What makes English so hard to learn?
Well, it’s the spelling, isn’t it? Or is it the prepositions, contractions and conjunctions? Or the words that have been borrowed and modified from so many other languages?
In addition to all of those challenges – and more – there are idioms. An idiom is a collection of words whose sum is more than its parts; that is, the meaning of the expression as a whole does not echo the meaning of any of the individual words that make up the expression.
Wrap your head around this… Do you get it? “Wrap your head around” is an idiom! The sum meaning of the expression is something like “consider,” but none of the words - “wrap,” “your,” “head,” or “around” - means “to consider!”
You will be a fish out of water if you can’t understand idioms in English.
You might be green with envy if someone else can understand idioms in English, but you can’t.
And finally, let’s not beat around the bush - learning the meaning of idioms and how to use them properly is no picnic. It’s no bed of roses.
If learning idioms is not your cup of tea, well, I don’t want to make a mountain out of a molehill, but you may have bitten off more than you can chew. You may even be in hot water.
After all, idioms are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding American culture through the lens of the English language.
At the Cape Fear Literacy Council, we train volunteers to teach English. For some, this is their first time in a teaching role; for others, it may be the first time they’ve taught English as a Second Language (ESL).
During our training workshop, new tutors are reminded of some of the reasons that English may be a difficult language to learn. However, it’s only a nine-hour workshop... we leave idioms out of the discussion, for fear of scaring off potential tutors.
After all, we have textbooks containing 1,010 idiomatic expressions; the thought of having to teach all those idioms might well make a new teacher head for the hills (sorry, sorry, I couldn’t resist).
Our students work so hard to understand English but it’s not the easiest language to grasp. Several years of concentrated study and exposure to the language will probably not suffice to cover all the idioms in our textbooks.
So, the next time you hear someone trying to speak English when it is clearly not his or her first language, consider what a daunting task it is. Maybe you can take it easy with the idioms when you strike up a conversation with an English language learner.
Melanie Nelson is the ESL Program Director. She began volunteering at CFLC as a tutor for the Adult Literacy and ESL programs in 2014, and she is very excited to have the opportunity to serve CFLC as a staff member. Melanie holds a B.A. in Russian from the University of South Carolina. After college, she served on active duty in the United States Navy for five years. Upon leaving the military, she became involved with non-profits through AmeriCorps. She is currently pursuing a M.Ed. in Lifelong Learning and Adult Education through Penn State University’s World Campus. Melanie enjoys baking, Harry Potter, and ballroom dancing—but not all at the same time.
Yasmin Tomkinson came to the Cape Fear Literacy Council as a volunteer tutor in 2002. It was a great experience, and she was very pleased to join the staff in 2004. She is now the Executive Director and enjoys working with adult learners and the volunteers who help them reach their goals. Yasmin studied Education and American History at Vassar College and got an MBA with a concentration in Non-Profit Management from Boston University. She worked for education-focused non-profits in rural Utah, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Boston before moving to Wilmington.
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