• Daniel Bullock

Does using idioms create a communication barrier for students?

This question has long been asked by learners of English and native speakers alike. Does speaking or writing which includes many idioms actually create a communication barrier? Idioms are often regional and hard to learn for non-native speakers, and students alike. On the other hand, they help us to sound more natural. In this article, we will see that the answer is not straightforward. There are both pros and cons to using idiomatic language in our speech and writing. Read on to find out more.

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Do idioms put up a communication barrier, like a hurdle?

What are idioms and how are they used in English?

Idioms are essentially sets of words, which by themselves have unrelated meanings. It is not possible to deduce the meaning of these simply by reading them. These sets of words have a new meaning when they are combined. Take the example of the idiom “take up” It means to start a new activity - typically a hobby. Simply thinking about the words separately (take+up) we cannot get any idea that they can mean starting a hobby.

How can we learn idioms if we don’t know the individual words in them?

If you had never heard the phrase “put up with” ever before, how would you be able to understand it? This is a significant hurdle for a learner of English. You need to watch and listen to how native speakers of the language use expressions like this. Find out the meanings of the idioms, and try to mimic the way native English speakers use them. According to The British Council: “Understanding an idiom requires some other knowledge than knowing the words used.”

View learning idioms as a type of pattern practice. Remember the pattern of the word combination, what it means, and in what type of situation they are used.

Idioms can be regional and that creates a barrier to communication

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Fancy a brew? What does that mean?

As some of you may know, I (Daniel, your writer) come from the UK. British English contains countess idioms and expressions, that, if you have not grown up in the UK, may have an extremely difficult time understanding. A British person may sometimes comment that something is not their cup of tea. For somebody who is learning English, they may not have any idea how to respond to this. When people say something isn’t their cup of tea (or cuppa) what they mean is: that the person doesn’t really like something, or have an interest in it. Here is an example sentence:

Football isn’t really my cup of tea. I much prefer to watch cricket.

There are many more examples. More of these regional phrases can be found here.

Conversely, People who have grown up in countries such as the USA have their own unique catalog of idioms and phrases. An American person might say: “Yeah, tell me about it…” What do they mean? Are they asking you to say more? No. What they are saying is: I agree with your opinion! Confusing! To make matters even worse, many idioms or phrasal verbs cross borders. They are well known in all native English-speaking countries. “Tell me about it” is a perfect example of this. Other expressions are more strictly confined to one country. The phrasal preposition “kitty-corner to” is an example of this. It means “diagonally opposite” in most countries, and is said only in North America, by and large.

Non-native speakers can experience an idiom wall straight away

When you are a learner of English or a non-native of the language, you straight away have a big disadvantage. The fact is, native speakers of English use idioms all the time, so when a learner of English hears them, they may have an extremely difficult time working out what is being said.

Difficult for beginners phrasal verbs table

Here, you will find a table of phrasal verbs that are very difficult to understand from the base words alone. These phrasal verbs are very common amongst native speakers of English. You might be wondering how we can learn about them. Context is always king. What this means is you have to know the situation which is being talked about to guess the meaning. Another method for learning difficult-to-understand phrasal verbs like these is to just memorize the meanings. A good way to help maintain this memorization is by saying them out loud many times and also copying them down into a notebook.



Lay off

This means being made redundant at work

Put up with

This means to tolerate someone or something

Bring up

This means to grow from childhood and be taught by your parents. For instance, to be brought up by my parents.

Come about

This means to happen. Also, when a vehicle turns around to face you.

Call off

This means to cancel something.

Here are some example sentences for these difficult to understand phrasal verbs

Paul was laid off from his job last year

I don’t know how you put up with Michael. He’s such an arrogant coworker.

A: Hey Takahiro? Where were you brought up?

B: I was brought up in Tokyo, but I lived in Los Angeles for a couple of years, too.

A: I heard you lived in the Congo for a few years, is that right?

B: Yes, it is.

A: Really? How did that come about?

B: Oh, my father had a job there when I was little.

The football match was called off due to the bad weather. It will be rearranged for next month.

What are the positives of using idioms? Why are they so important?

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Get a listening skill boost with idiomatic knowledge

One of the key reasons to study idioms is to improve our listening comprehension. If we have a wide selection of idioms in our memory, we are better able to understand what is being said by English speakers. Idioms are also intrinsically linked to the culture of a language. If we have a deeper understanding of idioms we are also better able to empathize and understand the culture which the idioms come from. It has been said by many researchers that to study a language properly it is also necessary to study the host culture.

Does your English sound robotic at all?

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Does my English sound a little robotic? Maybe I should try using more idioms!

As a learner of English, for instance, an EFL/ESL student, have you ever thought that your English responses and sentences sometimes sound a little bit robotic? Using idioms and phrasal verbs can help to alleviate this. Take this example:

Student A: I will investigate the new movie.

Student B: I”m going to check the new movie out.

Which one sounds more natural?

Are idioms good or bad for our English language study?

As a longtime teacher of English, I can quite clearly say that idioms are good for our English language study. They will make us sound more natural and less robotic. They will also aid in our listening comprehension. Even if as a student, you are not ready to use idiomatic vocabulary in your daily conversation, if you are aware of usage, you will understand more of what is being said between people. This also helps us when we want to listen to songs are watch movies. As with most things, however, there is a caveat. Idioms, like with any other type of vocabulary, should not be overused. If we are constantly saying a phrase such as “check out”, it soon starts to sound robotic and forced. Almost like how a small child repeats the same small set of words that they know. To avoid this problem, I recommend learning a wide variety of expressions. Synonyms are words that are similar in meaning to each other, so study synonyms! Synonyms of check out would include look into, have a look at, and take a look. So, you can see, that there are usually alternatives to repeating the same phrase again and again.