Idioms are used all the time in English. If you are learning English as a second language, you’re bound to come across lots of idioms in everyday conversations, literature, and media. So, it’s important to understand them! And, once you can use idioms properly, they are a fun way of expressing yourself in English and adding some color to your language!
Let’s take a look at what idioms are, why they are important, and how to use them effectively.
What are idioms?
Idioms are phrases or expressions that have a different meaning than the literal meaning of their individual words. They convey a figurative meaning, which often use metaphor. Idioms are not meant to be taken literally.
The idiom “break a leg” is a good example. If you say to someone “Break a leg” it means you are wishing them luck – it has nothing to do with breaking a leg literally. Another good example – and one of the most famous idioms in English – is “it’s raining cats and dogs”. It just means that it’s raining heavily. Nobody who hears this expects to see cats and dogs falling from the sky!
Idioms are an integral part of any language, and English is no exception. They add flair, depth, and richness to the language, making it more interesting and engaging. In fact, idioms are so prevalent in English that it’s hard to have a conversation without using them!
Idioms are not just used in conversations – they’re also very common in literature, movies, and music. We utilise them to convey a message in a concise and effective manner, and often have deep cultural or historical significance. They help to create a vivid and memorable image in the minds of the audience.
What are some examples of English idioms?
“Break a leg” and “it’s raining cats and dogs” are two of the first idioms that English learners usually encounter, perhaps because they are so unusual!
Here are some more common English idioms that you might hear in everyday conversation:
- Ball is in your court – it’s your turn to respond
- Bite the bullet – to do something you don’t want to
- Cost an arm and a leg – to be very expensive
- Hit the nail on the head – to be exactly right
- Once in a blue moon – very rarely
English idioms have a rich history and have evolved over time. Some idioms have been in use for centuries, while others have been coined more recently. For example, the idiom “ball is in your court” originated from tennis and means that it is someone’s turn to take action.
Cultural and historical events are very influential when it comes to idioms. The idiom “bite the bullet” originated from the practice of giving soldiers a bullet to bite on during surgery to help them endure the pain.
Learning idioms can be challenging for English learners. They often don’t make sense when translated literally. However, mastering idioms is essential for effective communication with other English speakers.
The importance of idioms in English
Idioms are a unique aspect of language that adds color and personality to speech and writing. Using idioms correctly can help to enhance your communication skills, demonstrate cultural knowledge, and improve your language fluency. Let’s take a look:
1. Idioms enhance your communication skills
When you use idioms in your conversations, you convey deeper meaning and nuances that you could not convey through literal language. Idioms can help you express your emotions and thoughts accurately, making your communication more effective and compelling.
They can also add humor and interest to your conversation, making it more engaging for your listener. For instance, if you describe something as “a piece of cake”, your listener will understand that it is easy, even though the words don’t literally mean that. This makes your conversation more interesting and memorable.
2. Idioms help you to demonstrate cultural knowledge
Learning idioms and using them in conversation is a way to demonstrate your knowledge and appreciation of the culture in which the language was developed. English idioms are deeply ingrained in British and American culture and reflect their history and values. There are often specific sets of idioms around everyday topics such as the weather, relationships, and business, to name but a few!
For example, the idiom “to pull yourself up by your bootstraps” means to improve your situation through your own efforts. This idiom originated in the US during the 19th century, when boots had straps that people could use to pull themselves up.
Knowing this background information adds depth to your understanding of the idiom and the culture it came from, and can even help you to remember new language. For example, when people talk about bootstrapping a business, it means that they started their company with no external funding. This modern expression comes directly from the 19th century idiom.
3. Idioms help to improve your English fluency
Using idioms can help you speak more fluently in English and deepen your understanding of the language. Once you’ve started learning idioms, you will be able to recognize them in conversations, allowing you to understand and connect more easily with native speakers.
What’s more, idioms are often used in literature, movies, and songs, so being familiar with them can enhance your enjoyment and understanding when you’re watching a film in English or listening to a song. For example, the expression “hit the sack” – which means to go to bed – features in dozens of films and TV shows‘ dialogues. But, if you’d never heard this idiom, you would be looking around the scene for the sack that everyone was talking about!
In conclusion, idioms are an essential part of the English language that can enrich your communication, cultural knowledge, and language fluency. Learning and using idioms can help you become a more effective communicator and a more knowledgeable and confident English speaker.
How to use English idioms
To be able to use idioms effectively, you need to be able to identify them in context, memorize the most common examples, and practice using them in conversations.
- Identify idioms in context
The best way to identify idioms is by reading and listening to English media, such as books, newspapers, and podcasts. When you come across an unfamiliar expression, try to understand its non-literal meaning based on the context. For example, imagine someone says, “I haven’t had any lunch, I could eat a horse!” Here, you can make a fair guess at the meaning of “I could eat a horse” which is “I’m very hungry”.
- Memorize common idioms
There are thousands of English idioms, but don’t worry! You don’t need to memorize them all. Start with the most common idioms, and practice using them in your conversations. You can find lists of popular idioms online, along with their meanings and examples of usage. You’ll gravitate towards idioms you enjoy using, and these ones will be easy to remember.
- Practice idioms in conversations
The best way to become confident about using idioms is to practice! ELSA Speech Analyzer is a good tool for practicing idioms before using them for the first time. Then, try to insert idioms into your conversations with native speakers. You might need to plan ahead, or bring up specific topics (the weather is a good one) to use the idiom you have in mind. As time goes on, it will feel more natural! Ask your English-speaking friends or colleagues to help you practice, or join language exchange programs to improve your skills. And if you come across an idiom you’ve never heard in conversation, don’t be afraid to ask about the meaning! That’s a good way of learning new idioms for everyday situations.
Challenges in Understanding Idioms
Learning idioms can be challenging because of their figurative meanings and cultural variations.
- Literal vs. figurative meanings
One of the most significant challenges when you’re an English learner is distinguishing the figurative meaning of idioms from their literal meaning – and the only way of doing this is by studying! Research new idioms that you hear and write down both the idiom and its figurative meaning to help you remember which is which. Slowly, as your language skills develop, you’ll build a contextual understanding of English which will help you to avoid confusion.
- Regional and cultural variations
Regional variations and cultural differences can also affect the meanings of idiomatic expressions. An idiom commonly used in one country may have a different figurative meaning in another country. For example, the expression “a sight for sore eyes” is commonly used to refer to something that is pleasant to look at. However, in Ireland, it means the opposite, so if you tell someone they are a sight for sore eyes, they’ll take it as an offense!
- Idiomatic expressions in different English dialects
Finally, there are multiple English dialects, each with their own specific idiomatic expressions. For example, if you’re living in the southern part of the USA, people will understand what you mean when you say you’re “living in high cotton” – you’re feeling successful or well off. But using that phrase in Canada will draw blank expressions! So, it’s important to consider who you’re speaking with before building idioms into your conversation.
Idioms are a critical aspect of English language fluency. They add depth and nuance to conversations and communication, allowing for more effective and compelling expressions. By employing the tips outlined above, you can learn and master the most important idioms to improve your language skills and understanding of English culture and history.