Death by Idioms

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!

 

References

Seidlhofer, B. (2004) ‘Research Perspectives on Teaching English as a Lingua Franca’. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24, pp:209-239.

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Author: chiasuanchong

I am a freelance communications trainer and a teacher trainer based in York, UK. With 13 years of experience training students from all over the world to communicate better in English (and in particular, Business English), I am also a professional blogger, materials writer and intercultural trainer.

5 thoughts on “Death by Idioms”

  1. Idiom and metaphor exist in all living languages and learners need an awareness at the very least. It is amazing how many idioms translate across languages but also how often almost identical phrases convey completely different thoughts. Learners really enjoy discussions around this but I think that would not tolerate complete lesson sessions on idioms in isolation.

    1. Hi Peter,
      Thanks for your comments! I’m glad you agree with me on that complete lessons on idioms are intolerable!
      They are interesting nevertheless, and sometimes make for good discussions in the classroom…but I do think that use of metaphor might be more globally applicable than fixed idioms that are localised, like the ones I mentioned in the post…
      Have you done the poll yet? Would love to have your opinions included!
      xC

  2. Thanks for posting this and allowing me to reflect on an albeit alternative perspective. Although I see your point, I’d like to offer a slightly different take.

    I’m going to assume a general English class for the most part, but feel my argument also applies to a degree to other types of English classes such as English for specific purposes (ESP) and English for academic purposes (EAP).

    It appears that the basis for your position is that students want to speak like a native, in your words, …many of my learners say that they want to learn idioms because it makes them sound more native. I don’t doubt that some language learners truly mean this, but could they also mean that they simply want to sound more fluent? Could they also mean that they want the capacity to use language to convey meaning in an appropriate time and place? And could it be more important for the language learner that a “native speaking” interlocutor comprehend their message more than how much the language learner actually sounds like a “native speaker”?

    The reason I pose some of these questions is because I wonder how many language learners will ever need or want to come in contact with a native speaker. I think we might frame the dilemma (if there is one) around a kind of semiotic aesthetics/appropriateness and the notion of interlanguage as a system in and of itself.

    The English language is rich with idiomatic, metaphoric, and jargon-filled expressions that are a big part of an overall lexicon. Ignoring them in the language classroom would be doing a disservice to the learner in my view. Thus, your question you pose is worth unpacking: How do you decide which idioms to teach?

    The “answer” to this question more than likely will depend on the kind of class one is teaching and the level: general English, ESP, or EAP. But my feeling is that it’s less about establishing predetermined lexical chunks (whether idiomatic or not) as it is growing the learner’s lexical system within a given educative experience – always looking for those “teachable moments”. That is, let the situation drive the instruction (i.e., the types of lexicon to teach). English language learners teaching English may feel compelled to anticipate the teaching of certain lexical explanations a priori, but I question the “frontloading” of lexicon as a general practice. But it seems to me that it’s a bit more worthwhile if the learners are given the opportunity to remember or connect the learning of new lexical phrases from having experienced them through some type of authentic performance task or communicative exchange.

    As far as John McClane goes, I believe that the inappropriateness of an idiomatic expression is only one of many different types of clues that would force him to place judgment on a person’s origins.

    Let’s assist English language learners in the appropriateness of using proper lexical chunk based on syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Instead of asking which idiomatic expressions to teach, let’s ask which authentic performance tasks can we design in order to help learners be better prepared for their future. The teaching of new word chunks then becomes embedded throughout authentic performances. In other words, the authentic performance and context of the learning environment dictate which idiomatic expressions to cover.

    1. Hi Benjamin,
      Thank you so much for your comments and I must apologise for taking a while to respond.

      I think you might have misunderstood me a little here, and I think we might be on the same page here, for I’m totally in agreement with the fact that with English become a global language used with speakers with different L1s, it might be a little inappropriate to be teaching them highly localised idioms, like some of the ones I listed…unless of course their purpose for learning English is to assimilate into those local communities.

      The reason behind this blog post came from three things that I experienced that have got me thinking:
      1. Teachers who proudly tell me that they are going to do a whole lesson on idioms because that’s what their learners said they wanted, and so they go into class armed with lists of idioms, some of which aren’t even used any more these days.
      2. Meeting NNS who overuse and misuse idioms and when I ask them why they want to use so many idioms, they replied that they thought it made them sound more native, or that they wanted to impress the native speaker (following which I of course engaged them in a discussion about English as a lingua franca and raised their awareness of unilateral idiomaticity).
      3. Watching teacher trainees and even some teachers teach and realising that picking out emergent language to focus is a skill that doesn’t often come naturally to most.

      You mentioned using performance tasks to help learners and teaching lexical chunks through such performances. But to do so, the teacher needs to be sensitive to which lexical chunks and language points are useful for the learners, and which ones affect intelligibility. Feeding in random idioms just because a conversation with a learner reminded you of them is not good enough reason to pick that idiom out for teaching. As you said, it is all about appropriacy, and knowing what is appropriate and what isn’t is a skill on its own.

      This is why I wrote this blog post because I wanted teachers to reflect upon how they go about picking language to focus on. Perhaps the poll might seem a bit simplistic, but it was only to provoke thought, and to encourage teachers to consider which idioms they would or wouldn’t teach.

      Chia

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