If you think learning a second language as a native English speaker is hard, be grateful that it isn't English that you have to learn! I never realized how complicated my own language was until I started teaching ESL in South Korea.
We have more words, phrases, and grammatical rules than almost all other languages in the world, but I found that the most confusing thing to those trying to learn our language is our use of idioms — we have an estimated 25,000 of them!
An idiom is a combination of words that, due to its common usage, has a figurative meaning — different than the literal or dictionary meaning — that is widely understood. Because of this different meaning, these phrases can be extremely difficult for ESL students to understand.
Here's what I mean:
If someone says something bad about you, you might tell your friend that they were "bad-mouthing" you. To someone who is just learning to speak English, they might think that you are saying that their mouth is bad, and not understand the figurative meaning behind what you are saying.
As you read through this list of commonly used idioms, imagine taking them literally, by their dictionary meaning instead of their figurative meaning.
- A piece of cake! (very easy)
- I'm all ears (eager to hear what someone has to say)
- We're broke (no money)
- Time to get going! (leave)
- I'm fed up with you (tired or out of patience with someone)
- Ok, I get it (understand)
- I really get a kick out of that (find something amusing)
- Get lost! (go away)
- You are on my nerves (you irritate me)
- Get a move on! (hurry)
- Leave well enough alone (do nothing)
- What a let-down (disappointment)
- Let sleeping dogs lie (don't cause problems by doing something when it isn't necessary)
- Live and let live (don't make things difficult unnecessarily)
- Not on your life (No Way!)
- Shoot the breeze (relaxed conversation)
- Sleep on it (take some time to make a decision)
- She's worn out her welcome (made her hosts uncomfortable by visiting too long)
- Wet behind the ears (inexperienced or naive)
- What's up? (what's new?)
Now, do you see how this can be confusing?
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