Just when you think you’re getting the hang of English you find yourself completely baffled by a random, seemingly nonsensical phrase — the title of this article for example. Sound familiar? Without doubt you’ll have just encountered an English idiom. It’s estimated there are around 25,000 in the English language with new ones being added all the time. Usually there is no way of working out the meaning from the words themselves, you simply have to learn each one. And without a good knowledge of idioms you’ll never become truly fluent. So here are some of our top tips for learning idioms.
Read lots of stories in English
English fiction in particular is a rich source of idioms. Choose a text at your own level so the main text plot is easily understood. By reading idioms in the story context at your own pace, the meaning becomes clear and will be more memorable than if you were just learning the idioms out of context. Don’t forget to make notes of any that you feel will be particularly useful to you as the more you use an idiom the more likely you are to remember it. This useful website has a series of short stories to try out
Check for Idioms with the same literal translations
There are a surprising number of English idioms and proverbs that translate exactly in another language. ‘To make a mountain out of a molehill’ has a direct equivalent in the French ‘faire une montagne d’une taupinière’ . Similarly the Spanish ‘ser un gallina’ translates literally as ‘to be a chicken’ , the German ‘den Nagel auf den Kopf treffen’ as ‘ to hit the nail on the head’ and the Italian ‘Rompere il ghiaccio’ as ‘to break the ice’. It’s not just European languages either. ‘Tip of the iceberg’ and ‘to kill two birds with one stone’ have direct equivalents in Chinese, 冰山一角 and 一石二島 respectively. Idioms which have exact matches across languages are both easier to remember and to use. Look out for them.
Create visual images for the idioms
For most of us, our visual memory is better than our auditory memory. As the wording of idioms often have little direct link to their actual meaning, remembering them can be doubly difficult. Creating a pictorial image to represent the idiom in our minds can help us to remember a particular phrase better than if we just try to remember the wording alone. Check out the image above with ‘ducks in a row’ meaning to be completely prepared for something. Many idioms easily adapt themselves to this visual memory aid, including all of those mentioned above. Whilst this doesn’t necessarily help you remember the meaning, at least you’ll remember the phrase so you’ll already be halfway there!
Listen to Songs
Song lyrics have long been used as a tool for teaching English but they can be particularly useful when teaching idioms. The repetitive nature of the wording, the frequency with which we listen to favourite songs and the natural rhythm of the music helps us to remember the lyrics. Song writers often include idioms in a song title or a line to grab attention, the familiarity of the phrasing making the lyrics even more memorable for native speakers. So where do you start? Start with a type of music you enjoy – you’ll be more likely to play the songs repeatedly and it’s this repetition which helps us to memorize particular phrases. Choose songs with a storyline as these provide a clearer context for any idioms used. As words can sometimes be hard to distinguish when listening, reading the lyrics alongside can help to reinforce the meaning. Finally look out for musicians who love to use idioms. Lady Gaga is known for using idioms in her song titles Poker Face, Star Struck and Fancy Pants are just some examples. However there are many examples out there. Here’s a couple of useful websites we found with suggested play lists : Song Bar and Englishwithnick.
There’s simply no way to avoid idioms if you want to speak like a native, but we hope you’d agree that learning them can also be a lot of fun. Just how many idioms did you spot in this article?