Restoring Naturalistic Speech with Idioms
One of the questions that comes up often is “How do I make my English sound more natural to English listeners?” This question is important. It implies that communication is complex. If you are a speaker of English who is searching and trying to make your speech more easily understood, we want you to know that “complex” doesn’t mean “difficult.” Let’s look at one of the complexities of spoken language; figurative language. Figurative language is language that deviates form its original meaning. All languages have figures of speech.
When you are speaking English as a second or other language, it’s common to be unfamiliar with figures of speech that are common to English speakers. Wikipedia describes figurative language as referring to”… words, and groups of words, that exaggerate or alter the usual meanings of the component words.” Figurative language can involve idioms. There are estimated to be at least 25,000 idiomatic expressions in the English language. Perhaps you have heard some of the following ten most common idioms in English:
- Piece of cake-something is easy to complete
- Costs an arm and a leg-something is very expensive
- Break a leg-we say this to wish someone “Good luck”
- Hit the books-study
- Let the cat out of the bag-disclose a secret that was supposed to be kept
- Hit the nail on the head-has to do with doing or saying something that is precisely right
- When Pigs Fly-something will never happen
- You can’t judge a book by its cover-you should not decide upon something based strictly on outward appearances
- Bite off more than you can chew-take on a task that is more than a person can handle
- Scratch someone’s back –help someone with the assumption that they will return the favor in the future
Perhaps you have heard or used the following idiomatic expressions:
- Took ‘em to the cleaners-to beat someone badly in a game
- Pulling my leg-someone is teasing me by telling me something fictitious.
- Drop them a line-call them
- Keep an eye out for that-to watch for something
- Keep your head above water-manage a challenging situation
Using these expressions can add a more natural sound to your English speech. Be aware that simply learning and using these idioms doesn’t guarantee easier communication. Pairing the use of idioms with training in speech pronunciation and intonation and rhythm training is more effective than merely using idioms. For example, I was recently talking to a customer of a large computer company. He shared his frustration during a phone session with a customer service representative.
The representative was speaking English as a language other than his native language. He spoke with an accent. The customer could not understand the majority of the important information he needed in order to solve his computer problem. The customer, however, did frequently hear the representative say “You betcha. You betcha.” This customer shared with me how this made him feel patronized, which caused a disconnected feeling. The customer told me he wouldn’t have been frustrated about the use of this colloquialism (a colloquialism is a word or phrase that is used in informal speech but not in formal speech) had the representative of this computer company been easier to understand in all his other words.
In summary, learning and using idioms to blend your spoken English with your communication partner’s ability to understand you and feel a connection to you is effective. The MOST effective way to connect in FULL with your English communication partners is to seek out an accent modification trainer who utilizes pronunciation, intonation, and even grammatical modalities in addition to figurative language as components to the program.
If you use figurative language but your communication partner can’t understand the words within the idiom, your efforts won’t pay off. If you are skilled in: English sound pronunciation, the rhythm and stress patterns of English, and the grammar of English, then adding figurative language to your repertoire of accent modification tools will definitely refine your communication skills. You already will have had a solid foundation on which to build.