Idioms are phrases that cannot be translated word-by-word but have meaning beyond their literal dictionary definitions. They are one of the hardest challenges for someone learning a language.
However, if you want to communicate with native speakers, knowing at least the most common idiomatic expressions is important. You’ll find that native speakers use them very, very frequently.
How frequently are idioms used in English? Trying to get solid facts, I came across the following two citations on Nada’s ESL Island, a tropical-looking, informative Web site established by Nada Salem Abisamra of George Washington University:
- A group of researchers led by Howard R. Pollio of the University of Tennessee analyzed approximately 200,000 words from political debates, taped psychotherapy sessions, and compositions written by students and adults for a book on figurative language. They found that the individuals included in their study used idioms at an average rate of 4.08 idioms per minute.
- Thomas C. Cooper of the University of Georgia Athens transcribed the dialogue from 3 taped hours of television programs. He found that idioms were used in this context even more frequently, at a rate of about 3 per minute. He also reported that idioms proved crucial to understanding the shows’ plots.
The idioms page on Nada’s ESL Island does not appear to have been updated recently and some of the links no longer work. Her quite active ESL Island discussion group on Facebook may be of greater interest to students. However, she summarizes a lot of research and ideas here that will be useful to teachers of English, especially her outline of a paper by Cooper, “Teaching English,” which I could not find elsewhere and which many suggestions on how to teach idioms.
I hope to give more information and ideas for studying and teaching idioms in future posts here. If you are working on preparing for TOEIC tests and/or on learning the idioms most commonly used in the workplace, I would recommend the two AmEnglish English Skills Series modules on the topic that we distribute. It focuses in on the most vital of the over 15,000 English language idiomatic phrases (the ones most likely to be included in TOEIC tests), presenting them in an interactive way that reinforces learning. Check it out on our site (you'll need to scroll down a little to read more about the idioms modules).
Any recommendation or plug of your own that you’d like to make for an idiom-related site or product? Information on other idioms research? Or, want to talk about an idiom that threw you for a loop? Put in your two cents with a comment below.