Do you ever have tomatoes on your eyes? The importance of teaching Idioms

Do you ever have tomatoes on your eyes?

Or do you drink water while diving?

Although these questions sound ludicrous, the answer to them is probably yes, at one time or another.

A German teacher would understand the reference to tomatoes and realise that it means you’re not seeing what everyone else can see. A bit like not seeing the wood for the trees maybe? Or, if you’re Italian, having your eyes lined with ham!

And we all drink water while diving, as a teacher from Indonesia would know: every professional in school must tackle two things at the same time to survive in the classroom (if not four or five!)

Idioms and idiomatic language play a large part in how people express themselves in English, and other languages too.

For pupils learning EAL, especially those who are gaining competence, idioms can prove tricky to understand. Yet everyone uses them on a daily basis. Listen to your own conversations and see how many you can spot.

Therefore, teaching idioms and pointing out idiomatic language is a really important part of any child’s language learning. It’s a bit like teaching young children nursery rhymes. Although some of them might seem nonsensical, the words, patterns and rhythms all add to a toddler’s linguistic repertoire. The same is true of learning about idioms.  Pupils may never use them in their day to day talk, but they will encounter them. Therefore, they need to have some idioms to refer to and the linguistic tools of inference and deduction to understand what the idiomatic language means for the interaction they are engaged in. If you need more convincing, read Cameron and Besser’s research into pupils’ writing where idiomatic and formulaic language was found to be tricky for English language learners.

How can teachers make children aware of idioms and idiomatic language?

  1. Make a classroom display of idioms from around the world. Write them in English and in their original language: Tomaten auf den Augen haben – You have tomatoes on your eyes.
  2. Encourage children to notice idioms when they talk and read. Create a space for recording new ones.
  3. Take five minutes during an English lesson to give examples of idiomatic language and discuss the meaning with your class.
  4. Point out idioms when you hear them mentioned by other people in school – visitors, staff members.
  5. Have an idiom of the week. Encourage children to talk to their parents and find out what idioms they know from their heritage backgrounds.

And finally, here are some idioms, adages or proverbs suggested in an article by Hannah Jane Parkinson, writing for the Guardian:

To pedal in the sauerkraut (French) means to go nowhere fast or have difficulty finishing something

Don’t blame the mirror for your ugly face (Russian) means, don’t blame your tools for a bad job

To blow ducklings (Latvian) is to prevaricate

The cat comes to the tiny door (Croatian) means, what goes around, comes around

To slide on a shrimp sandwich (Swedish) is to gain a prominent position without having to work for it

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