The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Friday, June 26, 2015

Idioms: a post of two halves (Part 1)

The other evening I’d fallen into the trap of having a quick flick through social media while I was half-watching something on TV and I stumbled across an #ELTChinwag discussion on Twitter which I couldn’t resist adding my twopenn’orth to. The discussion was about the Lexical Approach in ELT, but I came in on a thread about teaching idioms. It got me thinking on two slightly different paths:

Part 1: Teaching idioms

A contributor to the discussion made the following comment:

“one concern that we could focus too much on idiomatic lang. Most learners will prob be speaking with NNspeakers in future.”

It struck a chord as it goes to the heart of the arguments I’ve been having with editors for some years now about teaching ‘idioms’ (clarification of what I mean by that coming up), how useful they are in general and especially whether they have a place in the fairly restricted kind of format of vocabulary activity in many published materials (i.e. in a slot-filling type of context where students match them to their ‘meaning’ in a rather simplistic way).

Now before I go any further, I should clarify what I mean by an idiom. Of course, the term ‘idiom’ can be interpreted very broadly to refer to almost any fixed (or semi-fixed) chunk of language, in which case, it covers all kinds of expressions like in a moment, all the time, of course, all kinds of, etc. At the other end of the scale, it’s also frequently used to refer to the kind of colourful expressions of the ‘raining cats and dogs’ variety where it’s impossible to work out the meaning of the overall expression from the sum of its parts. And then there’s everything in-between which arguably forms a cline from the mundane and unremarkable, to the very salient and much more marked.

As someone who spends most of my working life playing around with vocabulary, it would be strange indeed if I wasn’t a big proponent of the former, ‘fixed phrase’ type of idiom. They’re absolutely essential for communication, almost no matter who you want to communicate with. What’s more, they provide learners with incredibly useful pre-formed chunks they can use to cut down the processing load required to create utterances completely from scratch every time.

Once in a blue moon?

The other end of the scale, that seems to be so beloved of coursebook publishers, I believe needs treating with more caution. The more colourful idioms (once in a blue moon, every dog has its day, have a bee in your bonnet, etc.) are particularly marked; that is they aren’t standard, neutral language that will go unnoticed, they stand out to the reader/listener and, perhaps most importantly, they do so because they often have lots of cultural associations and connotations tied up with them. Take a look at the selection of idioms below that roughly mean ‘annoy/irritate’ – who would you expect to use them and in what context? What do they tell you about the speaker and/or their intended listener? Which would the speaker use to talk about their own feelings and which about others? Which would you use?

get on sb’s nerves
get on sb’s tits
get up sb’s nose
rub sb up the wrong way
try sb’s patience
ruffle sb’s feathers
wind sb up
piss sb off
drive sb to distraction
drive sb round the bend
annoy the f**k out of sb

I could probably write a whole blog post about each one!

We all have our own idiolects, the words and phrases we use based on our background (social, cultural, regional, educational, etc.) our age, gender, etc. And we use different language based on the context, our mood and who we’re talking to. As native speakers, we weigh up our language choices all the time and (mostly) choose expressions that are just right from the context. We often couldn’t say exactly why a particular expression just fits, but our accumulated (largely subconscious) understanding of language comes into play.

Explaining all that to a learner, especially one from a very different cultural background, can be very difficult and advising them as to when, how or whether to use the expression for themselves is almost impossible. Of course, that’s true of all kinds of language (whether it’s slang or literary or whatever), but I think idioms are particularly tricky.

I’m not saying that we should avoid these idioms altogether, I’m just not sure that teaching whole sets of them apparently for productive use is terribly helpful. If they come up in a text, they can form an interesting point of discussion and help learners make sense of the same idiom if it crops up again – you wouldn’t be able to make head nor tail of this blog post if you didn’t know a few idioms! -  but that’s a whole different kettle of fish from the type of activity where the learner simply has to match, well, a whole different kettle of fish to say ‘something completely different’, then try to use it in a sentence or worse still, a dialogue!

I’m not saying that as language teachers (or materials writers) we should dictate what language is and isn’t appropriate for our students to learn/use, but neither is it fair to teach language of this kind in a way that doesn’t fully explain its possible impact, leaving our students to make potentially very awkward or embarrassing faux pas when speaking to native speakers or alternatively, just elicit blank looks from other non-native speakers.

As I’ve rambled on quite long enough, I’ll break off here and come back to the other thought I had about the role of idioms in social media another day …

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Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Julie,
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on teaching idioms to non-native speakers, it is an issue that I hadn’t truly thought about. I think that when teaching a language your goal shouldn’t be simply to produce students with good communication skills. It can start there but has the potential to grow to something more. Don’t you want your students to be able to read literature and actually understand what they are reading? Idioms give us a different way of looking at the world and by virtue of being culture bound they bring in something new and refreshing. This gives students the opportunity to learn the depth of the language they are learning and learn more about the culture in which a certain language is spoken. This is a window of opportunity to teach about culture appreciation and create an environment that accepts new and different ideas from a variety of backgrounds. I agree with you that teachers shouldn’t dictate what language is appropriate for their students and that’s why I want to teach my students to explore the language and try out new things. I want them to make mistakes and use awkward utterances so we can discuss them in class and better understand the language learned. It also keeps them thinking about the language they are speaking and can create interesting conversations among fellow language learners and/or native speakers about the origins of idioms. I think that age plays an important role in deciding whether or not to teach certain idioms. Younger students might not fully understand some concepts in their own language, let alone in a foreign language.
I really enjoyed thinking about this topic thanks again for relating to it.

12:52 pm  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Thanks for commenting, Batya. I'm glad you enjoyed the post and you make some good points.

As I said in the post, I'm not against discussing idioms in class, especially when they come up in a text. As you say, they can provoke some interesting discussions and give students an insight into anglophone cultures. Understanding idioms is an important part of learning English.

My issue is around trying to teach them as *productive* vocabulary - getting students to use colourful idioms in simplistic gap-fill type exercises as they might any other word, without enough consideration of all the complex cultural connotations involved.

1:16 pm  

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