In defence of idioms

A couple of weeks ago I read Damian Williams’ blogpost explaining the problems he sees with the way idioms are taught in English lessons. It got me thinking about why I do like teaching idioms but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

Fast-forward to this week when I was preparing a video activity and came across this scene in an episode of New Girl. It made me realize exactly why I think idioms are worth teaching.

Now, I do understand that idioms tend to become out-of-date quickly, but can’t that be said about other bits of language as well? How many of the words and expressions presented in my post about new words will still be used in five years’ time? Does that mean teachers should not teach them? I don’t think so.

I think that is an indication that coursebooks may not be the best place for idioms. Take for example a lesson I taught last week using a C2 coursebook. It included a short list of idioms that use the word burn, among them ‘burn the midnight oil‘ and ‘fiddle while Rome burns‘.

Not being a native-speaker of English, I can’t always rely on my instincts to tell me which idioms is more common or which one may have become cliché. What I tend to do is try to find instances, particularly in spoken language, that the idiom is still in use.

Take for instance this snippet of The Mentalist.

In my opinion, the reason idioms are a crowd pleaser, as Damian put it, is that it allows them to decode the language that appears in films and TV series. It allows them to come back after a few lessons and say: I saw that expression we worked with in class in a TV show. That’s exactly the kind of connection that makes a piece of language hard to forget.

Teaching a series of idioms with the word burn is unlikely to be the best way to go about it, but that is also true for other lexical items that can be easily confused with one another. You also need to take the level of students into account.

The lesson I mentioned above is a good example. The group is in the second semester of a course that aims at taking them from C1 to C2 level. They are strong students overall with a good grasp of English grammar and many of them have travelled or lived abroad. What should be taught to them if not idioms, phrasal verbs and the nuances of the language? Their objective is to become native-like, and I believe being able to identify and produce idioms is part of that.

As teachers we also need to teach students not to overuse idioms. But again, I think that is the case with a lot of other pieces of language. How annoying is a student who overuses connectors in writing? Or a student who says ‘uh’ or ‘er’ every other word? I don’t think that teaching appropriacy and restraint in these cases is any different of doing so when working with idioms.

Thanks for reading

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3 thoughts on “In defence of idioms

  1. Pingback: New Girl: a video-based vocabulary lesson | ricardo barros elt

  2. Pingback: Of work and idioms | Richmond Share

  3. Pingback: Richmond Share | Of work and idioms

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