Why Are Idioms Difficult for English
Language Learners and How to Overcome These Obstacles?
Idioms can be difficult for English language
learners because they are phrases that cannot be translated directly
into other languages.
Idioms often have figurative
that are not easily understood by those who are not
native speakers of the language.
For example, the phrase "talk is cheap
is an idiom
that means it is easy to say something, but it is more difficult to
follow through and take action. It is often used to suggest that
someone's words are not backed up by their actions.
You might say "talk is cheap. Let's see some
results" to mean that you want to see someone take concrete steps to
achieve something rather than just talking about it.
This is different than the literal meaning of "talk is cheap", which
would be that speaking is not expensive. So it does not make much
sense if taken literally.
Similarly, the phrase "raining on someone's parade"
means to ruin someone's plans or happiness.
For example, you might say "I'm sorry to rain on
your parade but I won't be able to give you a ride in the end". This
means that you're sorry for ruining the person's plans and hope that
they can find another way. It does not mean you became a cloud
and started raining on them!
In addition to being difficult to understand, idioms can also be
challenging for English language learners because they are not
always used consistently. Some idioms may be more common in certain
regions or among certain groups of people, and they may not be
understood by those who are not familiar with them.
There are several ways to help English language learners understand
and use idioms:
This will help learners see where the idiom comes from.
For example, in our last example ("raining on someone's
") the literal meaning paints a picture of an
organized parade, ruined by the rain. People are standing wet, and
the parade has a hard time going forward.
This relates to the actual meaning of the idiom,
which is to ruin someone's plans.
Examples are a great way to help learners understand how an idiom is
used in different contexts.
For example, let's look at some sample sentences with the idiom
"raining on someone's parade":
- "I'm sorry I rained on your parade by canceling our plans for
- "I don't want to rain on your parade, but I think we should
consider all of our options before making a decision."
- "I don't want to be the one to rain on your parade, but I
think we should talk about the budget before we book that
- "To make sure no one rains on our parade, we should
double-check all of the details before making any commitments."
This will help them better understand them and practice using them
Encourage English language learners to practice
using idioms in context
, either through conversation or
This can help them get a feel for how idioms are used and how they
fit into the structure of a sentence.
Helping learners learn a variety
can broaden their understanding of the language and
make it easier for them to use idioms appropriately.
Using pictures or other visual aids can help learners understand the
figurative meaning of an idiom more easily. For example, see our English
There are many games and activities that can help learners practice
using idioms in context.
For example, you could play a matching game where learners have to
match idioms to their definitions, or create a word search with
idioms hidden within it.
There are many resources available, such as dictionaries
, that provide definitions and examples of idioms.
These can be a great help to English language learners who are
trying to make sense of the many idioms used in texts and
English Idiom Examples
Have learners create a list of idioms that they encounter in their
reading or listening materials. They can then research the meanings
of the idioms and find their definitions.
Have learners practice using idioms in role-playing situations.
For example, they could pretend to be in a conversation with a
friend and use idioms to express themselves.
Here is an example of role-playing focusing on idioms:
Hey, Josh. Can we talk for a minute?
Sure, what's up?
I just wanted to bring up something that's
been bothering me. I feel like we've been talking about expanding
our business for months now, but nothing has happened.
Yeah, I know. It's been tough to find the
right opportunities and make the necessary investments.
But that's just it talk is cheap
We can talk about expanding all we want, but if we don't take
action, it's not going to happen.
I understand where you're coming from, Gina.
I know I need to bite the bullet
and take some risks if we
want to grow our business.
Exactly. And I'm willing to do the same. But
I just feel like we're not on the same page
. It's like we're
talking past each other
instead of seeing eye to eye
You're right, Gina. I apologize if I haven't
been clear about my commitment to expanding our business. I'm ready
to take action and make it happen.
Fantastic, I'm glad to see we're on the
. I think we can really make
if we're in this together and keep our eyes on the prize
Definitely. Let's make it happen.
In this dialogue, the following idioms were used:
- "Talk is cheap": It is easy to say
something, but it is more difficult to follow through and take
- "Bite the bullet": To face and accept
something difficult or unpleasant.
- "Talking past each other": when people are
discussing different subjects while believing they are talking
about the same thing, resulting in a lack of understanding or
- "See eye to eye": To agree or have the same
opinion as someone else.
- "On the same page": To have the same
understanding or agreement.
- "Make headway": To make progress or
- "Keep your eyes on the prize": To focus on a
goal or objective.
While idioms can be an interesting and fun aspect of learning a
language, it is important to not over-emphasize them at the expense
of other language skills.
Balance the study of idioms with other aspects of language learning,
such as grammar
As mentioned, idioms can vary by region
. Some idioms may be more commonly used in certain
parts of the English-speaking world, or among certain groups of
It is important to expose learners to a variety of
idioms to help them understand how idioms are used in different
Idioms can take many different forms, including idiomatic
(e.g. "break a leg" = good luck), phrasal
(e.g. "take off" = leave the ground), and fixed
expressions (e.g. "the whole nine yards" = everything).
It is important to understand the different forms that idioms can
take and teach them appropriately.
Idioms can change over time and may not always be used consistently.
Be aware of this and encourage learners to use resources, such as
dictionaries or online resources, to learn the true meanings of
Idioms can be used to add emphasis or personality to language.
Encourage learners to use idioms appropriately to add interest and
variety to their language.
Idioms can be challenging for learners, but they can also be fun and
interesting to learn. Encourage learners to embrace the challenge of
learning idioms and enjoy the process of learning more about the
language and culture!