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Teaching English Idioms as an Important Part of Language Acquisition

Teaching English Idioms as an Important Part of Language Acquisition | ITTT | TEFL Blog

It was my first experience teaching in Taiwan and I was in charge of teaching ESL to 7th-11th graders. I had never taught out of the United States and never considered the possibility that my students wouldn’t understand, what I thought, was simple English. I asked my junior high students to “put on their thinking caps,” to “line up single file,” “to quit fooling around” and that English was as “easy as ABC.” I told my senior high students to “give me a show of hands” and told them if they “studied hard” and “hit the books,” they would “pass with flying colors.” I told my college students I would give them an “A for effort” if they “quit goofing off” and “skipping class” or “playing hooky.” Some nodded their heads as if they understood and others just gave me “a blank look.”

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Melynie T. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.

Definition of Idioms

Idioms are frequently used in both formal and informal, spoken and written discourse. They are common in movies, on television, in journalism, in books and literature, and in advertising, as well as in everyday life. According to Polio, Barlow, and Fine (1977), most English speakers utter about 7,000 idioms per week. This means that about four idiomatic expressions are produced in every minute of speech. Erman and Warren calculated that “idioms make up a large portion of any discourse, constituting 58.6% of spoken English and 52.3% of written English” (Erman & Warren, 2000). Thus, idiomatic expressions create a significant portion of our everyday communication.

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An idiom can be defined as a phrase which has a different meaning from the meaning of its separate components. One of the characteristics of idioms is that you cannot change the words or their word order. In other words, idioms are basically fixed expressions. For example, the idiom, ‘I’m pulling your leg’ cannot be changed to ‘I’m pulling your arm.’ Usually, the meaning is completely different, which is why they are so tricky for students. Idioms are specific to one culture and language and their meaning is peculiar to that language. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology defines idioms as “the proper language of a people or country, dialect; expression peculiar to a language” (Onions, 1966).

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Current Idiomatic English, “Familiarity with a wide range of idiomatic expressions and the ability to use them appropriately in context are among the distinguishing marks of a native-like command of English” (Cowie & Mackin, 1975). While many second-language learners may be satisfied with something less than ‘native-like’ command, idiomatic usage is so common in English that it can be difficult to speak or write without using idioms” (Seidl & McMordie, 1978). Yu Ren Dong states, “Idioms are tools for insight – poetic, conceptual and cultural – and without acquiring knowledge about them, nonnative English-speaking students will always be cultural and language outsiders, despite advanced language and cognitive skills” (Dong, 2004). Therefore, the learning of idioms must be considered an essential part of vocabulary learning.

Idioms in EFL

In the EFL field, “idiomatic language has been a neglected area of vocabulary teaching” (Vasiljevic, 2011). While no one disputes the benefits of learning idioms or teaching them, “for many years teachers were at a loss as to how to assist their students with the acquisition of idiomatic expressions” (Vasiljevic, 2011). As a result, second-language teaching materials often either have ignored idioms completely or just listed them as 'other expressions,' "without providing any opportunities for real practice” (Irujo, 1986). Maisa states that “idioms are more neglected by language teachers than any other expression,” (such as metaphors, collocations, proverbs, and phrasal verbs) (Maisa & Karunakaran, 2013).

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In education, the emphasis is moving away from language acquisition to one of communicative competence. This emphasis on communicative competence and the social role of language has led to a concern with linguistic appropriateness rather than accuracy (Guduru, 2012). To elaborate, “communicative competence is the ability to interact appropriately with others by knowing what to say, to whom, when, where, and how” (Guduru, 2012). It is the ability of the learners to interact with other speakers and to make meaning of what has been said. Liontas found that “idioms form a large part of natural communication and therefore knowledge of idiomatic expressions leads to increased conversational fluency” (Liontas, 2002). Yorio argues that the “use of idiomaticity in communication indicates second language proficiency” (Yorio, 1989). In other words, a person’s language proficiency level can be assessed based on his/her good grasp of idioms.

In fact, “the sheer number of idioms, their frequency in the English language and the extended difficulties that learners experience with this type of language are compelling arguments for making idiom learning an integral part of vocabulary learning” (Vasiljevic, 2011). Not only do they occur in everyday language, they frequently occur in an academic context. Therefore, research suggests that the teaching of idioms should not be put off until students reach advanced levels (Irujo, 1993). They should be introduced to young learners as early as possible, as they are part of communicative competence.

Given the reasons why learning idioms are important, why aren’t idioms taught more often in the classroom? There are three major points that make idioms such an obstacle to English learners:

1. The difficulty of comprehension and usage

I am currently teaching English to English majors in their Freshman year of college. The students coming into the university lack a good grasp of the English language coming out of high school and cannot speak or write it well. The learners coming from an L1 background lack a basic knowledge of idioms in L2. This lack of understanding of idioms thwarts not only learners’ communicative competence, but also adversely affects their academic growth (Maisa & Karunakaran, 2013).

