How using jargon, idioms and colloquialism confuses English learners

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“How do I learn thee? Let me count the ways”

Did you get it?

To ‘get’ the title of this post, you must first recognise 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 I’ve 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 labour of love (also an idiom), and the many different ways you can do it.

That’s a lot of steps but as a native speaker of English I (and most people I know) would pick it up. That’s because we learned the language as children 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, or possibly as the tagline (with one word changed) for the 1999 Taming of the Shrew movie adaptation, 10 Things I Hate About You.

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 – native speech. In the Global Scale of English Learning Objectives for Adult Learners, listening to, and recognising 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 makes an appearance 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. Jargon morphs with new innovations, new professional disciplines and new generations. It also annoys me greatly. If one more person tells me to “workshop this”, I’m going to nail a piece of wood to their head. (For the record, that was exaggeration, not idiom.) The next time someone tells you they’ll “circle back around” to you, you have my permission to punch them. (Unless they’re teaching you to dance, in which case it’s fine.)

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 native speakers don’t necessarily realise an idiom is an idiom. Take the phrase “I’ll call you tomorrow”. Most native 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 non-native speaker may not immediately grasp the fact that it now involves a phone, and can be achieved over long distances.

So what? 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, non-native speakers of English now outnumber native speakers globally, which means the balance is tipping. Native speakers are doing business with, learning from and interacting with non-native speakers more than ever before. Billions of pounds in trade and countries’ fates can hinge on those written and spoken conversations; the stakes are high.

Non-native speakers of English find idioms and jargon difficult and, therefore see far less need for them. Although “sayings” can be lovely, charming and fun, by their very nature these linguistic devices mask meaning. 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, which might also have implications for what is taught.

As a creator of English language learning resources, that’s something Pearson must pay attention to. It’s possible, in the future, that there may be a market for teaching native English speakers to use non-native English – particularly in professional or academic contexts that are susceptible to jargon. This is quite a mind-bending concept, and represents another way of learning to add to our considerable count. That will be my next suggestion to “workshop”!

Have you run into communication difficulties with native speakers because of idioms and jargon? Let us know in the comments section below…

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