The Power of Idioms in Learning a Second Language

by multilingualmania on September 1, 2010

in Language Learning, Miscommunication, second language acquisition

We just recently uploaded a few articles over at ELD Strategies and wanted to share them with Multilingual Mania readers in case you might be interested. One article is about teaching idioms with second language learners, which are phrases and expressions that mean something other than the literal meaning that they seem to imply. One example of an idiom in English is “It’s raining cats and dogs”.

Idioms are an essential aspect of learning a second language and are often a component that language learners are lacking in order to attain high levels of proficiency in a second language. I can remember when I was more or less at the intermediate level of learning Spanish and one day I arrived a little late to pick up my students in the line at school. One of the parents asked me, “Se te pegaron las sábanas?”

I suddenly had an image in my mind of the sheets on my bed sticking to me or whipping in the wind and hitting me. I certainly was extremely confused, which amused many of the mothers who happened to be there at the time. I finally understood that the mother was talking about me coming late and possibly looking a little bit tired.

Over the years I have had to train myself to ask people, “What exactly does that mean?” when native speakers might have used an idiom in their speech. My latest encounter happened last week when a parent said to another parent, “Me dejó plantada”. I once again had this image in my mind that the parent was being planted into the ground like a plant. Upon further investigation I discovered that she was talking about being “stood up” or “left hanging”, which are also idioms in English.

I used to become frustrated and embarrassed when a linguistic misunderstanding occurred as a result of the use of an idiom. However, now I have learned to train myself to ask people exactly what the phrase might mean and how it is used. Now I’m at the point where a few of the trickster parents are confusing me with idioms that have double meanings with naughty connotations. Initially I was a bit frustrated with this recent occurrence, however, lately I have just decided to “go with the flow” and I’m using it as a chance to learn about those nuanced parts of language that are required for native-like proficiency.

The difficult aspect of learning about idioms is that every country and region has its own idioms. As I have come into contact with many Spanish speakers throughout Latin America, I often learn idioms from one country and someone from another country might not be familiar with a certain idiom. I’m sure that the same phenomenon occurs in the English language, with people from the UK and elsewhere using different idioms than the common idioms that are used in the United States. Sometimes when I am watching a British movie, it is almost like hearing another language!


Head on over to our article about idioms that we recently wrote, and although it is about idioms in English it can also be applied to any language that is being learned. Some additional resources for learning about idioms in a few language are:

What are some of your favorite idioms? Have you ever had a miscommunication or misunderstanding as a result of the use of an idiom?

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