Category Archives: Idioms

There’s more than meets the eye (to idioms)

Everybody loves idioms. There’s that moment of recognition, often following some considerable guesswork and translation, when, having discovered one that’s used in another language and not our own, the meaning becomes clear and we are able to identify with the people/ culture from which it originates. There’s a wonderful, relatively modern expression used in China/ Chinese that describes a person recently fired from their job as a ‘stir-fried squid’- the imagery is just too perfect…

Students often enjoy learning idioms in lessons for pure fun, a little light relief perhaps from being embroiled in the study of some difficult grammar topic. They are insightful of culture and amusing, but ask your students how useful they think are the idioms they are playing around with and you may be surprised by the responses. “People don’t really say this though, do they?” is one that might just crop up and cause the teacher some consternation, especially when the answer should honestly be “no, they don’t.”

Some items of idiomatic language are obviously more practically applicable than others, but what do we do with those old favourites, the real corkers, the ones that even the elderly lady in the bus stop refrains from using for fear of sounding old-fashioned? Are we to relegate the likes of ‘raining cats and dogs’ to the status of a trivial source of distraction? I don’t think this is necessary, not if we invert the approach of ‘hanging’ idioms onto a topic and instead try relating to a topic through an idiom.

I was recently teaching some pre-intermediate students vocabulary centred on the subject of ‘house and home’. We had looked at flashcards depicting various kinds of abode (including igloos and yurts), when an image of a traditional Welsh cottage appeared.

We discussed some of the characteristic features of such a building and used dictionaries to identify the things that were unfamiliar. One such was the thatched roof, which the students complained was ‘stupid’ as the rain, especially the torrents we enjoy in this part off the world, would make its way into the house. I explained, in novice
terms (being as I am unfamiliar with the art of roof-thatching) that in fact the water rarely penetrated through. I then remembered the idiom of idioms, and the curious account I had once heard of its origin.

If it was raining heavily and persistently enough, it was not only the rain that might come through the roof, but anything else that happened to be up there, including small animals (though the likelihood of the dog being involved is questionable to say the least.) This entertaining prospect incited some great discussion among the students and lead me to re-evaluated my attitude towards the value of teaching such idioms. They can be utilised to illustrate and give colour to examples, to elicit language from students and create talking points, and, why not, to give some relief from that difficult grammar topic.

Tristan Francis
Director of Studies