Break a leg and other idioms: Should we be teaching them?

Break a leg and other idioms: Should we be teaching them?

Break a leg and other idioms: Should we be teaching them?

Willy A Renandya, 21 April 2022

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of idiomatic expressions (also known as fixed expressions) in the English language. Some of these idioms are easy to understand while others are not so easy to comprehend.

For example, idioms such as ‘A friend in need is a friend indeed’ and ‘Actions speak louder than words’ are easier to understand than “No need to beat around the bush” or “A stitch in time saves nine”.

One of the reasons why some idioms are difficult to understand is that they are culturally bound and used by a specific group of people from a specific region. This is not surprising as every culture has its own unique ways of sayings and doings things, which may nor may not be shared by other cultures.

Here are some examples of idiomatic expressions which are pretty common among native speakers from the inner circle countries, but may be difficult for English language learners and other users of English.

  • It’s water under the bridge
  • His fate is hanging by a thread
  • She screamed at the top of her lungs
  • They are beginning to get under my skin.
  • People can be penny wise but pound foolish
  • A known devil is better than an unknown angel

The big question for us language teachers is this: Do we need to teach these idioms? A quick answer is no. I don’t think it is urgent to teach them in a systematic and/or intentional manner.

Telling students what they mean when they appear in a reading or listening text, for example, is perfectly fine. There is however no need to provide detailed explanations of their origin and the cultural backgrounds behind them. This is because while students may need to understand what they mean, they don’t really need to use them in speech or in writing.

Here are additional thoughts on the issue of whether we should teach idioms:

  1. From an EIL (English as an International Language) or WE (World/Global English) perspective, perhaps not so important. In most EIL contexts, people speak to each other using familiar expressions and a limited range of linguistic resources (i.e., simpler vocabulary and grammar). The use of culture specific idioms will only hinder rather than facilitate the exchange of information.
  2. From an SLA (Second Language Acquisition) perspective, perhaps not so important either. This is particularly true for those at the early stage on language learning. Learning these expressions would just add unnecessary learning burdens when these students are still struggling with the acquisition of high frequency words and their collocations.
  3. For the more advanced students, perhaps not a bad idea to teach these idioms though my feeling is that these students will already have enough linguistic resources to infer the meanings of these expressions when they appear in speech or in writing. Even if they don’t understand the meanings, they can seek clarification and/or just Google them.
  4. From a socio-cultural perspective, perhaps not so important either. English users from different cultures have different ways of expressing their thoughts using different lexico-grammatical resources. For example, the Japanese equivalent of ‘Silence is golden’ is ‘Kuchi wa wazawai no moto’, which literally means ‘The mouth is the source of disaster’. We can use either one of these, or something more neutral like ‘It is sometimes wiser to keep silent when you don’t have much to say’. The decision should be based on which of the three is more efficient and comprehensible.

Further readings

Principles For Teaching Vocabulary

Vocabulary as Knowledge or Ability?

One Reply to “Break a leg and other idioms: Should we be teaching them?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *