Learning idioms is an impossible task. There are thousands of them in English and you have to learn every single one!
Just kidding! There may be as many as 25,000 idioms in English and I doubt that I use more than a few hundred on a regular basis. But, as a native speaker of English, I am able to understand most idioms when I hear them because I can guess the approximate meaning from the context.
As an English learner, you won’t be able to guess the meaning from the context as quickly or as easily as me, but you’re probably much better at it than you might think.
Let’s have a try:
Jack: I’m starving. I could eat a horse.
Mary: There’s some pizza from last night in the fridge.
So, what does the idiom ‘I could eat a horse’ mean?
That’s right – we use it to say that somebody is starving (very hungry).
What can make learning idioms difficult is that the words used separately often have a basic and common meaning, but are used to refer to something else when used in an idiom.
Words can have two or more meanings. One meaning (the common and basic one) is literal and the other (used as a metaphor or to symbolise something else) is the figurative meaning.
Idioms are fixed expressions which have a figurative meaning. Knowing the individual words may not help you understand the idiom.
The problem is that many English teachers will sympathise with your struggle with idioms. They say things like:
Yes, idioms are really difficult for English learners. Maybe you should just learn grammar.
Well, I would disagree with this view. Idioms can seem strange at first but they are not randomly generated – there is always a story behind every idiom, even if the roots of the idiom go back hundreds of years.
The idiom above probably refers to the fact that the horse was seen as a noble animal and was also extremely valuable as a form of transport, unlike a cow or a goat. Therefore, you only actually ate a horse as a last resort – if you were lost in the wilderness with nothing to eat. I doubt that this idiom is used in countries where horse meat is eaten.
In this post, I would like to persuade you that learning idioms is not so difficult and can even be fun.
Reason 1 – Idioms are fun
In my two decades as an English teacher, I can’t remember a student coming up to me to say: learning grammar rules is great fun. But, many students have told me how enjoyable they found a lesson on learning idioms.
One of my favourite idioms is ‘to run around like a headless chicken’. Watch this video below for an explanation.
By the way, if you like the video and want to learn more Business English idioms, you can get my video course here.
Idioms help make ideas, concepts, situations, and feelings more real. They work like stories, using unusual images to reveal something about life. This makes them memorable.
Reason 2 – Idioms are usually fixed expressions
You can’t make many changes to an idiom. Apart from changing the verb tense (and this isn’t often necessary), you don’t tend to alter idioms. They are generally fixed expressions, which means the grammar and the word order can’t be modified much.
To remember them, what you have to do is focus on the content words (nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs). As long as you learn the essential parts, you should be able to remember the meaning of the idiom when you hear it.
To run around like a headless chicken has three key words – run, headless, chicken. The grammar words (around, like, a) are not so important and you could even say something like ‘he is running in the same way as a headless chicken’ and native or proficient English speakers would understand what you’re trying to say.
In other words, make learning the content words in an idiom your priority – the grammar words will come with practice and exposure.
Reason 3 – Idioms usually refer to the physical world
Do you remember the difference between concrete and abstract nouns? Concrete nouns are things we can see, hear, feel, touch, and even taste, whereas abstract nouns do not have a physical state. A horse is a concrete noun but happiness is an abstract one.
Most idioms use physical references. They refer to real objects and actions in the physical world. Many idioms are decades of even centuries old and commonly refer to people, actions, animals, geography, cultural practices, food and drink, sports, modes of transport.
This makes them easier to remember and easier to access from your long-term memory because they are stored as images. If I ask you to think of a horse or a mountain, your brain instantly selects an image. Your horse or mountain may not be the same as mine, but we would both recognise each other’s images. When we think of happiness, we may recall events or feelings, and our ‘mental references’ may be very different.
Which is why you should use images to record idioms. Make simple flashcards with the idiom written next to the image.
Reason 4 – Your language may have a similar idiom
In English, there is an idiom ‘to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth‘ which means to be born into a rich family. In Spanish, the idiom is “nacer en cuna de oro” which translates as ‘to be born in a golden crib (the object that babies sleep in).
The idea behind the idiom is the same in each language. It doesn’t require much mental work to make the connection between ‘a silver spoon’ and ‘a golden crib’.
Now, many teachers may tell you not to translate an idiom from your language into English. This is a misguided view, in my opinion, because adult learners are likely to look for a conceptually-related idiom in their first language automatically. And you are not translating word to word; you are connecting concepts.
