Inspired by the book Anna lent me to teach out of in Malta.

The book is called Idiomatic American English. Note: Teaching idioms is really difficult, and I dislike it only slightly less than I dislike teaching slang.

If your language is at a point where you can use idioms effectively, then you will be picking them up in context. If your language is not at that point, then stop putting the cart before the horse. Defining idioms and the (usually very specific) contexts in which they can be used only leads to disastrophes like this one (for full effect (I highly recommend this), copy and paste the text here, then click the loudspeaker icon in the lower right corner). This is an actual dialogue from the aforementioned book; the speakers’ names have been removed to ease Google Translate’s load.

Зэт кар из ин эй-ван кондишен, бат ит вулд кост эн арм энд э лэг.
Ай диднт ноу ю вер ин зэ маркет фор аназер кар.
Айм синкинг эбаут ит, бут фор зэ тайм бийнг, айл стик вис зис джалопи. Итл ду ин э пинш.
Айм шур э нью ван вил сэт ю бэк тэн грэнд. Зэт эйнт хей!

…Wait, what?

Diane: That new car is in A-1 condition, but it would cost an arm and a leg.
Tina: I didn’t know you were in the market for another car.
Diane: I’m thinking about it, but for the time being I’ll stick with this old jalopy. It’ll do in a pinch.
Tina: I’m sure a new one would set you back ten grand. That ain’t hay!

I was going to go on, but I think the last line speaks for itself.

Another gem from the same book:
Al: I heard that play was a complete flop–a real turkey.
Lee: On the contrary, it was a hit.

Let me stop you right there. There is exactly no — and I mean no — situation in which describing a non-fowl noun as a “turkey” could be followed by the phrase “on the contrary.” It simply doesn’t happen. Andddd…play.

Al: Do you think it’s going to be mobbed?
Lee: Jam-packed. It’s a real tearjerker. You’ll have to go to a scalper for tickets.
Al: Then let’s buy the tickets two years in advance.
Lee: We may be six feet under before we see that show.

Now, I’ve never heard the word “mobbed” used to describe a crowded place, but it makes perfect sense. I’m willing to let that one slide*. In the next line, however, we have several problems–this in spite of the fact that each of the three idioms here is perfectly acceptable and in common use.  My main beef with this section is the lack of logic in its structure. First of all, we’re in the middle of a very nice conversation about how hard it is to buy tickets to this show, and then Lee interrupts himself with affective (but most definitely not effective) information only tangentially related to the matter at hand. It appears that the authors were trying to meet a per-dialogue idiom quota (a theory supported by the equally incongruous usage of “six feet under” in the last line). The problem with these dialogues is that they’re presented to students as “authentic speech,” which leads them to the false conclusion that we actually use idioms this frequently. This, in turn, feeds the fire of idiom-mania, indicating to students that they can’t understand anything without learning all of these phrases. And while idioms do make up a significant part of our spoken language, but they are never used in the density that textbooks indicate. Even the strangest and least natural idioms here would be accepted if they were one of the only such phrases in a given utterance. Except maybe “that ain’t hay.” But that’s a whole other can of worms. 

Besides, it appears that someone has watched a lot of movies about going to events in New York City, but has never actually been to the theater him-/herself. Nobody, in their right mind and under normal circumstances, would recommend that their friend seek a scalper for tickets to a show.  Also, nobody sells tickets two years in advance. That’s what wait lists are for.

Idioms are fun. They’re often regarded as the lifeblood of a language: the metaphors they are based on give us a window into the soul of the language and the worldview of its speakers. Most important, learning “everyday” idioms makes students feel as if they are learning the “real” language–as opposed to the fake language frequently taught in schools.  A widely-held belief is that knowing idioms is tantamount to knowing the language. Many teachers and students extrapolate from this that memorizing and applying lists of idioms is a magic key to fluency.

When the active use of idioms is forced upon students too early, their speech becomes the linguistic equivalent of a bad imitation of a Picasso painting. Picasso could draw a person with three eyes and a green mouth because he knew the rules, and he knew what he was doing. If I did the same, it would not be art; it would be what we in the business call crap. Encouraging me to explore before I understand what exactly I’m exploring would be a waste of time and resources, and would open me to ridicule from artists and laypeople alike. Likewise, using idioms without a full understanding of pragmatics does students a great disservice and can seriously hinder their ability to communicate, all for the cost of a few hours of fun. Is that really worth it?

* For the rest of this post, I will bold idioms as I use them to demonstrate how idioms can be sought out and learned in context rather than through  contrived dialogues and lists that defy everything we say we know about language acquisition.

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