Using idioms during lessons as a Language Assistant

Frog in your throat? by Brian Gurrola

This article was written by Erin McIntyre, published on 11th April 2012 and has been read 4236 times.

Idioms, are perhaps the most complex part of any language learning experience as they are culturally relevant and usually seem to make no logical sense whatsoever to those as outsiders. Competent understanding and usage of idioms in a foreign language truly shows you that you are well on your way to mastering the language, and are pretty confident already. I am spending my year abroad as an English language assistant in Spain and so chose to use the English Idioms book in a few of my lessons to see how it can be used and if in fact using it was a benefit to my lessons. I also, as a language student, studied the Spanish idioms book.

A quick sum-up of the books

The books are very clear, concise and easy to read, with good translations to the equivalent idiom in English/Spanish (depending on which book you are using) there are also amusing pictures to brighten up your language learning process. The 250 idiomatic expressions are also grouped thematically, such as “Health, happiness, pleasure and enjoyment”. This means that when working on a specific topic with my students there is a corresponding section within the Collins book which they can flick to if they want to try and make their language more colourful and natural sounding.

How to use the book in your lessons

I used the Collins idiom book in a range of lessons with pupils aged between 15 and 17. One simple activity is to take idioms from the book beforehand and prepare a worksheet with the idioms and their meaning both in English. Then give the students a few minutes to match the idioms to their meanings, this way you can work out if any are already known and also if the students can work out what some of them mean by clues within the idiom; for example students can usually work out “it’s raining cats and dogs” will have something to do with rain and the weather. This matching exercise can be adapted to contain the idiom in both English and Spanish or the meaning in Spanish and the idiom in English.

I later adapted this idiom exercised into a board game, with a simple template; on each square you have written either an idiom or a meaning of an idiom. When the students land on a square they have to either tell you the meaning of the idiom or the idiom that relates to the statement written on the square. (I also placed cue cards with the idioms on the table for when they forgot the idiom/nerves got the better of them. You can essentially make a board game for each topic of the book, and then link the idiom games into the topic area which the students are currently studying in class, rather than simply focusing an entire lesson on idioms.

Teaching idioms generally

My only problem is that getting students to speak in a foreign language can be a hard enough task, without throwing extra phrases at them which can seem nonsensical. Plus even some of my more advanced students didn’t have the fluency to use idioms without it sounding strange; an idiom doesn’t quite sound right when it is said in accented Spanish. Moreover idioms, I believe, should be learnt in context, within a generally conversation that is happening; where you can derive the translation of the idiom or it can be explained within the context of the conversation by a native speaker. Simply presenting the students with idiomatic expressions related to a topic all seems far too academic for an area of language which is colloquial. However, all this said, the Collins book provided me with a very good resource when I wanted to teach idioms to my students; and it seemed to go down pretty well with them too.

The students seemed to like the pictures which accompanied the idioms in the books, although a few of the idioms caused a couple of giggles, as they aren’t really said as they are a little old-fashioned (on my part as well as the students). For example: “estar como unas castañuelas” literally to be a pair of castanets, but it means to be very happy, had my student in stitches when I used this to translate “Happy as Larry” (which I personally wouldn’t use, seems a bit old fashioned for me). Apparently only their grandparents would say that. Oops, I feel I shattered whatever cool reputation as a language assistant I had ever earned. Others though such as “’til all hours” or “hasta las tantas” in Spanish, worked well and are still used in day to day speech.

My students' five favourite English Idioms

1. An arm and a leg.
This had them chuckling at our silly English way of paying for things with our body parts!

2. As strong as an Ox.
They actually thought this was more logical than the Spanish equivalent - which means to be stronger than an oak tree.

3. ‘Til all hours.
Strangely enough my party loving students loved knowing how to say this in English. I wonder why...

4. A frog in one’s throat.
Yes this had the joker of the class ribbit-ing away once explained.

5. Under the weather
I’m not too sure why but this one seemed to have caught on and became an answer to the question “how are you?” with a couple of student’s for a few days. Even though they were clearly “right as rain”.

Useful bits and final thoughts

For me personally the Spanish idioms book was enjoyable and a bit of fun, but equally I would still feel uncomfortable using an idiom learnt in a book in my everyday speech, purely out of fear that nobody really uses it within that part of Spain, or that it was out of context. If even I, as a university student don’t feel confident regurgitating these idioms in my everyday life in Spain, what hope have I got for my students using them if they do practice English out of the classroom, when it is hard enough to get them to use them effectively within it?

Yet on the other hand the hardest thing about explaining an idiom when students hear one and ask you, the native speaker, what it means, is how to explain it without being long winded. With the idiom books to hand in each language you can generally find the idiom they are asking about and tell them the equivalent in Spanish if you don’t know. Hey ho, it may be a little out-dated, but at least they fully grasp the context of the idiom and there are no errors in translation.

As a teacher the English idioms book is the more useful because as a native speaker you sometimes forget the idioms and colloquial that you say in everyday speech; especially when holding conversation classes with more advanced students. The students can also look through the English version in their free time and due to the easy layout can generally use it unaided.

A great feature of the Spanish book is the index. Here key words are listed followed by a page number; this means you can then look up these words and find the related idiom and its meaning. This saves you having to trawl through a dictionary if you have heard a phrase and only caught a familiar word as it didn’t seem to make sense. Collins should add this feature into the English book, where it is lacking.

Overall the Collins books are a good read, well laid out and fun. They are definitely more user friendly than some other books on the market which explain idioms and colloquialisms; and as a language student they are an interesting way to have a quick read and cultural insight. If used creatively they are a good base on which to build a lesson plan and a good reference book to have at hand for students and teachers alike; however you have to remember that you can’t solely rely on the book alone, that lesson won’t come out of nowhere!

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