So, when you hear a new idiom, try to match it to an idiom in your language and focus on the concept not the specific details.
Reason 5: Idioms often repeat sounds
You know when you hear a song for the first time and spend the rest of the day singing the chorus. Well, idioms are often catchy too. They have been passed on from person to person, becoming more concise and memorable in the process.
There is also a special effect found in many idioms: alliteration. This s when a sound is repeated at the beginning of words. Here are some examples of alliterative idioms:
tried and tested
below the belt
the grass is always greener
beat round the bush
a dime a dozen
curiosity killed the cat
It takes two to tango.
your guess is as good as mine
Reason 6: Idioms are like memes, short and sweet
In the digital age, things which are memorable get shared on social media. Striking images and striking phrases get passed around until they become part of our communal culture. Idioms are basically the forerunners of memes; in a world in which most people couldn’t read, idioms moved like a virus, passing from person to person through spoken (oral) communication.
Our short-term memory doesn’t appear to be very good at storing long phrases, which is why idioms tend to be short and sweet. Longer ones, like ‘the grass is always greener on the other side’ tend to get shortened naturally, which is why we don’t always remember full idioms.
Another feature of idioms is that they are grammatically simple. Most idioms use basic conjunctions (and, or, but) and repetition. They are often binominals (two-word expressions) such as ‘rough and ready’ or ‘tried and tested’ or trinominals (three-word expressions) like ‘signed, sealed and delivered’ or ‘cool, calm and collected’.
Another type of idiom is the simile. This is when we compare one thing to another, usually with ‘like’ or ‘as’:
He’s as cunning as a fox.
It worked like a dream.
Reason 7: Idioms often have fascinating, if frequently untrue, back stories
When you watch a film, you often wonder about a character’s motivation. For example, why did Bruce Wayne (Batman) decide to fight crime? If I was rich and handsome, I would choose the life of an international playboy rather than dress up as a bat beating up bad guys!
But, my parents weren’t murdered by a nasty criminal in front of my eyes. That’s Bruce Wayne’s back story, the reason why he became Batman.
Idioms have back stories too, which can help you remember them, although the origins of these idioms should be ‘taken with a pinch of salt’ – you should not believe them 100%.
Have you heard of the idiom ‘ to let the cat out of the bag’?
It means to reveal a secret.
But, what do secrets have to do with cats in bags?
Well, apparently it was a trick played by market traders on the customers back in the 15th century. Imagine you go the market to buy a piglet ( a baby pig) for your Sunday lunch. The market traders used to put piglets in bags or sacks so you picked one up, paid for it, and took it home. Some unscrupulous traders used to put cats in these bags and convince their customers that they were buying piglets. The poor customer had a nasty shock when they got home, opened their bag and found they had bought a worthless cat rather than a delicious piglet. On opening the bag, the secret was revealed!
So, a great way to learn idioms is to read about their origins. Idioms are not created by chance; they almost always refer to real events, actions or objects.
Reason 8: Idioms reflect cultural values
The final reason why idioms are not so difficult to learn is related to reason 7: they reflect cultural values and ideals. Although many idioms are based on specific cultural practices, the deeper values are usually universal. In other words, they express emotions, ideas, concepts and situations which are probably found in your cultural background too.
Idioms deal with universal themes: food, religion, politics, work, family life, art and music, relationships, money. homes, and community.
As I discussed in reason 4, you may have similar idioms in your language. You shouldn’t try to translate them word for word, but you will remember them if you identify the deeper meaning behind them. Once you do that, you will understand them on an emotional, logical, psychological, intellectual, socio-cultural and maybe even spiritual level.
The idiom mentioned earlier (the grass is always greener on the other side) reflects that universal feeling of wanting to change your life by changing your environment. This is a feeling we all experience at some point in life.
So, I hope I have convinced you to keep learning idioms. Understanding them is more important than using them, so take your time and don’t start using them until you are ready. But, understanding them will really help when you are having natural conversations with native and proficient English speakers. You’ll be able to follow their thoughts and keep up with the flow of the conversation. And when you actually start using them, they will be extremely impressed!
If you would like to learn common idioms we use at work, you might be interested in my course on Business English Idioms.
Here is an example lesson:
You can get the course by clicking on the image below.
Great speaking pace. Very nice examples of idioms and opportunities for self-check. Thank you for the course!