Teaching idioms

‘It’s raining cats and dogs’.

All native English speakers know this expression, but when was the last time you heard a young person actually saying this in the 21st century? It’s more like something your gran might say, along with ‘he’s the bee’s knees’. However, these are two of the most commonly used idioms I’ve heard many ELT teenagers use over the years. Are they all studying from the same outdated exercise book? It’s possible, but it’s equally likely that the expressions were taught to them by an enthusiastic yet inexperienced teacher who wasn’t thinking too deeply about the terms that are culturally relevant for young ELT learners in 2019.

Hearing these kinds of expressions from the lips of Chinese teenagers sounds incongruous, yet it is common knowledge that peppering your speech with idiomatic expressions and phrasal verbs does generally contribute to making a learner of any language sound more fluent and natural. Consequently, how can we tell our students that such expressions are unsuitable, especially when they’ve made the effort to learn and assimilate them into their language, and may have actually been using them for some time as well?

The truth is that language evolves extremely rapidly, and there are many expressions used by older generations that are not adopted by younger speakers, and vice versa (think any term related to social media or texting, for example).

Research indicates that it is essential to use any new vocabulary or expressions at least 6 times in order for these to stay in the minds of learners, so it is natural that students will endeavour to look for any opportunity to slip new terms into their daily speech, especially when they might have limited opportunity to speak English. Is it therefore wrong to correct them when they say something that sounds outdated? At times it can be amusing to a hear, for example, a Lithuanian law student describe his coffee as ‘lovely jubbly’ because his previous teacher used to show him and his fellow students old episodes of Only Fools and Horses. Deciding what is right and wrong is not so black and white.

Like every ELT teacher knows, discretion is key when it comes to feeding back to your students about their ‘errors’; this is because there are so many factors to be considered during any lesson that not everything can be addressed at one time. An open discussion regarding the priorities of the student, or students, is always highly advisable prior to deciding on a learning path.

One point that is important for ELT students to understand is that idiomatic language does have more of a place in speech rather than in writing. When a student is taking one of the typical English language exams it is extremely common that they will try and include expressions and idioms they have learnt in order to convey an in depth command of the language. However this technique generally backfires because the terms sound too colloquial when embedded in an academic text.

On a final note, overuse of certain terms is not only restricted to learners within the field of ELT – there are numerous buzzwords and phrases that are bounced around by native speakers which also sound prosaic and cliché. A recent graduate is much more likely to describe him or herself as someone who ‘thinks outside of the box’ than someone who has been working in business for several years and hears every candidate they interview refer to themself in this way. However, giving this kind of brutal feedback would sound undoubtedly harsh.

Martin Wilson has been working as a teacher of English to non-native speakers for over 13 years, since qualifying from St. Giles International College, London, in 2004. His Trinity Tesol Certificate was followed shortly after with a Masters Degree in Linguistics and Philosophy from The University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Martin’s experience within the various fields of ELT has been plentiful, and has involved teaching children and teenagers in Thailand, as well as asylum seekers and refugees throughout Europe, and university students and business professionals in London, UK. In this series of blogs, Martin aims to share his insights into the world of ELT, including tips and tricks for students and teachers alike, in addition to observations and reviews regarding current available material and resources. Martin can be contacted at martinwilson@mwlc.co.uk.

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