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 fluent English speaker 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 – 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 fluent English speakers don’t necessarily realize an idiom is an idiom. Take the phrase “I’ll call you tomorrow”. Most fluent English 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 second-language English 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, second-language English speakers now outnumber fluent English speakers globally, which means the balance is tipping. Fluent English speakers are doing business with, learning from and interacting with second-language English speakers more than ever. Billions of pounds in trade and countries’ fates can hinge on those written and spoken conversations; the stakes are high.

Second-language English speakers 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.

Want to learn some idioms? Check out - Eerie English idioms and phrases

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