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.              


Thanks Barry! That's really a good way of raising the students awareness of the usefulness of making the distinction between formal and informal language.

Just to add to your blog, I think the best way to choose some colloquialisms is to look at some of the most used ones through concordances. Well, some books have put together the most common idioms by using concordances. From Corpus to Classroom is one book to start with. Teachers can look at those idioms and start with them.

That's my bit. Hope you like it, just like I liked your lesson plan on cultural awareness.

Thanks for the 'corpus to classroom' recommendation.

A German banker pointed out to me yesterday how many terms used in British business come from sport.

He noticed it is now common to start a meeting with 'Let's kick off' meaning 'Let's start' (football) and how people often ask for information or reports by 'close of play'  meaning the end of the business day (cricket).

Can anyone find other sporting terms used in business? And here's a different idiom I heard the other day from a business analyst. You do the job 'from soup to nuts'. Can anybody explain that one?







It is really a good way to consolidate the students' understanding about the formal expressions. First let the students think by themselves and then when they do not understand, the teacher explained in the simple expressions. This method is the student-centered.

So dear Barry, if we Chinese teach grammar, so what do you think we can do to arouse the students' interest . Thank you !

My best wishes!

Penny from China.

Well, Barry, what did we do before Google? From soup to nuts means from start to finish (= sporting term) or simply from beginning to end. It refers to a meal which typically used to begin with a soup and finish with port and nuts (for the gentlemen, only, of course). Apparently it is also a "Laurel and Hardy" film dating from 1928.

What you said in your reply to my comment that non-native speakers among them- selves should be wary of over-using colloquialisms for fear of not being understood, was very pertinent. The illustration using "Abdul" and "George" was spot on (a sporting term?). I just hope that the "George" sort of Brit who cannot fathom that foreigners do not understand all nuances of his language is slowly dying out. Of course, maybe I'm wrong - on Mallorca everyone speaks English, too...

All the  Germans I know have met with understanding and patience when trying to converse with people in the U.K. But I certainly agree that it helps a lot if they can admit to imperfect understanding using an appropriate register. And, paradoxically enough, the better the non-NS speaks English, the greater the inherent danger of misunderstanding. The reason is that we NS stop making any allowances at all if our opposite number (!) appears to be as fluent as we are. BTW this applies even more so to written communication such as emailing - perhaps you could analyse the specific pitfalls involved here for your readers? Perhaps to do with the lack of intonation??

Looking forward to your next lesson!

P.S. I've just thought of an expression I used once in an email and which caused a definite breakdown in communication. As an answer to a comment someone made, I  wrote the terse phrase"I get the message". Another native speaker, I think, would glean from this that I was hurt, offended, didn't want to talk about the matter any more, wanted to be left alone etc. But my correspondent just took this at face value and only thought that I had understood or taken in what he had just said. So it took a while before (in a phone call) the whole thing got sorted out.

Now, my question to you is - how to teach this sort of subtlety? BTW, in a quite popular recent book on British behaviour you may know, the author (whose name I forget, a lady sociologist) came to the conclusion that a typical Briton cannot open his or her mouth without becoming irónical. -How to teach learners to recognise or even use irony?? Now this really IS cross-cultural communication!

There are a number of ball-based idioms in common use that I looked at with a C1 ESOL class;

- the ball's in your court

- you have to be on the ball

- you'll have to pick up the ball (and run with it)

- let's hope they don't drop the ball

- let's kick that into touch

- let's start the ball rolling

- I'm passing the ball to you

- What we need is a hard-hitter

- Let's knock it for six

- they bowled us a googly (threw a curve ball)


I got the class to work inpairs to match the idiom to a sport and then in small groups to try and write a definition for two of the idioms.  Each group would then read their definintion to  another group who had to identify it.  Having been given the correct definition, the class then listened to a business conversation using some of the idioms but with the idioms missing and in pairs had to put them in the correct gaps.

Regards Robin



First of all I have a cultural problem writing the word DIM.  It recalls the character exemplified by British Comedian Harry Enfield as Tim Nice-but-Dim (i.e. stupid), an (wait for it) upper class Hooray Henry with no understanding of what was going on around him.

Not in the least your situation but  it's interesting how acronyms or initials create associations that have nothing to do with the person concerned.

Now to the meat . I have spent a certain amount of my time pacifying UK support staff upset by German rudeness in emails. German directness can seem rude and arrogant to UK colleagues although in fact they are mostly intended as simply clear and unambigious statements of feeling or facts.