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I also teach English to students in grades 7-9 and there is a common assumption that the more words a student knows, the larger the learner’s vocabulary knowledge. However, this is not necessarily the case. Language is typically learned in chunks or phrases. For example, when a baby is learning English, we don’t hold up a picture of a cookie and have them memorize the word, ‘cookie’. We address children in sentences, for example, ‘Would you like a cookie?’ or ‘This is a cookie.’ Therefore, L2 students need to begin learning idioms as phrases, within a context, and not just words.

Another problem for nonnative speakers is that the frequency with which they encounter idioms is lower. Either they are not exposed to enough native speakers or they haven’t read English texts, stories, literature, or news to come across idioms more frequently. Irujo (1986) suggests that native speakers tend to use simple, concrete, everyday vocabulary when they address second-language learners, avoiding the use of idioms. Therefore, an L2 learner may not hear idioms used very often.

2. Language connection with the culture

Rizq states that “acquiring a new language is more than learning its grammar and vocabulary” (Rizq, 2015). According to Bada (2000), there is a need for cultural literacy in language teaching because learners come across ‘significant hardship’ in communicating meaning to native speakers as a result of not understanding the culture (Bada, 2000).

3. Methods of teaching idioms

One issue with teaching idioms is with the method of teaching them. The traditional method encourages teaching idioms explicitly in context. The conceptual metaphor method suggests that idioms should be taught after obtaining some knowledge of the terms (Rizq, 2015). Lintas's study concluded that “the absence of context” creates obstacles with learning and comprehending idioms (Liontas, 2002). Rizq suggests that teachers need to be aware of the conceptual metaphor, or how much knowledge of the target language the student has, in order for them to be able to understand idioms (Rizq, 2015). Therefore, no one method is being applied, in the classroom, that will consistently enhance the learning of idioms. In addition, there is a lack of available teaching materials that specifically address the teaching of idioms in a typical classroom setting.

Another reason that idioms create special problems for L2 teachers, who are native L1 speakers, is that they don’t understand the idioms, or use them, themselves. For example, I am the only native English speaker in my school. The other Chinese “English” teachers, don’t speak well or use correct English grammar themselves and are using the English curriculum designed by the government. Thus, the teaching of idioms and their understanding of them is limited.

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An additional issue with teaching idioms may be because teachers are mainly concerned with literal language, therefore idioms cause serious problems, as “they don’t mean anything literally by themselves but can be used in a sentence to mean something indirectly” (Maisa & Karunakaran, 2013), which means they must be understood within the context. Wu states, “It’s more effective for EFL students to learn a language in meaningful contexts than learn isolated words through memorization and drilling” (Wu, 2008). Within the Asian community, most English grammar and vocabulary are taught be memorization, thus there is no contextual reference for using idioms or for discerning their meaning.

Given the obstacles to both teaching and learning idioms, there are many ways teachers can incorporate idioms into their regular lesson plans. Tran (2011) found that the teaching of idioms can be broken down into three strategies to assist students in noticing and understanding them: definition, elaboration, and paraphrasing (Tran, 2011). Any of these strategies can be accomplished by including them in dialogues and stories, through conversations, gap-fill exercises, making sentences using idioms, telling stories based on pictures, idiom notebooks, flashcards, idiom games, replacing marked expressions with idioms, completing a story or a paragraph, readers theater, group discussion, retelling and rewriting, role-playing, or grouping idioms by topic, such as mouth idioms, heaven and hell idioms, idioms of fear, or color. “Learning vocabulary, expressions, and idioms, in an organized fashion are easier than random lists of idioms because it facilitates connecting the new items with already familiar ones” (Samani & Hashemian, M., 2012).

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In conclusion, idioms have yet to receive the attention needed for second language acquisition. However, idiomatic expressions have begun to draw much more attention as they are commonly encountered in daily speeches, writing, and literature. Idiom acquisition and instruction merit more attention in both the language classroom as well as in teacher training sessions. It should not be taken for granted that teachers can teach idioms without special training. In order for the learning and teaching of idioms to be successful, teachers need assistance in instructional approaches and strategies, and to also be cognizant of the ways learners employ, use and acquire idioms. Since mastering idioms is required for successful language learning and native-like command of the language, it becomes imperative that we learn to teach them and begin incorporating them into our regular lessons with young learners. As the need to be a competent communicator increase, better resources will become available and more emphasis will be given to training teachers in the future, making teaching and learning idioms both easy and more enjoyable.

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