Learning English idioms

Learning English

Every cloud has a silver lining – or has it? Getting to grips with idioms is probably the hardest part of learning any language and English idioms are no exception. Forget everything you’ve learnt about translating – these phrases are all about figurative rather than literal meaning. However, with hundreds, if not thousands, of English language idioms, where do you start?

How to learn idioms

The first step is to understand that you simply don’t need to know all of them. They are used a lot, but they need to be absorbed gradually. Just like vocabulary, sitting down and trying to learn a long list of idioms is unlikely to work. It’s better to pick up one or two at a time, listen out for them in other people’s speech and try to use them when the opportunity arises.

Keeping an Idioms diary is another useful tool. Jot down any new idioms you hear, double-check their meaning and practise writing or saying them to help imprint them on your brain.

Create visual images

If you manage to see the idiom in your mind, you have a far better chance of remembering it. Take these idioms and see if you can picture them:

Let your hair down’: to relax and do what you want, eg you’ve been studying so hard, you really need to just let your hair down.

Fish out of water’: to feel uncomfortable in unfamiliar surroundings, eg as soon as he walked into the fancy-dress party, he felt like a fish out of water.

Why use idioms?

They may not be easy to master but they will certainly make your English sound much more authentic. They also introduce colour and energy into your speech. Take a look at the following idioms connected to emotion and decide for yourself how effective they are at creating a mental image:

Bare your heart (or soul) to someone’. If you bare your heart (or soul) to someone, you reveal your innermost thoughts and feelings to them, eg he couldn’t keep it quiet any longer – he decided to bare his soul to his closest friend.

Come apart at the seams’. To feel extremely upset or under great mental stress, eg After her mother died and her business failed, she felt she was coming apart at the seams’.

When to use idioms

Remember that idioms are mostly used when speaking informally. You will certainly find them in newspaper or magazine articles, but it’s best to avoid them in any academic writing.  Business language, however, is full of idioms. Some of the most common include:

In a nutshell’ – using as few words as possible, eg in a nutshell, we have 3 months to deliver the goods.

On the same page’ – to be in agreement about something eg let’s discuss the contract to make sure we’re on the same page.

Big picture’ – everything involved in a particular situation eg we’ve spent so long working on the smaller aspects of this project that we’ve lost sight of the big picture.’

‘Put all your eggs in one basket’ – put all your effort and resources into doing one thing eg we need to diversify rather than putting all our eggs in one basket.’

Understanding British culture

Lastly, understanding and using English idioms will give you a much better insight into British culture. Probably the best example of this is the idiom

Best thing since sliced bread’ – a good invention, idea or plan eg this new kitchen gadget is the best thing since sliced bread.

Of course, while idiom diaries, reading and listening to podcasts are invaluable, there’s no substitute for actually spending time in the UK. With Lingua Holidays, you can holiday in London and benefit from private English lessons in your apartment. So what are you waiting for? We wouldn’t want you to miss the boat ….