We’ve all been there—at least anyone who has attempted to master a new language has. You are in a conversation with some English-speaking friends or co-workers, and you have this brilliant, well-articulated idea to express. The problem is the idea lives only in your mind…and in in your native language. You attempt to articulate it, but your verbal translation just doesn’t do your original thought justice.
You feel disappointed in yourself. Not only did you fail to get your true point across to your listeners, but at a deeper level, you feel as though you failed to fully represent yourself, your ideals, and your true personality.
Does this sound familiar?
If you are a person with a big personality in your native language, it can feel particularly humbling and limiting to feel like you can’t be “big” in your new language. We use our words to express our personalities and our values, and when we fail to get our point across, we feel like we aren’t truly seen for the intelligent individuals that we are.
But let’s back up a bit.
First of all, it’s a perfectly natural stage of the language learning process to first attempt to translate from your native language into English. It works well enough half of the time. When it doesn’t work, your listeners usually give you enough feedback to guide you to the correct expression or choice of words.
But what if you want to fully encapsulate the nuances of your original idea? One way to make your language more colorful and more reflective of your personality is to incorporate more idioms into your speech.
Idioms are groups of words that have a specific meaning and usually cannot be taken literally. You might have to conjugate a verb if the idiom contains one, but the rest of the words in the idiom are set in stone, so to speak.
Here’s an example.
We all know what it’s like to be unable to recall a word on demand even though we KNOW the word; we might have even used it the day before. When this happens, you can say the word is “on the tip of your tongue.” This idiom fully incorporates the frustration that comes with the universal phenomena of forgetting a word. In six words you have explained the situation you are experiencing, the feeling you are having, and provided a visual image for your listener.
That is the power of idioms. They are expressive, full of built-in meaning, and the best part—they can be memorized!
By learning useful idioms by heart (yet another idiom!), you will always have a word bank of expressions that will automatically bring variety and clarity to your self expression. You will begin to feel less like a robot who is piecing subjects and verbs together to make simple sentences, and more like the interesting and bold achiever that you are.
So, how do you begin?
- Start with a reference book such as Everyday Idioms by Ronald Fear or the All Clear books by Helen Kalkstein Fragiadakis. These books introduce idioms thematically, which will aid you in mentally organizing and memorizing them.
- Choose a set of idioms to master each week.
- Let your English-speaking co-workers and friends know that you will be experimenting with idioms when speaking, and allow them to give you feedback if an idiom “lands wrong” or isn’t understood clearly.
In my opinion, the ultimate goal is for your English skills to be an uncompromised reflection of who you are in your native language. As you near this goal, you will feel a deep sense of wholeness because you will no longer feel like two people (the ESL student and the person who is fluent in his or her mother tongue). You will just be you—the person who has no problem articulating even the most complex ideas!
Visit www.talaera.com to find out more and start your language journey today.
Stephanie Schottel, M.A. is an ESL instructor at Talaera and the owner of Cup of Tea Language Coaching, a Houston-based business that specializes in one-on-one ESL coaching that empowers English learners to express themselves fully and confidently in their communities and workplaces. By using her own experience of studying and working abroad in Germany (and feeling unable to express her true self with the language tools she had), she brings insight, empathy, and knowledge of the language learning process into every session. She is passionate about helping ESL students to master the language so that they have the tools at hand to convey their ideas, values, and personality without compromise. When she is not teaching English, you will likely find her doing art projects with her daughter, on a jog or on a paddle-board, or looking up new German vocabulary words in her 25-year old German dictionary (that is literally falling apart).