By Anneke Forzani
Even if you aren’t familiar with idioms, you might be surprised how often you use them in daily conversations. Let’s take a look at why it’s essential to learn idioms, how idioms vary across cultures, and how educators can bridge the cultural divide when teaching idioms.
What is an idiom?
An idiom is a phrase with a meaning that can’t be deciphered from its words alone. Instead, an idiom has a meaning that’s generally understood by people who share a language or culture. Let’s take a look at a few familiar examples that English speakers in the US would be familiar with:
- A breath of fresh air
- The lion’s share
- With flying colors
- Icing on the cake
As you can see, the meaning behind these phrases is more than the sum of their words, and are understood by native speakers because they’ve been heard in context many times.
Take a moment to look up common idioms from other cultures, and you’ll find yourself stumped by many of them. For example, did you know the Russian phrase “to hang noodles on someone’s ears” means you are fooling them?
Why multicultural idiom lessons are essential and fun
Every language and culture has thousands, if not tens of thousands, of native idioms. There’s a significant amount of casual communication happening with the use of idioms. Using local idioms allows the speaker to sound more natural and expressive when they speak, and less formal.
Idioms are generally easier to memorize as well, because of their unique nature. For example, you’ll find the Croatian phrase that literally translates as “the pussy cat will come to the tiny door,” (but actually means “what goes around comes around”) is quite memorable, indeed.
When learning multicultural idioms, you begin to find hints at the unique cultural influences behind them. For instance, animal-themed idioms are commonplace (think “hold your horses”), but the animals featured in idioms tell us a lot about which animals are valued and maligned by that culture. These cultural influences are apparent in idioms about food, nature, and countless other themes. In this way, lessons on idioms are also lessons about the history and spirit of each culture.
Learning idioms in diverse classrooms
Learning idioms is a great way to celebrate diversity and bring multicultural learning to a classroom. Start by choosing idioms based on the most likely social scenarios your students will find themselves in. That way, they can make use of their new knowledge right away.
Use the idioms in sample sentences, and ask students to guess their meanings from their context. You may want to use images that illustrate when and how the idioms would be used.
It’s important to have students practice using each idiom properly since this type of communication can be very nuanced. Include lots of role-playing opportunities, so students can practice their idioms verbally.
Idioms are also a way to enhance the school-home connection. Have students ask their parents for strange or amusing idioms in their home languages to share with the class.
Students can match each idiom with its meaning, or even draw or act out their favorite idioms. Or compare and contrast idioms in different languages. For example, in English, a sad person may “have the blues,” but in French, that person would “have the cockroach.”
For more fun learning idioms in a multicultural setting, check out the Language Lizard Idiom Book Series, a great resource for teachers in virtual or in-person classrooms, and homeschooling families, as well. Each book comes with a variety of lessons and free activities to share with students and families.
What are the strangest or most amusing idioms you’ve heard? Comment and tell us about them below, or share them on social media using #IdiomsRock.
Anneke Forzani is the President and Founder of Language Lizard, which provides multicultural books, audio resources, and posters in over 50 languages to schools, libraries, and literacy organizations. She actively promotes the use of multicultural resources to develop literacy skills among language learners, build inclusive classrooms, and celebrate cultural diversity. Anneke has presented workshops about using multicultural resources in diverse classrooms at educational conferences, and offers free multicultural lesson plans on the Language Lizard website to support culturally responsive teaching. She is the author of the teacher resource, Building Bridges with Bilingual Books and Multicultural Lesson Plans, and the forthcoming children’s books, Happy After All and With Flying Colors (a multicultural book to teach English idioms). She also enjoys writing for the Language Lizard blog to support parents and teachers who work with language learners and culturally diverse students.