How using jargon, idioms and colloquialism confuses English learners

Pearson Languages
A man sat a laptop, with his hands to his face looking comtemplative

“How do I learn thee? Let me count the ways”

Did you get it?

To ‘get’ the title of this post, you must first recognize that it is based on the famous opening line from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 43, published in 1850. Then you need to understand that “thee” is an old form of the word “you”. Next, you need to appreciate the pun on the word “love”, which has been changed to “learn”. Lastly, you need to figure out the full meaning of the phrase, which likens the idea of learning English to the idea of love, or a labor of love (also an idiom), and the many different ways you can do it.

That’s a lot of steps, but a native speaker of English would likely pick it up. That’s because they've learned the language from childhood in an English-speaking country, probably studied some poetry at school and have absorbed this quote through news media, popular culture or at a wedding.

Understanding jargon, idioms and colloquialism is one of the hardest parts of learning any new language. It’s only achieved by repeated exposure to – and immersion in – native speech. In the Global Scale of English Learning Objectives for Adult Learners, listening to, and recognizing a wide range of idioms and colloquialisms doesn’t appear until 83, at the very upper edge of C1. For speaking, joining a conversation in progress with fluent speakers on complex topics comes in at 81. Reading idiomatic or non-standard language appears at 76, again within C1. It all adds up to a very sophisticated level of understanding.

Yet jargon and idioms are huge parts of English. They are also constantly changing, and jargon morphs with new innovations, professional disciplines, and generations. 

When an idiom is over-used, it becomes a cliché. Sometimes idioms stick out like a sore thumb because they’re unrelated to context – but not always.

Even native speakers don’t necessarily realize an idiom is an idiom. Take the phrase “I’ll call you tomorrow”. Most native speakers would see that as a simple declarative sentence. The expression comes from the idea of “calling on” someone in person, or calling their name to get their attention, but a non-native speaker may not immediately grasp the fact that it now involves a phone, and can be achieved over long distances.

English is both complex and rich in figurative language; we know this. That’s one of its beauties and also a challenge of learning it. But at what point do these kinds of figurative language become incorrect?

As Lennox Morrison recently explored, non-native speakers of English now outnumber native speakers globally, which means the balance is tipping. Native speakers are doing business with, learning from and interacting with non-native speakers more than ever. Billions of pounds in trade and countries’ fates can hinge on those written and spoken conversations; the stakes are high.

Non-native speakers of English find idioms and jargon difficult and therefore see far less need for them. Although sayings can be lovely, charming and fun, these linguistic devices mask meaning by their very nature. This makes language less efficient when not every participant in a conversation can decode them. The proportion of people who can’t is growing, which might affect what is considered to be “correct” in the coming decades and have implications for what is taught.

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    And there’s another big problem with the “rule approach”: it doesn’t tell you what the structure is actually used for, even with something as obvious as the comparative of adjectives. You might assume that it’s used for comparing things: “My house is smaller than Mary’s”; “John is more attractive than Stephen”. But look at this: “The harder you work, the more money you make.” Or this: “London is getting more and more crowded.” Both sentences use comparative adjectives, but they’re not directly comparing two things.

    What we’re actually looking at here is not a rule but several overlapping patterns, or paradigms to use the correct technical term:

    1. adjective + -er + than
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    4. repeated comparative adjective: adjective + -er + and + adjective + -er/more and more + adjective

    This picture is more accurate, but it looks abstract and technical. It’s a long way from what we actually teach these days and the way we teach it, which tends to be organized around learning objectives and measurable outcomes, such as: “By the end of this lesson (or module) my students should be able to compare their own possessions with someone else’s possessions”. So we’re not teaching our students to memorize a rule or even to manipulate a pattern; we’re teaching them to actually do something in the real world. And, of course, we’re teaching it at a level appropriate for the student’s level.

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    • What grammatical forms (patterns) can be used to express this objective?
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    • What do the forms look like in practice? What would be some good examples?

    Existing grammar textbooks generally don’t provide all this information; in particular, they’re very vague about level. Often they don’t even put grammar structures into specific CEFR levels but into a range, e.g. A1/A2 or A2/B1, and none fully integrates grammar with overall learning objectives.

    At Pearson, we’ve set ourselves the goal of addressing these issues by developing a new type of grammar resource for English teachers and learners that:

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    • Is built on the Council of Europe language syllabuses, linking grammar to CEFR level and to language functions
    • Uses international teams of language experts to review the structures and assess their levels

    We include grammar in the GSE Teacher Toolkit, and you can use it to:

    • Search for grammar structures either by GSE or CEFR level
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    • Find out which grammar structures support a given learning objective
    • Find out which learning objectives are related to a given grammar structure
    • Get examples for any given grammar structure
    • Get free teaching materials for many of the grammar structures

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    Europe is a magnificent tapestry of languages, with over 200 spoken throughout the continent. This diversity is a symbol of the rich cultural heritage of each nation and reminds us of the intricate historical, social, and linguistic elements that mold our identities. The European Day of Languages inspires people to cherish and honor this linguistic heritage.

    Why September 26th?

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    Check out what events are happening near you here.

    Just like the European day of Languages, we at Pearson Languages are fully committed to empowering and celebrating language learners and educators alike. That's why we are now supporting French, Italian, and Spanish language learning with the Global Scale of Languages (GSL). With these new language learning frameworks at your fingertips, you can confidently design curriculums and personalize learning pathways to help fast-track your learners’ progress and help your learners be themselves in French, Italian and Spanish.

    Whether you're a teacher, a language learner, or simply someone who appreciates the beauty of languages, the European Day of Languages and the GSL provide exciting opportunities to explore, learn, and enjoy the rich tapestry of Europe's linguistic heritage.

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