This is partly an answer to DIM's blog where she said she had taught some idioms to her group, who then came back with some completely different ones.

This is partly an answer to DIM's blog where she said she had taught some idioms to her group, who then came back with some completely different ones. My feeling is that students using English at B2 level are never going to know all the idioms they need and the idioms are constantly changing. So the solution is to teach culturally appropriate ways of finding out what the idioms mean, without looking stupid. In other words, ask the right cultural questions. For example, what is wrong with this conversation? Abdul: I've got these new computer codes. Can you help me? George: Dunno, mate. All Greek to me. Abdul:  I'm sorry. I don't understand this expression. Can you explain it, please? George: Oh God! It's all Greek to me. It means I don't understand it either. What's the matter with you? Can't you speak English? Clearly, the register is all wrong. Abdul is being quite formal, whereas George is being very colloquial. George gets the hump (gets angry) at being questioned in this way. If Abdul had appeared more relaxed, the conversation would have flowed much more easily.  If Abdul had a few colloquial phrases he could use to defuse his embarrassment at not understanding while being able to get clarification, George's attitude might be more relaxed and his reaction would be more polite.  So here is the lesson plan. ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS PREPARATION Make a list of 10 colloquialisms and google their meanings.  Prepare three or four ways of asking for clarification in a colloquial manner, such as: * Come again? * Sorry, I didn't get that. * Sorry. That's a new one on me. *Excuse me. I didn't catch that. IN CLASS 1 Preteach the clarfication expressions and questions. 2 Tell the class you will speak for one minute. If they don't understand something you say, they should interrupt, using one of these expressions. 3 Speak on a topic and every ten seconds or so, introduce one of the idioms. Do not pause. See if the class interrrupts you. 4 When they do interrupt you, using an appropriate expression, explain the idiom, using the definition you have googled and carry on. 5 Repeat the exercise until the students have got used to using the expressions. 6 Point out that native speakers are generally happy to accept interruption for clarification and do not see it as loss of face. Explain also the British maximum of communication 'Keep it light. Keep it tight .' (Don't be too serious. Don't go on too long.) And remember what I said about native speakers aiding communication. If you notice yourself using an idiom with non-native speakers, just add a phrase of explanation in language they will understand. You will gain a more sympathetic listener if you do so. Another CULTURAL LESSON PLAN TOMORROW.              


Great Robin,

And interesting to note that they seem to come from either rugby or cricket. Is that so?

Is it also true  that the phrase 'Back to square one'meaning 'goback to the beginning' originates from the newpaper's policy of printing a football field as a series of squares to make it easier for people to understand radio commentaries? When a goal was scored you went back to square one, the kick off point.

 Any more idioms with cultural sporting associations?



Hi DIM, old message, I don't know if you are still reading.

A similar shock for me was when someone very close to me, a good, but non-native speaker of English, said: "You can't compare your family to mine."

Weirdly, I had been fuming up to the moment of that statement and calmed through it. The realisation that in English "you can't compare" usually means a severe comparison has been made and one is vastly superior or advantageous  to the other, while in other languages it may mean what it literally means - i.e a comparison is practically meaningless, such as between maths and Wednesdays - distracted me utterly. Listening, my anger rose to a sharp peak, but the little reflection that allowed me to understand that the comparison really wasn't appropriate, allowed me to realise what else wasn't appropriate.

As a teacher and a friend to many a dragon, I've found that "I'm sorry, I don't understand what you are trying to say" is surely one of the nastiest jibes between speakers of the same language anywhere,  but from a native speaker to a visitor, it's fairly polite.

However the main point is that communication is far beyond the mere sharing of language codes or cultural understanding. Cultural understanding is useful, but its only a subsection of inter-individual understanding. It forms personal connections. But I have two big arguments against the importance of cultural lessons.

One: Arizona and Essex. Someone from Arizona and someone from Essex could discuss anything into the wee hours, with the only threat being of one killing the other for personal reasons. Yes, they share some culture, but that's because of the mutual language and not vice versa.

Two: Whether J read Dostoievski in Russian, English or Mandarin, I'd rather be stuck in a prison cell with him than K who read "how to be a successful door to door salesman" in my language.

Language isn't just cultural awareness, there is a huge element of individual personalities in all communication.


high school teacher, Japan

PS (with best intentions)One question for Mr Tomalin: Why was Abdul at fault for register? Is it a greater sin to be too formal than informal? If so, sorry Bazza, dinna mean to ride your goat. 


Add new comment

Log in or register to post comments