Awareness Workshop – Being aware of idioms

Let’s say you are in charge of designing a workshop for Native English speakers – with the goal of making them more aware of the English they use. Your objective is to make these Native speakers easier to understand when speaking internationally. What would you include in the workshop?

In my last post I touched on being aware of speed. Today, let’s discuss something that presents a significant challenge when communicating internationally, and something that should never be left out of a Raising Language Awareness Workshop:

Idioms & Idiomatic Expressions

What is an idiom or an idiomatic expression?

A definition from the Oxford dictionary tells us it’s a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words. If that sounds too complicated, then let’s simply look at some examples.

Here are some idioms:

  • to kick the bucket
  • to bite the bullet
  • to compare apples to oranges
  • to work down to the wire
  • to face the music

If you are a Native English speaker, there is a chance you know what those expressions mean. Notice that I said there is a chance? That is because there are thousands and thousands of idioms within the English language, and what may be perfectly understood in Northern Ireland may not be understood in Australia. After all, many idiomatic expressions come from local customs, landmarks, or sports. If we English speakers have problems understanding each other, just imagine how difficult these types of expressions are for language learners.

In general, Native English speakers should be aware of their audience and adapt their level of idiomatic expressions accordingly.

If I were giving a presentation in my native California, I would have no worries of using a baseball idiom such as, “That question really came out of left field!” In fact, I would feel quite comfortable throwing in a few surfing idioms as I imagine most of my listeners would be familiar with them. Perhaps I’d choose to do this as it would build rapport with my audience and help us “connect” through our use of language.

However, the moment I gave that presentation to a British audience I would need to avoid that idiom. How many Brits are familiar with baseball? Perhaps as many Americans are familiar with cricket? The first time I heard an English coworker speak about a sticky wicket I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about!

A wicket?

Wasn’t that the name of an Ewok from Star Wars?? (cultural reference alert)
A Sticky Wicket?

If you are familiar with the game of cricket you are sure to know that when somebody describes the situation as a sticky wicket they are trying to tell you that there is a difficult set of circumstances or a difficult situation at hand. They are not talking about Ewoks on the second moon of Endor! (cultural reference alert again… )

If you are running a Raising Language Awareness Workshop, you need to make the participants very aware of this problem. Language learners around the world are going to have trouble understanding idioms – every time the Native Speaker uses an idiom they are giving the international listener an obstacle to jump.

There is a good chance the message will be missed or misunderstood.

Therefore, the following should be covered in the workshop:

  • Raising Awareness of what an idiom is and how difficult they can be to understand!
  • Raising Awareness of just how common idioms are!
  • Helping the Native Speaker work on their accommodation strategies.
  • Improving the skill of explaining around an idiomatic expression with a more globalized version of English – this is a central objective of any such workshop.

Native Speakers do not need to avoid using idioms at all times – I’m sure we all can agree that they enrich the language and add color to any conversation. However Native Speakers need to be aware of their use and adjust when necessary… ensuring that the message they are trying to communicate does in fact get communicated.

Have you ever been in a meeting where a speaker used an unfamiliar idiom?



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