What is an Idiom?
An idiom is a phrase with an underlying meaning that’s generally agreed upon by a large group of people. This meaning can’t be understood by knowing the words alone. The easiest way to recognize idioms is by looking at a few familiar examples.
In the US, some common English language idioms are:
- A breath of fresh air
- A piece of cake
- Over the moon
- When pigs fly
The meanings of these phrases are obvious to a native English speaker in the US because they’ve been heard in context many times. However, these phrases are indeed idioms because they have meanings that are more than the sum of their words.
If you look up popular idioms from other cultures, it’s easy to see that their meanings are also not discernible from the words alone. For example, it wouldn’t be obvious that the Russian phrase “to hang noodles on someone’s ears” means you are fooling them.
Idioms Are Important For Language Learners – And Fun!
Learning a new language is no “walk in the park!” You may find yourself so focused on vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar, that you’re hesitant to add any more work. But idioms are an important part of language learning, too.
Every language and culture has thousands (maybe even tens of thousands) of idioms. This means that there’s a significant amount of casual communication conducted by way of idioms.
Without lessons in local idioms, communicating effectively is going to be more difficult. Plus, learning idioms is one of the most fun parts of learning a new language!
Fun With Idioms: Teaching Tips
Start by choosing a handful of idioms to explore with your language learners. Make your choices based on the most likely social scenarios they will find themselves in, depending on their age and development level.
Make lessons fun by using idioms in sample sentences, and asking students to guess their meanings from their context. You may want to include pictures that illustrate when and how the idioms would be used.
Remember to have students practice how to use each idiom properly since this type of communication can be very nuanced. It’s best to teach idioms verbally, and have students practice by role-playing.
Learning Idioms In Diverse Classrooms
It’s also an enjoyable way to enhance the school-home connection. Students can ask their parents for strange or amusing idioms in their home languages to share with the class. Classmates can try to guess the meanings, or match each idiom with its meaning.
Another fun activity for younger students is making drawings that illustrate their favorite idioms for their classmates to guess.
Or, try comparing and contrasting idioms in different languages. Some examples:
In English, a practical person is “down to earth,” and in Spanish, that person would be described as having their “feet on the earth”.
For more fun learning English idioms in a multicultural setting, check out the Language Lizard Idiom Series, which makes use of clever illustrations representing characters and settings around the world.
What are the strangest or most amusing idioms you’ve heard in any language? Comment and tell us about them below!