to refer to ‘peculiarity in language’ and ‘peculiar phraseology’.
This suggests that the original concept of idiom referred to a type of colloquialism or code used amongst a particular group of people. This code-specific characteristic is clearly seen in the word ‘knackered’, where the target culture is closely tied to the idiomatic expression. The same can be said of the following idioms:
- ‘to be full of beans’ (‘to be full of energy’ – UK),
- ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’ (‘people who conform without questioning the belief or argument, displaying a lack of critical examination’ – US),
- ‘came out of the left field’ (‘unexpected, unusual, irrational’ – US baseball idiom)
- ‘catch no ball’ (‘didn’t understand a thing, wasn’t able to grasp the concept’ – Singaporean English idiom resulting from a direct translation from the Hokkien dialect)
- ‘the equation has changed’ (‘the relationship has changed’ – Indian English idiom resulting from a direct translation from Hindi)
- ‘She’ll be apples’ (‘everything will be alright’ – Australian English)
- ‘box of fluffy ducks’ (‘everything is going my way’ – New Zealand English)
If the above idioms are used by a particular speech community and is code-specific to those peculiar to a place or country, then should we teach these idioms to our EFL students?
If your answer is yes, which ones? And why?
Would you teach these idioms only for receptive purposes or would you encourage your students to produce them? What are the dangers of this?
How do you decide which idioms to teach?
How about the use of the word ‘Whatever’ in the dialogue above?
It doesn’t really mean ‘anything that…’; nor does it mean ‘no matter what’.
It carries the illocutionary force of ‘I don’t care’ or ‘That’s your problem, man!’ to show indifference or dismissal.
Although it started out as a code-specific slang word, it is now used globally, perhaps due to the dominance of Hollywood.
Could any of the above code- or community- specific idioms gain international recognition too?
Please go here to do my little poll on idioms and share your ideas and beliefs on teaching them.
Allow me to end this blogpost with this little piece of irony for us all to chew on as we go to bed tonight…
When asked, many of my learners say that they want to learn idioms because it makes them sound more native.
But more often than not, idioms are either used inappropriately, inaccurately, or simply overused.
Case in point: When John McClane in Die Hard 3 hears the building supervisor saying that it was raining ‘dogs and cats’, he immediately susses out that the building supervisor was not Amercian, thus leading him to conclude that he was German and belonged to the villain’s gang.
In trying to sound more native, learners end up sounding less native.
What a dilemma!
Seidlhofer, B. (2004) ‘Research Perspectives on Teaching English as a Lingua Franca’. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24, pp:209-239.