Explaining figurative language is one of the hardest things to teach a language learner. It is one of those innate language aspects that can be hard to grasp. Every language has idioms and as children we grow up hearing and understanding their place and usage.
Most language learners, however, tend to take these phrases literally. When we discuss figurative language, I take the approach of treating them as exceptions to the rule. It seems to work because students, especially in learning grammar, learn that that there are rules as well as exceptions that you need to just know or memorize. Already in this frame of mind, I find that students open their minds a little more and don’t struggle as much.
Idioms have concrete foundations or origins. Consider the phrase “cream rises to the top.” As an idiom, it means that the best come to the top, which is based on creaming milk. When you do that, the cream does indeed rise to the top. There are many others just like this.
Some of my favorite idioms to teach are:
- Food for thought (something to think about or consider)
- Not my cup of tea (not something you enjoy doing)
- As easy as pie (something very easy)
- Butter someone up (to flatter someone in order to get something from them)
- Bread and butter (one’s income or job)
- Go bananas (to get easily excited or act in a crazy way)
- In a pickle (in trouble)
- Piece of cake (task easily accomplished)
- That’s the way the cookie crumbles (that’s the way things happen)
- The big cheese (important person, leader)
The more visual or student participation with language, the better. When teaching idioms, I present it on a chart with pictures. First, we look at the idiom and decide what the students think it means (or the literal meaning). Second, we discuss what it actually means. Third, we use the idiom in a sentence or situation (the example). Lastly, I enjoy hearing about if the idiom is like one a student has in their language or other idioms they have. It is fun to compare them as well as learn new ones.
What are your favorite food idioms?