Friday, June 08, 2012

"Common" idioms

In the new issue of TESOL Journal is an article by Fatima Alali and Norbert Schmitt that discusses teaching idioms. "Because many idioms occur relatively rarely, each idiom’s frequency was checked in the British National Corpus to make sure it was relatively common" (p. 158). I've listed below the first 10 idioms used along with their frequencies in the BNC and COCA. For each corpus, I present the frequency per million words in the genre where the individual idiom appears most frequently. Sometimes this was spoken, but it varied a lot from idiom to idiom. With verb-based idioms, the frequency includes all forms of the verb.

[pay] the piper
[make] no bones about it
[mend] fences
life and limb
ivory tower
down in the dumps
[dwell] on the past
[cast] a long shadow
run of the mill
off the hook
Note. All frequencies are per million words.

Do these strike you as "common"?

The paper concludes, "formulaic language is an important component of discourse," a point with which I take no issue, but this is not the same as saying that particular formulas are important. The study makes a number of good points, but the focus, the teaching of idioms, is one that needs a rethink, not so much in how its done but in why it is done at all.

Past posts on idioms here.


Robb said...

I had a student ask me about the learning of idioms today. He said that he had been reading a book about idioms and was convinced it was very useful to learn these phrases.

He shared several idioms, which seemed to have usefulness that were only slightly above the average for those listed above. It made me sad that he was wasting time with outdated and rarely-used expressions.

I told him that I usually don't intentionally devote time to teaching idioms to ESL students, but I will always explain the meaning of an unfamiliar idiom we encounter when listening to or reading authentic texts. In those cases there is context and value in discussing the idiom (if only briefly).

Looking at the list above, I would like that, even if an instructor loved to teach idioms (for the sake of teaching idioms), only "off the hook" would merit the effort.

Brett Reynolds said...

Indeed! and then only for a fairly advanced student.

xcyus said...

My eager students always do that. I try to tell them that whenever they hear one from a native speaker, they can go ahead and use it in the same context/setting/building. That way, in addition to not having to bother with books and inevitable incorrect usage, they merely parrot the (very likely) incorrect usage of their boss/peer group.

Sometimes I dream of doing a super-edit of reality TV to demonstrate that a large contingent of native speakers of English NEVER use idioms correctly. Such a meaningless waste of instructional time, especially considering the small amount of time instructional literature focuses on actual important things like e.g. collocations.