Speaking in another language can be difficult. It’s more than just understanding what individual words mean, fluent speakers need to understand how words connect to one another, and how the meaning changes when different connections are made.
Idioms are a common linguistic device often brought up by English teachers. But is it really important to learn them? Will they help you in your IELTS test? The simple answer is yes! As well as understanding literal language, learners need to understand figurative language.
What is an idiom?
An idiom is an expression that has a meaning that cannot be worked out from the individual words. For example, ‘see the light’ means to have a clear moment of sudden understanding. However, this is not immediately clear from the words used. A learner might work it out from the context it is used in, but this is often not easy and translating word by word will not make any sense.
This definition can extend to slang and clichés used in English, which vary from region to region adding extra challenges to a learner.
Why are idioms important in the IELTS exam?
1. Idioms are common
The average native English speaker uses idioms and slang expressions all the time and is probably unaware of how much they do so. The reason for this is simple; idioms are often the easiest way to express what you want to say.
- Anne: ‘How are you feeling?’
- Brian: ‘I’m bored and a little tired of everything at the moment. I wish things were different and a bit more exciting.’
- Anne: ‘How about you?’
- Colin: ‘I’m fed up.’
Both Colin and Brian feel the same, but what Colin is saying sounds much more natural and common place.
2. Idioms are pervasive
It is not just in casual spoken English that idioms appear, they can appear in business and academic conversation too. You will find them in books, newspapers (especially headlines), on the radio, as well as in conversation.
3. Idioms and culture are closely connected
By learning more about the target culture, a learner can understand more idioms and through using idioms they can improve their vocabulary and comprehension of the target language.
There are American, Australian and British idioms that people may not recognise, but there are also a huge number of shared expressions. Slang too varies from region to region, reflecting the dialect and culture of the people there.
4. They display a clear grasp of common functional language
Using idioms naturally and easily is a good indication that the communicator is aware of nuanced and natural English. Listening to them requires concentration and comprehension that furthers the learner's understanding of English. Using them in the Speaking and Writing section demonstrates your awareness of a language.
5. Idioms allow you to be creative
Using fun expressions, like ‘shot myself in the foot’, or ‘flogging a dead horse’ make your conversation sound more interesting and often allows the conversation to flow more easily. This is one of the criteria of the Speaking test so using idioms could push up your mark.
6. Idioms allow you to avoid talking too much
As anyone who has listened to Donald Trump knows, taking a long time to explain or express something can have a very negative effect on your fluency and coherence. An idiom often allows you to express a complicated concept simply and effectively. Instead of giving a lengthy explanation of why learning idioms will help improve your practical communicative English and your comprehension, I can simply say it will kill two birds with one stone.
Although, it isn’t necessary to learn every idiom, having a few at your disposal, ready to use and ready to impress your listener, could make a big difference to your speaking score. You might struggle at first, and you’ll almost certainly make some mistakes, but your English will improve and so you will have the last laugh.