Native English speakers use idioms all the time. So, if you want to learn English, you are going to have to learn them too. But how?
As you probably know, an idiom is formed by a group of words. However, the meaning of the idiom is often different to the meaning of each individual word within the idiom. And this is what makes them so difficult. For example, with the idiom “to be over the moon” – you may understand “over” and “moon”; but the whole expression is more complex. HOWEVER, there are a few tricks for learning them.
Some idioms actually represent an action that you might do in the circumstances or situation that the idiom is referring to. For example, “to put your feet up” means to relax, but some people literally do put their feet up when they are relaxing! And if someone is “up in arms” about something, they are protesting about it. However, when people are protesting, they often literally throw their arms into the air!
Other idioms can be translated (more or less) because a similar idiom exists in another language. For example “to be like a bull in a china shop” exists in German, although they use a different animal – an elephant (“ein Elefant in einem Porzellangeschäft”); and there’s a Spanish idiom that is more or less the same as the English idiom “to put your foot in it” (“meter la pata”).
Other idioms may pose more problems. But the trick is to focus on a key word within the idiom. Sometimes, this word alone will help you guess the meaning of the idiom. For example, if you say that something “suits you down to the ground” you’re basically saying that it “suits” you. Another important thing is to look at the context. What are the people talking about? What’s being discussed? What’s the topic of conversation? Once you know that, you’ll find it easier to work out the meaning of the idiom. Also, pay careful attention to the co-text (the words around the idiom). For example, what do you think this idiom means? “The exam wasn’t as hard as they said it was going to be. In fact, I’d say it was a piece of cake.”
Sometimes, you just need to visualise the idiom. See what picture it brings to mind and this may also help you guess the meaning. What do you think the idiom in this sentence means? “Everyone at the party seemed to be either really good friends or related, but I didn’t know anyone there. I really felt like a fish out of water.”
Of course, you may not know what the idiom means exactly, but you could certainly guess. In fact, this is what native speakers do. No one really sits down to learn idioms in their own language – they pick them up over time after hearing them or reading them in context. And this is what you should do.
Of course, it’s much more difficult if you’re listening to someone who uses the idiom while speaking. Then, you have less time to analyse the language. However, quite often the tone of voice can help. For example, the following expression is often used sarcastically, and if you heard it, you’d notice that the speaker wasn’t expressing enthusiasm.
A: I won sixteen dollars.
B: Big deal! [said with sarcasm]
The most important thing with idioms is being able to understand them. Don’t worry about using them because that will come with practice and after repeated exposure to lots of idiom-rich language. And in order to understand them, you need to think about the context and then let your intuition guide you. Be bold, be brave, be intuitive and GUESS, GUESS, GUESS!
Have fun learning idioms!