Guest Post by English Idioms with Izz
How to Learn English Idioms
Learning how to use English idioms will help you to advance your level of English and become a fluent speaker. Understanding idioms will also improve your comprehension, your confidence and ability to converse well with others.
What exactly is an ‘idiom’?
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, an ‘idiom’ is an expression or phrase made up of a set combination of words that usually have a non-literal meaning. This means that it is often difficult to guess the definition of an idiom from the meaning of each individual word. For example, if someone says that there is ‘an elephant in the room’ they’re not talking about real live elephant – or at least you would hope not! The expression actually refers to an issue or problem that people are trying to avoid.
Why do we use idioms?
Idioms are used frequently by speakers of the English language and there are around 25,000 idiomatic expressions in total! This might sound like a lot but please don’t panic! The good news is that you don’t have to learn every idiom in the book to reach a level of fluency. You just need to have a good understanding of how to use the most common ones and maybe a few slightly odd ones for fun. Learning idioms often feels scary but there are plenty of ways you can successfully adopt new phrases and expressions.
What’s my experience?
For the past five years, I’ve been sharing online content via Instagram (@englishidiomswithizz) and YouTube (English with Izz) to help English language students learn idioms. My goal has always been to create interesting, funny content to allow students to see how idioms are used in everyday situations.
Having taught English for several years, I have a good idea about the difficulties learners face when trying to use new phrases and expressions. In this post, I’d really like to share some useful tips and advice about how best to learn new English idioms…
Tips to learn English Idioms
Understand the Importance of Context
Context is everything when it comes to idioms. Learning the definition of an idiom is important, but it’s also just the first step to gaining a full understanding of the meaning and use of a phrase or expression.
- Look closely at the context and circumstances in which an idiom is used and make sure to look at a variety of examples. Text-based materials are particularly good for this because you can read and absorb the meaning in your own time. It will also help you recognise an idiom when you hear it, and you can usually learn several expressions at the same time that all connect to one topic.
- Focus on quality over quantity. What I mean by this is that it’s more important to spend time exploring the context behind an expression than trying to learn a long list of idioms and their definitions. If you’re familiar with the situations where an idiom might be used, you’re much more likely to remember how to use that phrase or expression. In many cases, you can even learn the meaning of idioms in English through the context. Let’s have a look at the following example…
-Gerald: “Are you ok? You don’t look very well.”
-Simon: “No, I’m not feeling great today. I’m a bit under the weather.”
If you weren’t already familiar with the idiom ‘under the weather’, I expect many of you can now assume that it has something to do with being ill. Notice that you don’t even have to get a dictionary out to understand the meaning of a phrase.
- Know whether an idiom is appropriate for a formal environment and whether it is used informally or humorously. Some idioms can be offensive in the wrong context and understanding which ones could be a problem that will save you from any awkward moments! Try to use dictionaries that give clear examples as well as an indication of their use.
- It’s also important to recognise that some idioms are old-fashioned. This means that they are outdated and are unlikely to be used or even understood by English speakers today. All languages develop over time and new expressions come about on a regular basis. This is why you should focus on learning common idioms before you start looking at lesser-known ones.
Research the Origin
Although it might sound time-consuming, researching the origin of an English idiom is a very good way to help you remember a new phrase or expression. How many times have you read the definition of a word or phrase and then forgotten it straight away? When you attach a story to something, it’s much more likely to stick in your mind.
Understanding how an idiom developed will also help you to make better sense of how it’s used today.
Here are a couple of examples…
Let your hair down
Meaning: to enjoy yourself and behave in a free, uninhibited way
Example: “It’s been a stressful week. I really can’t wait to let my hair down this weekend.”
Origin: During the seventeenth century, women from aristocratic families were obliged to wear their hair up in public in some kind of elegant hairstyle. The only time that they could literally let their hair down was when they were at home alone.
Bite the bullet
Meaning: to accept that you have to do something difficult or unpleasant because a situation is unavoidable
Example: “You’re going to have to bite the bullet and tell your boss that you broke your laptop.”