My advice is always:


2 GET ON THE PHONE and clarify the situation.

3 REALISE that the strength of the statement was simply directness not intended to be rude. 

I think you are right. We need to teach Germans to be more malleable in their communication style and the British to recognise that direct communication is not intended as rudeness (although sometimes it is). 

By the way the British also come across as rude in the Far East.

How to teach the subtlety?

That question has both a lingustic and a social element. Presumably you need the right level of language before you can appreciate the subtlety. So is B2 OK?

Secondly you need to make it clear that the German  (Dienst ist Dienst und schnapps ist schnapps)  is not seen the same way in the UK.

Thirdly, you can only point out examples of irony and dry humour and begin to make your students aware of this. A colleague of mine who is a stand-up comedian is investigating this.

Alles gut? Alles klar?






Hi Penny,

Thank you for your contribition and congratulations on China's brilliant presentation of the 2008 Olympics. 

Also thank you for summarising effectively the teaching principle of teaching new expressions introduced by students.

How do you arouse interest in grammar?

Try these arguments.

1 Until Mandarin takes over, (it will not  happen in your students' lifetime) English is the  medium of international business communication.

2 Mastering the grammar is the building blocks of English. They need it.

3  Relate English grammar to the grammar of Mandarin and open the students up to different approaches between Mandarin and English.

4 Look on the Net for misunderstandings between Chinese and UK based on grammatical errors (especially funny ones).

5  Use the errors to raise interest.

6 Use cultural information to raise interest in the country and in the language.


If anyone else is reading this, let's have YOUR ideas. Penny needs your input!

Let us know things you have done in class that have really MOTIVATED your students to want to learn the grammar. As specific as possible, please.








Dear Barry,

Please call me Diana! I could not use this name as my "tag" for the teachingenglish blog as it was already reserved for another blogger. So I fell back on DIM, a three-letter abbreviation I use at home when signing articles that I write for our local paper. I find this name quite amusing, as it is pronounced "deem", which is rather like the South German (= softened ) way of saying "Team" as in teamwork. Of course, I couldn't know that this word has other connotations for you!

I'm not sure that you got my point entirely. I was not saying that German bluntness in an email upset me. What happened was that after having been upset by something, I used the expression "I got the message" in an email to a "Near Native Speaker" who is definitely at C2 level. At face value these words mean, of course, exactly that, a confirmation that I had received whatever information it was. But I mistakenly thought that my friend who spoke such good English would "read between the lines" and realise that I was upset. For there is a more subtle meaning to this expression. In the New Oxford Dictionary we read: "get the message" (informal):  infer an implication from a remark or action" . But unfortunately my friend did not take the hint and we had to clear up the misunderstanding on the phone.

The point I was trying to illustrate with this example was not primarily the fact that Germans can be very direct and undiplomatic, but rather that

a) Emails are liable to misinterpretation because of the lack of intonation, body language, whatever

b) the better one's discourse partner's English is, the more careful you have to be that they are really understanding what you are trying to get across.

I was hoping that for the benefit of all English teachers reading your blog, you would be able to go into the pitfalls of emailing between two cultures, which is definitely a language/teaching/cultural issue of high relevance in global communication.

 Anyway, Barry, thanks for all your insights and thought-provoking comments. Keep up the good work! Diana

Dear Barry

Thank you very much for your quick reply to my questions and also for your previous advice. Also, welcome to China, to Beijing, to Wuhan(The city I am living)! There are many places for you to enjoy yourselves.

It is a good idea to use the errors and culture information to arouse the students' interest. So for me ,it is still a long way to run to look for valuable ways to teach grammar. 

I like to teach this part , not only because of the grammatical rules useful to the students , but also the beautiful sentences based on those grammatical rules. As you know, We Chinese learn the grammatical rules , the main purpose is to  pass different kind of examinations in China. And from the very begainning we learned this part, our teacher asked us to do a lot of excercises .

Now I am teaching English-Teaching Methodology for secondary school students in a college. I explianed to them how to teach pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary,listening,speaking,writing ect in the future, I always asked them to involve more activities in their teaching instead of expalining so much grammatical rules. I gave them the teaching videos at home and abroad.

So dear Barry, BBC Council is a good website for me to collect the valuable teaching resources.Could you give me some other valuable teaching websites where I can download some teaching vedios or resouces? I will be very grateful!

Thank you !

 Tsieh tsieh

For how to teach culture with grammar, look at the Macmillan/FLTRP 'New Standard English' for middle school and senior high school levels. This has exercises in culture and learning to learn linkedto grammar. It is published for China and is really useful

In CULTURAL ACTIVITY 15 I list resources for understanding culture.

Tsai Jien





Add new comment

Log in or register to post comments