Idiomatic expressions: Essential for language learning

Idiomatic expressions: Essential for language learning

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Kickstart School in The Hague specialises in English and Dutch courses in a supportive and challenging learning environment, ranging from beginners to advanced levels.

Moving to a new country and culture can be one of the most difficult decisions anyone can make. Well - until you actually arrive at the new destination, and realise that "the move" was probably the easiest part of the adventure!

Truth be told, immersing oneself in a new language can be quite nerve-racking and frustrating.

But for many English speakers in the Netherlands, life becomes so much easier when they discover they can continue to communicate in their own native language. Or does it?

Understanding how we communicate

When living in a new land, it is advisable to learn the local language as it helps you to connect with the culture and gives you an insight into the customs of your new country.

But there are subtleties and nuances that native speakers use to express certain feelings and emotions which, if you don’t learn them, can keep you on the outskirts of the richness of that particular language.

Communication becomes so much more than the individuality of each word. Research has shown that it is, in fact, the global understanding of the most intricate fusion of words, which sometimes seem incompatible, that allows for a deeper knowledge of a language and its culture.

One linguistic example which holds true across the board is the use of idioms.

Idioms and double meanings

The use of idioms in English is second nature to Anglophones, as it is in any language. It seems that there is no escaping them in everyday verbal interactions.

In a recent exchange in English with a Dutch friend, I realised that idioms are not so evident.

Here is a funny excerpt from the conversation we had after she asked me how I was:
"I am feeling a bit under the weather today."
"Ja! Ik ook." (with a smile on her face)

Here, my use of the idiom "under the weather" was intended to denote a sense of being unwell, ill or in poor health. The message was evidently completely lost in translation.

Looking at it from the point of view of my friend, I was able to understand that she had decoded the words to mean that everyone is technically "under the weather".

Text versus context

Sometimes idioms can stop us dead in our tracks. This is yet another reason to learn the intricacies of a language so that all nuances can be eliminated.

While the saying "break a leg" might be more universally understood, other expressions, such as "bend over backwards", can sound terribly contradictory to someone who is learning the English language.

To "bend over backwards" means to put a lot of effort into any given task in order to achieve some specific goal.

But when analysing the individual words, as opposed to the sum of their parts, this idiom could be interpreted as a physical act which is virtually impossible to achieve!

Literal vs. figurative

Another typical saying which might be useful for anyone moving to an English speaking country would be "by the skin of your teeth".

Taken literally, this idiom can be considered incomprehensible simply because our teeth have no skin!

But understood figuratively, the phrase means to escape from something - danger, a bad occurrence, or an embarrassing position. "By the skin of your teeth" therefore can be translated into simple English as "just barely".

Talk about confusing!

So, in order to avoid any "tongue in cheek" moments when it comes to the use of typical sayings in any language, it is advisable to learn that language with native speakers who can clearly explain the meaning of these idioms, thus helping you to use them in their right context!

Nicole Pierre works at Kickstart School in The Hague, which offers Dutch and English language training for motivated people wishing to achieve tangible results.

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Nicole Pierre


Nicole Pierre

Nicole Pierre is currently a PhD student with the University of Paris 10- Nanterre LA Défense majoring in Linguistics and she is also an English teacher in The Hague. Nicole...

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