Origin: This idiom is thought to have originated on the battlefield before the days of effective pain medication. Injured soldiers were told to bite down on a bullet as a way of coping with the pain of a surgical procedure without anaesthetic.
Although some origin stories are contested or even controversial, it’s interesting to speculate on how certain expressions came about. The added bonus of looking up the origin of an idiom in English is that you’re likely to improve your reading skills while doing so and learn some new vocabulary.
Learn the Keywords
Idioms are fixed expressions, meaning that they are made up of a combination of set words that cannot be modified. There is, however, a little bit of flexibility when it comes to a tense or pronoun change:
- Make a mountain out of a molehill: to act in a way that exaggerates a small problem
Why are you making a mountain out of a molehill? It won’t be hard to fix the door.
- Take it easy: to rest and spend time relaxing
I didn’t do very much yesterday. I took it easy.
- Be bored out of your mind: to be extremely bored
I think the new intern is bored out of her mind!
- Give someone a hand: to help or assist someone
Why don’t you give me a hand with the cooking?
Other than modifying an idiom for a tense or pronoun change, it’s important to learn the correct order and combination of words.
I know this can be difficult when you’re already trying to master other testing elements of the English language, but remember that you don’t have to learn every idiom. Focus on expanding your vocabulary day by day and to help you with accuracy, I’ve outlined a few common errors English students make when using idioms…
Common Errors when Using English Idioms
Using the wrong prepositions
I need to get something off my chest (to tell someone something that you have been keeping secret and that has been making you feel guilty). DON’T SAY I need to get something on my chest
Let’s just go with the flow (to accept a situation because it is the easiest thing to do). DON’T SAY Let’s just go about the flow.
Changing the word order
Elisa rubs me the wrong way (to irritate/annoy). DON’T SAY Elisa rubs me the way wrong.
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head (to be completely correct). DON’T SAY I think you’ve hit the head on the nail.
Adding, removing or changing an article
I’ve had a change of heart (sudden and often dramatic change of opinion). I don’t want to marry him. DON’T SAY I’ve had a change of the heart. I don’t want to marry him.
It’s been a long day. Why don’t you hit the sack? (go to bed) DON’T SAY It’s been a long day. Why don’t you hit a sack?
So, these are just a few things you should keep in mind when learning idioms in English. This might seem like a lot to think about but please don’t let this put you off using new expressions. Making mistakes is part of learning and most fluent speakers will admire your motivation to use idioms!
Be an Active Learner!
We’ve looked at the significance of context, researching the origin of an expression and how to avoid common errors when using idioms. Finally, I want to stress the importance of being an ‘active learner’. This is something that will not only help you in your quest to learn new idioms, but it will also benefit you when studying other aspects of the English language.
‘Active learning’ is a common approach to teaching in which students are encouraged to engage directly with new information. This could be by discussing new ideas with other learners or by summarising something you’ve read.
Active learning is thought to be a far more effective way to acquire new information than by passively listening or reading something. Although this approach to learning often happens in a classroom, anyone can take steps to be an active learner!
This is how…
While reading a text, highlight new vocabulary and expressions. You might be able to guess the meaning of an idiom in English from the context, but if you’re still finding it difficult to understand, make sure to research the definition and use.
With listening activities, take notes and repeat an audio several times until you have a clear understanding of any new terms and expressions.
If you’re watching a series or movie in English, look out for new expressions and if you’re unsure of the meaning of something, look it up in the dictionary!
Once you have an idea of the meaning, practise making examples. Writing examples is actually one of the best ways to get more familiar with using a new English idiom. If this is something you decide to do, try using a couple of different tenses and pronouns so that you become familiar with how to use the idiom in different situations.
Finally, be inquisitive and ask questions. I know this is easier in a classroom setting than on your own but remember that the Internet is a gold mine of information!
What I mean by this is that if you’re looking for an answer to something, you’ll likely find it online. There are also many English teachers like myself on social media who you could contact to clarify any queries you have.
Always remember that there are so many fascinating phrases and expressions out there. English Idioms can be quite comical – maybe not a barrel of laughs – but still fun to learn!