Of work and idioms

A couple of years ago, Damian Williams wrote a post explaining why he doesn’t like teaching idiomatic expressions. I wrote a response to that, as I strongly disagreed with him. However, a recent conversation with another teacher made me rethink that a bit.

Here’s the situation: I have two private students, both of whom work for multinational companies. One of them works for a German company, the other for a Dutch company. As you’d expect, English is the international language used for communication between workers but, and this is key, neither company is based on an English speaking country.

Both of these students speak English very well (C1 Level) and besides revisiting vocabulary and grammar points that have been presented before, a lot of the new content that comes up tends to be more formal grammar/vocabulary or idiomatic expressions. So far so, good.

Some weeks back the student who works for the German company told me he was preparing a PowerPoint presentation with his boss, which they would use to discuss a new project with a team in Europe. With a disappointed look on his face, my student tells me that his boss would change the words he had written, making them simpler. He said his boss was worried about the Germans not understanding what he had written.

Just a few days later the second student, who works for a Dutch company, complained about doing a CAE  writing task. She argued that she wouldn’t be able to use that kind of language in her email exchanges at work, lest she wrote something her clients might misunderstand.

Now, neither of these students is learning English solely because of work and one of them has a company-mandated goal of becoming a C2 speaker. However, I have started to think how to strike a balance between keeping teaching them new things and edging them towards becoming a better English speaker and making sure they are still able to use English in a non-native work environment. Would reducing the number of idioms do the trick?

I don’t have an answer to that yet, but I’d love to know if other teachers have been through a similar situation.

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Ricardo Barros

Ricardo Barros is a CELTA tutor and freelance teacher trainer based in Jundiaí–SP. He has taught English since 2003, working as a teacher, teacher trainer, academic coordinator and Cambridge examiner. He holds the DELTA, CELTA and a BA in History from Unicamp. He is a moderator for the BrELT facebook group and advisory council member for BRAZ-TESOL. He also blogs at

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