We recently talked about idioms in our September ESL RULES newsletter. It is clear that this language area is a significant challenge for many nonnative English speakers who want to understand their American colleagues, sound natural, and speak in a colorful manner to express their ideas.Some comments that we heard from clients this week highlight these challenges.
One client said, "I understand that comparing apples and oranges means to try to talk about two very different things as though they were the same, but can I talk about other fruits in the same way? In other words, can I say 'it is like comparing peaches and nectarines?' "
I also heard a Para-Olympian interviewed on television recently. He was talking about how inspired he was by one of his fellow athletes. He stated that he had “tears in his eyes and had chicken bumps.” Again, substituting one poultry breed for another (chicken for goose) is not going to make sense to most listeners.
One of the problems with idioms is that the expressions have to be used exactly as they were intended. Using a “substitution” often renders the entire expression meaningless. So, conceptually it may make sense to compare bananas and mangoes, but no one will understand what you are talking about. Similarly, although chicken and geese are related creatures (poultry), the expression just doesn’t work.
Another client explained to me that he thought “all thumbs” meant very coordinated. When I asked him to explain his reasoning, he told me how people can type so fast with their thumbs on their Blackberry. This was fascinating and I understood his reasoning completely. Imagine his surprise when he learned that “all thumbs” meant to be clumsy and uncoordinated! Another client told me that she thought “all thumbs” meant to do a great job, considering the common “thumbs-up” gesture that we give one another for encouragement.
Sometimes, in our changing world, the old expressions don’t suit the current technological or social environment. Will these expressions change over time?
Please weigh in with your thoughts and any examples of idiom confusion!
For additional resources on teaching idioms, check out Medically Speaking Idioms and our resource page on our website at www.eslrules.com.