Do British people realise you’re not a native speaker of English as soon as you start talking? Don’t worry. That doesn’t mean you have a terrible level of English. Actually, it might mean you speak too well.
One of the things that often give foreign people away is how formal they sound when they’re speaking in English. Luckily, all you have to do to avoid this is memorising a few idioms and their meaning.
But before we get started…
Idioms are expressions that take on a metaphorical meaning when certain words are put together, a meaning that is different from the literal sense of the individual words.
These expressions, whose meaning can go from very transparent to somewhat obscure, might make sense in a specific culture but not in another one, so it’s very important not to translate idioms from your own language and try to learn English idioms instead.
In Spanish, for example, people use the expression pan comido (eaten bread) to say that something is extremely easy. However, if you say that riding a bike is eaten bread in English people will look at you as if you’re mad. Instead, you should look for English idioms with a similar meaning. For example, you can say that something is “a piece of cake” to express the same thing.
Meaning: wait a moment; don’t be impatient
- Why is she not answering? Should I send her another message? What do I do?
- You matched her 3 minutes ago. Hold your horses, okay? Otherwise, she’ll think you’re a freak.
Meaning: calm and controlled, especially in situations in which most people would be nervous.
Example: Jack was as cool as a cucumber during his final exam. He even managed to make a few jokes. That bit might have been a bit too cool, though.
Meaning: to die.
Example: Most people want to travel the world before they kick the bucket, but at the rate we’re going, maybe I should wish for something else.
Meaning: completely devoid of life.
Example: Darling, when are you going to get rid of these poor roses? I mean, look at them, they’re dead as a doornail. It makes me depressed just to look at them.
Meaning: something that is hard to comprehend.
Example: I swear I’ve tried to learn Bridge, but I can’t. Every time someone tries to explain the rules my mind goes blank. It’s all Greek to me.
Meaning: said jokingly as an apology for using bad language.
“This beer is great, isn’t it?”
*burps* “It is. Pardon my French, though”.
Meaning: very close friends
- D’you know who I saw together today? Martin and Dave.
- What!? Didn’t they use to hate each other’s guts?
- Not anymore it seems. In fact, they looked thick as thieves.
Meaning: be critical with someone for the kind of mistakes you’re also guilty of.
- What? He’s already dating? But we broke up two weeks ago!
- Well, at least he waited two weeks. Gosh, Suzanne. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.
- Idioms allow you to express your ideas in a new way.
- They help you sound more “native-like”, which in turn boosts your confidence.
- They make your exchanges funnier,more colourful, and more natural.
- They improve your social interactions as they help you to show natives that you understand the cultural nuances behind the usage of English words.
- Idioms are rapidly replacing literal expressions. For example, the phrase “spill the tea”, which means “to share gossip/information with someone” has undergone an impressive boost in recent years. How impressive exactly? Well, take a look at the graphic below.
When it comes to learning vocabulary, the best thing to do is follow a three-step approach.
- First of all, you need to hear a new idiom.
- Once you’ve come into contact with it, write it down. When we learn a language, we discover new words and phrases every day, so unless you find a way to make target expressions memorable, you are likely to forget them soon.
- Finally, use it.
After all, that’s what we learn languages for, right? If you want an expression to become part of your repertoire, you have to be constantly on the prowl for new contexts in which to use the language you’ve learnt. Find a penfriend, go to Omegle, use Tinder Passport, do whatever you need to do but make sure you put those idioms into use!
Useful ideas to memorise idioms and their meaning:
- Keep a diary of idioms and sort them into different categories based on the kind of situations in which you can use them.
- Study the context, not just the meaning. This will help you understand how and when to use idioms.
- Visualise them. Try to connect idioms to a visual. You can even keep cards for your favourite ones.
- Explore the origins of idioms and their meaning. It might seem like a lot of work, but knowing the history of idioms, how they came to mean what they mean in a specific culture, will make them much more memorable for you.
Do you want to learn more about English idioms and how to use them? Then contact us on our website. We’ll pair you up with a native English tutor who’ll be delighted to teach you everything there is to know about informal language and how you can use them to sound just like a native.