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Learning English Idioms

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English Idioms:
Add Color to Your Language

(Teacher Joe originally wrote this article for College English Magazine in Beijing.)

This article is about learning and using idioms. Idioms are special expressions that make your conversation more interesting. Instead of using a normal statement such as "I agree", you might say "I see what you mean". Or instead of saying "I'm very hungry", you might say "I could eat a horse".

When you use idiomatic expressions, your language sounds much more colorful, more alive, more real. You can communicate your feeling much more forcefully, which is important when you are trying to sell something or trying to persuade somebody. If used correctly, these kinds of expressions can be very impressive. People will know that your English is truly fluent.

However, there are some disadvantages to using idioms, so we have to be careful. First, it takes a long time to learn how to use an expression accurately. You can memorize some expressions in a short time, but that doesn't mean you know how to use them. Only after you see the expressions used under a variety of conditions can you really use them with confidence. In addition, we don't use idiomatic expressions every day, only when we really need them. If you use an expression at the wrong time, trying to sound good, it will sound very BAD instead.

Even with these problems, it is worth it to try to learn natural, idiomatic expressions as soon as possible. The sooner you start to study them, the sooner you will know how to use them correctly. If you are patient, hard working, and pay attention to how expressions are used, your efforts will surely "pay off", so don't give up!

The best way to learn idioms is "in context". That means you should look for interesting expressions whenever you read, or when you watch a movie or TV program in English. The story helps you in two ways. First, you can easily understand how the expression is used. The story shows you very clearly the relationships between people and how they feel. You will know that the situation in the story is a good time to use that expression, and you will be able to choose the same words when you are in a similar situation. Second, the strong, vivid pictures of a story will help you remember the expression. We always remember more when we use pictures than when we use words alone.

In what contexts can we learn idiomatic expressions? There are a variety of possibilities. For one thing, you could listen to songs in English. You'll hear some interesting expressions in TV programs too, for example the popular "Friends" from the United States. You can also read stories for young people, which you can buy in a large bookstore such as the Foreign Language Bookstore in Wangfujing, in Beijing. When you see interesting expressions, stop to notice the mood of the story. Who is speaking and who is listening? What is the feeling of the person speaking? These clues will help you understand the deeper meaning of the expression.

After you've started to learn some idiomatic expressions, you can practice them in different ways, even if you're not 100 percent sure how to use them. One way is to ask questions of people. You could ask a direct question. For example, if someone is joking around, saying things that are obviously not true, you might ask, "Could we say that he is "pulling our leg"? By asking a question, you can find out if you've really understood the idiom. In this case, your friend might answer, "Yes, he's always joking around. I wish he would stop pulling my leg". If you chose the wrong expression, or if you didn't say it quite right, then your friend can correct it for you. On the other hand, if you try to use an expression directly, and you use it wrongly, people might not correct you for fear of embarrassing you.

Besides asking questions, you can practice your expressions by making jokes. Most idiomatic expressions have a true or "literal" meaning. You can use this true meaning to help you. If someone asks you "What's up?" instead of "How are you?", you can look up to the ceiling and say, "I don't see anything - nothing's up!". Your friend might laugh at your joke, or maybe tell you what he meant, for example, he might tell you, "What's up just means 'how are you?'" If you weren't sure of the meaning before, now you are. In addition, your friends will see how funny you are. All students make mistakes with difficult expressions, but only a few, like you, can joke about them! Another example is if someone asks you to "give them a hand", which means to help someone. The literal meaning might lead you to say this: "I'd like to cut off my hand and give it to you, but I really need it myself"!

To learn the most common idioms in English, go to Joe's Learn English Idioms page. Just remember, there's no magical, easy way to learn idiomatic expressions. You have to be patient and learn them one at a time. If you study in a slow but steady manner, while paying attention to how the words are used in context, your speaking will improve naturally. Good luck!

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