Idioms? Not my cup of tea.


The Cup! The Cup….OF TEA!!!!! by aesop CC BY-SA 2.0

I’ve always had a strange sense of foreboding when teaching idiomatic expressions. A while back I was teaching a lesson based on personality, and we ended up looking at some idioms: couch potato, wet blanket, backseat driver, chip on your shoulder, etc. We explored the meaning, did some practise, then discussed some questions about people we know who these could apply to. Fine. The students learnt and practised the idioms, they were happy to learn what they described as ‘real’ language, and I enjoyed exploring these blithe plays on language.

Then a student asked me, ‘When can we use these?’. I think I mumbled something about appropriacy and ‘being in the right situation’, but the truth is it got me thinking. My thoughts were immediately drawn to times when I’ve heard learners (and teachers) of English banding about idiomatic expressions non-judiciously, with that glint in their eye immediately after using them, looking to you for approval. This English course costs an arm and a leg (giggle), It’s not really my cup of tea (knowing look in the eye). I’ve even praised learners for using idioms when they make sense in the situation used, without sounding in the least bit natural. As a learner of Portuguese I’m just as guilty. After realising I couldn’t eat everything I’d put on my plate at the buffet at a recent dinner, I proudly stated I’d put my Pé na jaca and was instantly met with a mini round of applause (I probably took it too far by getting up and bowing to the table though).


Hourly Strike by Emilio Labrador CC BY 2.0

“What’s going on?”

“A pasty Englishman just used an idiom correctly.”


In fact it seems to me that I hear learners (and teachers) spending more time discussing the meaning of idioms than actually using them, let alone appropriately or while sounding natural.

Either that or Ss spend far too much time using them. I recently stumbled upon Eric and Kirsten’s (I don’t know their surnames, I’m afraid) excellently written blog in which they describe their time teaching in Korea. On overusing idioms, they have this to say:

The overuse of idioms brings a more comical aspect to dialogue. I often wonder why instead of learning some more fundamental vocabulary or grammatical structures, the beginners speak in idioms. “Let’s call (comes out as “carr”) it a day”; “I have a frog in my throat”; “the child’s behavior reared its ugly head”; “I’m in hot water”; “this book is as light as a feather.” More often than not, the phrase does not come out quite right which just leads to confusion. Other times it sounds like something you might read in a newspaper or journal but rarely hear in everyday conversation.

split my sides laughing when I read that (not really, I simply grunted to myself in admiration, but you see what I mean?).

So why do I feel so dismayed about the way idioms are taught (myself included), and the way they’re either not used or overused by learners? Well, a few reasons spring to mind:

  • Learners can never get enough of idiomatic language (again, myself included). You introduce a piece of lexis and say it’s an idiom, or even a ‘phrasal verb’, and it’s the one piece of language open their notebooks/devices and scribble down/type furiously.
  • Idioms, ‘phrasal verbs’ and slang (or ‘slangs’ as it’s often called) are good ‘crowd-pleasers’. Especially if we haven’t planned much, are covering or have a new group.
  • Idioms often go out of date rather quickly – or become cliched – and so there tends to be a gap between those which appear in coursebooks and ‘real’ language that we use. Learners will – obviously – ‘mop up’ real language. Couch potato being an obvious example – I don’t think I’ve ever used that phrase outside of an English class.
  • In some contexts, such as Business English, there is a lot of ‘jargon’ in particular work situations. Idiomatic expressions in this case can help learners feel like they have ‘something to hold onto’.
Kirsten and Eric, in the same blog post as above, give this rather amusing cause of the overuse of idiomatic language:
I think I found the cause of pattern #2. Every morning, I get a ride to school with one of my co-teachers from last semester. During the drive to work, we always listen to an English morning radio program. Each day, they read a news clip and then define some of the sayings that were found in the article. A few minutes later, they quiz the listeners and you can call in to win a prize. This morning’s phrase was “to hit the nail on the head.

So what can we do as teachers, to ensure idioms are used appropriately?

Firstly, I wonder how much use there is in teaching them at all, apart from the fact they are good ‘crowd pleasers’, and learners want to learn them. However, if they’re either not used or overused, then should we really be aiming at this? Global English comes into play here, too. Since a lot of idiomatic language is culture-specific, then surely this will only be a hindrance to international communication.

If we are going to teach idioms, then I think it’s worth doing so as they come up. I’ve given lessons in the past where I teach groups of idioms by topic (see the ‘personality’ example above), or by key words. Great, learners learn a whole bunch of interesting expressions, but by the time it comes to using them naturally, they’ve gone out the window. Better to look at examples of when/where they’re used naturally, and encourage learners to use context and co-text to explore their meanings.

Focus on reception rather than production. In certain situations, as already mentioned, quite a few work-specific or other types of idioms will be used. If learners need to operate in these situations, then they need to understand what others are saying to them. It doesn’t mean they need to necessarily use them themselves though.


The Pate Boys by Nate Grigg CC BY 2.0

Just one of the many disturbing results of a Google search for ‘itsy bitsy’.

Encourage learners to create their own, by looking at vivacious linguistic techniques such as coinages, collocations, retronyms (a new term for an old thing, e.g. iPod classic), euphemisms, binomials, reduplicatives (e.g. fuddy-duddy, itsy-bitsy), etc. Encouraging learners to be creative with language (with lots of help of course) can be great fun, and very rewarding for them when they achieve it.

So what do you think? Are idioms under/overused by learners? Is this necessarily a bad thing? How do you teach idiomatic language? I’d love to hear your suggestions.

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Damian Willians

I'm an ELT author/writer and have written several books and digital material for various publishers (Amazon author page - I'm also a member of the committee for the IATEFL Materials Writers Special Interest Group (MaWSIG). After living and working in Brazil for ten years, I'm now based in London.

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