[LESSON PLAN] Idiomatic expressions across cultures and first languages

When you think of high proficiency levels, say B2 and above, one of the characteristics might be the use of idiomatic expressions. When you hear a student say I’m absolutely over the moon, you might think to yourself ‘oh wow, that’s a very natural way of putting it’ and wonder where the student might have picked it up. Or maybe you’ll even praise them for using the idiom. Or perhaps give them a higher score on their speaking exam.

But let’s pause for a second. In an international contexts, when people from different countries are using English to communicate, just how transparent might some of these idioms be:

  • the world is your oyster
  • the cat is out of the bag
  • he really pulled a blinder there
  • the train was an absolute chockablock.

Probably not very transparent.

So what I’m trying to say here is that idiomatic expressions, although traditionally viewed as a sign of high proficiency, might not actually be beneficial for international communication.

On the other hand, there is certainly this idea that translating an idiom from your first language is bad. I underlined translating on purpose, because even that word might bring up negative connotations. After all, you shouldn’t be translating; you should be thinking in English, and in English only.

Now, that’s all well and good if you’re monolingual. However, as anyone who’s fluent in more than one language will tell you, multilingual brains don’t work like that. As a proficient user of three languages, I constantly translate, code switch, mix, translanguage, or however else you may want to call it. In other words, I simply use my multilingual resources to communicate.

And by the very nature all our learners are either bi- or multilingual, i.e. they can speak more than one language. So it’s vital that rather than try to make fake copies of monolingual ‘native speakers’ out of them, we help them become effective multilingual users of English.

First, we need to remember that using your L1 (or other languages that you know) can have many communicative purposes. It’s not necessarily a sign of low proficiency or of not knowing the word. I don’t have time in this post to go into a lot of detail, but here are just a few reasons why someone might switch between languages:

  • highlight their linguistic identity
  • break the ice and gain rapport
  • play with the language
  • add new meanings
  • clarify or check understanding.

So codeswitching is not only a natural and inevitable part of being a multilingual user of a language, but it can also play important roles in communication. I think it’s vital then that we acknowledge, appreciate and praise our students’ L1 identity and culture, rather than sideline it as something problematic and undesirable in the English classroom

 One great area to start exploring this are idiomatic expressions from different L1s and cultures. And I prepared a quick FREE lesson plan for you, which you can download below. It comes from a book I cowrote with Robert Lowe Teaching English as a Lingua Franca: The Journey from EFL to ELF.

Download the Lesson Plan

Of course, this does NOT mean that now students can simply translate all the idioms from their L1 and use them assuming that people will understand them. There are several things we need to raise our students’ awareness of:

1. The first important consideration is how culturally transparent an idiom might be. In other words, does it involve an understanding of certain aspects of the target culture to be deciphered? For example, understanding the idiom the ball is in your court involves at least some vague knowledge of tennis and is likely to be problematic.

2. The second consideration is whether other languages or cultures might have a similar idiom. For example, while in English you kill two birds with one stone, in Polish you make two roasts on one fire, in Spanish you kill two birds with one shot, while in French you make two hits with one stone (and what do you say in your language?). Admittedly, the Polish idiom might be the least transparent, but having said that, all four of these languages share pretty much the same concept: you use one of X to do two of Y. So such an idiom is likely to be understood in international contexts.

3. The third consideration is to use clarification strategies whenever you use an idiom (I’d actually argue that whether the idiom is something a ‘native speaker’ of English might use or one from a different language is irrelevant). For example, before using the idiom, you might want to say:

  • We have this saying where I come from…
  • In my language we say…
  • In Polish we have this idiom…

This prepares the other person for the fact that a) you might say something that might not be easily interpretable b) you’ll say something that comes from your L1. You can then clarify what it means after using the idiom:

  • this means that…
  • which basically refers to…
  • You could translate it as…
  • I think in English you might say…

If you want to try out a similar activity with your students, don’t forget to download this FREE lesson plan:


Download Your Lesson Plan

So all in all, I think we need to seriously reconsider:

a) the usefulness of some ‘native speaker’ idioms for international communication

b) the negative view we sometimes might have of students translating idioms from their L1.

That’s it for now – let me know what you think in the comments section below.

And if you’d like more practical activities like the one above, take a look at Teaching English as a Lingua Franca: The Journey from EFL to ELF, which I cowrote with Robert Lowe. Apart from an in-depth and practical exploration of the theory and research behind English as a Lingua Franca, the book contains over 40 classroom activities you can use with your students.

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