In learning a language, like in dreaming, it’s the strangest things that lodge in your head. Of the few idioms I learnt in Spanish, easily the most memorable was ‘No es moco de pavo’which translatesas (and even here I’m being cautious with the word ‘translates’) ‘It’s not turkey dribble’. Let’s consider that for a moment. You might wonder how or where you would use an idiom relating to turkey dribble. Maybe in the farmyard? At the zoo? Working with sick birds in a veterinary clinic? Well, not even close. Apparently it means (again very approximately) ‘This isn’t easy! Or to translate it into its English idiomatic counterpart ‘It’s not a piece of cake’.
One of the charming things about idioms is that they often have little resemblance, in terms of superficial meaning, to the issue being discussed. Perhaps that’s why they are so interesting. They are linguistic oddities. Easy to spot but often hard to ‘translate’. That’s also one of the reasons that they show your proficiency in English – if you can use idioms, you sound more native and are using the language at a high level.
The problem with longer idioms is that they are often not as flexible or frequent as simpler idiomatic speech. Many idioms can be difficult to drop into conversation without sounding unnatural or old fashioned. You might have carefully learnt ‘It’s like borrowing from Peter to pay Paul’ but how often are you likely to use it without sounding cheesy? ‘It’s madness!’ would have been fine and would make you sound more proficient in English.
Language also changes quickly. Non-native speakers are finally beginning to cotton on that ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ is simply not used anymore. Not even by people in really rainy places. If you’d said ‘it’s chucking it down’ instead, you’d be streets ahead. Type ‘English idioms’ into Google and you’ll get a list of reader-submitted phrases that probably aren’t even used by the person who put them on the website. And who are these contributors anyway? Are they even native speakers? What speech community do they belong to? For example, the idiom ‘a back of the envelope calculation’ is hardly used at all in Britain. If you’d said ‘at a rough guess’ or ‘a rough calculation’ instead, you’d be on the money (at least on this side of the Atlantic). That's English proficiency.
I once asked some non-native EFL teachers who were doing a refresher course what they wanted to do for their final lesson. I expected they would be clamouring for games they could use with their students. Or maybe they wanted to make sure they were fully aware of the finer points of participle clauses, English subjunctives or some other nugget of esoteric grammar. But no. The question was ‘Can we do a lesson on the most common idioms in the English language?’ ‘Sure!’ my mouth said before my brain had even got a word in. So that evening, my curiosity piqued, I typed ‘most common idioms in the English language’ into Google and got the same websites filled with random idioms I had encountered before. Either that or a ton of academic papers on corpus linguistics that held the promise of wading endlessly through data plots and abstracts. Alas, I came up empty -handed.
A more dedicated teacher might have been able to bring something more teachable to light. But in the end, I decided that ‘the most common English idioms’ were simply are ones that you encounter in front of you on the webpage, or the ones you just heard in that TED talk about ‘the Incredible Power of Creativity in Business’ or something.
So how to incorporate these into your active vocabulary? And how to reconcile the fact that opportunities to use particular idioms only come a long once in a blue moon? Well the first question can be answered by collecting them in context, and displaying them in a well-thumbed vocabulary notebook or electronic file, and revisiting them every now and then , or practising them aloud until they roll off the tongue. Because nothing sounds more ham-fisted than a long idiom which has been misremembered, or even worse, misused. That doesn't say you're proficient in English at all.
And the second question? Well, you can only wait with bated breath for that perfect moment to drop it casually into conversation. If you’re quick enough…
So, when it comes down to it, keep your eyes and ears open, take the language from the context of what you’re listening to or what you’re reading, and remember shorter is often sweeter when it comes to dipping into idiomatic speech. Because proficiency in English doesn’t mean having to be long-winded.
Some idiomatic speech used in this article
to lodge in your head not even close it’s madness it’s chucking it down to cotton on
streets ahead drop it into conversation rough guess ballpark calculation on the money
dip into when it comes down to it to keep your eyes and ear open short is sweet
to get a word in a ton of to wade through to bring something to light
to come up empty –handed to come along once in a blue moon to roll off the tongue
to wait with bated breath
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