BLP A-Z of Learning English: «I» for «Idioms»

BLP A-Z of Learning English: «I» for «Idioms»

Maria del Pilar Gracia

Hey everyone! Sorry this blog has come out so late. I’ve been working at a snail’s pace during this confinement period and just couldn’t get into the subject at hand. I think I may have bitten off more than I can chew agreeing to write these posts every few weeks. But I think I’m back on track now.

Were you able to understand this paragraph above? Are you familiar with the expressions in bold and italics? Don’t worry if you’re not! To clarify:

at a snail’s pace = to do something slowly (like a snail moves)
to get into = phrasal verb – to enjoy or be enthusiastic about
to bite off more than you can chew = to do more than you are capable of doing
to be back on track = to go in the right direction after a mistake or problem

The examples in bold and italics are all idiomatic expressions or idioms. Idioms are a type of figurative language – the words themselves are not be taken literally. These idioms express an idea in a more descriptive or interesting way. And as such, are quite an important part of any language. Using these types of expressions in our English enriches our communication. And of course, these expressions are very commonly used by native speakers. Unfortunately, because they are not literal and sometimes may not even obey strict and proper grammar rules, they must be learnt through practice and repetition. If you try to translate them, you will most likely only be confused.

A Spanish company, Superbritanico (https://www.superbritanico.com/) started their successful business by translating these idioms from language to language to sell products – and the results are truly funny to Spanish and English speakers. You can buy a pack of stickers that include some very funny translations such as “For if the flies!”, “I am at two candles” and “Today is going to be the milk!”. This just proves that it is quite impossible to translate the idioms and for the translation to really make sense… but it also proves that people are ingenious and entrepreneurial!

As you saw from the example paragraph at the beginning of the blog, phrasal verbs (verbs with 1 or 2 particles) are also considered a type of idiomatic language. As all English language learners know, it is often impossible to know the meaning of a phrasal verb from its individual parts. We have to learn the meaning of these phrasal verbs through study.

Idioms cover all aspects of the human condition: life, feelings (anger, fear, enthusiasm, sincerity, happiness, sadness, honesty ), relationships, beauty, appearance, clothes, shopping, business, work, ambition, success and failure, money and wealth, numbers, actions and behaviours, sleep, danger, music, disagreements and arguments, time, age, animals, plants, sports, consequences, people and personalities, places and countries, food and drink, house and home, intelligence and stupidity, the mind and memory, imagination and ideas, law and order, mistakes, problems, secrets, travel, the weather…

As you can see… idioms are applicable to EVERYTHING!!!

If you come across an idiom the first thing to try is to guess the meaning from the context. Not always possible, but it’s the obvious first step. The expressions don’t live in a void, and from the context you might be able to guess the meaning of the idiomatic expression.

The second most logical step in today’s world is to use Internet. Type the expression and look at the results. From your internet search, write down the meaning. Write down the translation. Is there a similar idiom in your language? Is there an image of the idiom? Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Can you write a sentence that includes the idiom? Anything that you do actively will help anchor that expression in your mind. Once it’s clear, try using it when speaking. When you listen, try and catch the idiomatic expressions used. As with absolutely everything related to learning English, you (the learner) have to be participative and proactive. You won’t necessarily learn these idioms in a passive way – just reading an idiom or hearing it isn’t enough.

You may not get the context exactly right the first time – but remember, practice makes perfect. If you proactively try to learn them on your own, don’t be too ambitious – start with just two or three expressions. And make sure to study the idioms based on the groups mentioned previously. Learn 2 or 3 animal related idioms. Learn 2 or 3 work related idioms. Grouping vocabulary into topics makes it easier to learn new language.

In this day and age, English is an important tool. Don’t chicken out and avoid idioms. Embrace them. You can bet your life that idioms are everywhere and you will have to deal with them. You might be a man or woman of few words, but it’s time to grab the bull by its horns and learn some new expressions. If you have time on your hands, then take advantage to get some new expressions under your belt.
Best of luck! Break a leg!!

Leave a Comment