Have you ever heard someone with a relaxed personality described as ‘cool as a cucumber’? Or heard the command ‘hold your horses’ when someone is trying to rush into something? When it comes to idioms, we find ourselves using words or phrases without realizing how it may sound to someone unfamiliar with that particular saying. Idioms offer us unique, sometimes strange glimpses into a language, even a language we may be familiar with.
In addition to being unique to a particular language and culture, idioms can be regional, unique to places that may speak the same language. For example, in an early episode of Abbott Elementary, Ms. Teagues uses local Philadelphia slang words to teach her young students how to sight read. These words and phrases are familiar to those living in Philadelphia but may be unfamiliar to a Chicagoan, even though both cities speak American English.
Recently, the English Language Institute (ELI) Team read a novel called True Biz, which tells stories about individuals in the Deaf community. The team found True Biz an eye-opening read that informed us about the experiences of those in such a unique language community with a history and culture that not many outside the community are taught. One of the parts of the book that stood out to me was the inclusion of Deaf slang and the weight it carried, especially to those characters that were less familiar with Deaf culture and American Sign Language (ASL). For example, the title of the book is actually an ASL idiom that means ‘seriously’ or ‘real talk’ and the reader gets to witness one of the characters adopting this expression as she grows in her fluency in ASL. Learning the idioms of ASL prove to be an important part of her character development and identity within the Deaf community.
Idioms and slang offer us an insight into language that goes beyond basic communication: they combine culture and history and create words that often work as a type of code or understanding for those that exist within a certain community. In all languages, learning idiomatic expressions or slang terms gives language learners a nuanced understanding of the language, and there is often more than what meets the eye.
As a tool for our students, the ELI instagram has a weekly Slang Series (US Slang Thursdays) that is meant to introduce slang and idioms to English language learners, with examples of how a certain word or expression can be used. This is a space where we not only learn new words in English, but also have some fun with language learning. Ultimately, that is the greatest value of idioms and slang– they encapsulate language, culture, and history learning all in a single word or phrase.
To join in on the fun, check out our ongoing Slang Series and feel free to leave a comment or remix/stitch the videos with one of your own.