If your client, who for this topic presumably uses English as a second language (ESL), has a communication goal to quickly improve their English fluency, especially in active conversation, then you will need to help them use idioms, sayings and expressions, and use them wisely.  The thing about idioms is that if you use an old, inappropriate or mis-spoken idiom, it makes you seem less fluent in English!  You don’t want that for your clients.  So how can we avoid this mess?

The reason why idiom study is difficult is because many of these expressions are culturally-specific.  There are some idioms that work well in Britain but not at all in Canada, and vice versa.  Now add in the other English-speaking countries, then break them down by states, provinces, regions, cities and country-sides, and suddenly you can see that idioms can often be country or region or culture-specific.

You also do not want your clients to use an idiom that does not sound like it is coming from ‘their generation’.  If a young 20-something year old states “it’s raining cats and dogs” it just doesn’t sound ‘natural.’  It is an old idiom.

I suggest you teach or provide resources of useful everyday English idioms, with example sentences for each.  Ideally the idioms are presented in themes so it’s easier to absorb.  Tell your clients is not enough just to read the list of expressions – they need to integrate the new expressions.  Here is how I instruct my clients who use ESL:

Step One:  Decide how many idioms you will study this day, or every day.  My suggestion is no more than three a day. (You need to integrate, not just memorize!)

Step Two:  Read the idioms and make sure you understand what the point of it is.  Ask yourself “Do I truly understand it?  Is there is a similar idiom in my own language?”

Step Three:  Write out a few sentences using the new idiom but writing it from your own real-life perspective.  In other words, write out a sentence that has a good chance of coming up in your everyday conversations at work, home, out shopping or socializing, etc.  Start to create the mental picture of actually saying this idiom ‘live’ with someone, and having it fit in beautifully.  Don’t make up non-relevant sentences – that’s a waste of time and brain power.

For example, let’s look at the idiom “apple of my eye”, which is used to show that something or someone is very special to you.   If your wife’s name is Sara, you can practice the idiom in use like this:

“Sara honey, do you know that you are the apple of my eye?”

“The apple of my eye for sure is my wife, Sara.”

“If anything ever happened to my wife I don’t know what I’d do – she’s the apple of my eye.”

The next step after writing out examples is to actually use them in real conversations with friends, family and co-workers, or even with strangers who you come across when doing daily activities and errands.  This allows active integration.  This example also illustrates why I recommend that clients only work on a handful of idioms a day.  They need to give themselves time to work on them first at home, and then integrate them into ‘life.’


By Ric Phillips, Communication Coach

3V Communications / NCCA Canada



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