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THIdioms and metaphors in business: useful or not?

Idioms and metaphors in business: useful or not?

One of my students recently told me that he often uses idioms or fixed expressions when he’s talking with his team at work - he feels that they help him to express himself more fully. He’s soon moving from Spain to the UK and he is keen to find equivalent expressions (or new ones!). So, what is the power of idioms and how useful are they?

What is the power of idioms?

Going back to my student, what he wants to do is express a complex idea in a more simplified way so that his team can relate to a situation quickly. Idioms provide a short cut: any native speaker hearing the expression beginning ‘too many cooks….(spoil the broth)’ knows that we only need a small number of people working on the project. Used well, such idioms make you sound more natural and that helps you connect with people – a useful skill in any environment.

Idioms are also a reflection of the culture in which the language is spoken — and of its values. They are taken from diverse sources but some common ones are sports, war (especially in business!), food, nature and music etc. Some might even conclude that idioms reflect a broad spectrum of human experiences and life lessons. For my student working in London, it’s a way of understanding the culture as well as the language!

How useful are idioms?

As a language learner, idioms can seem a huge challenge. However, idioms are such an intrinsic part of the English language that if we ignore them completely, we could miss out on a large percentage of communication, especially the nuances. We might also use more lengthy explanations when in fact, a simple phrase (as in ‘too many cooks’ above) might be enough.

We often point out to our students that idioms are useful to know a) if they are working with or listening to native speakers and b) that starting with understanding idioms rather than using them is a good place to start. With that in mind, idioms are useful to understand in context (highlighted from a TED talk, for example) or picked up while listening to conversation between native speakers (plenty of opportunity to do this during our breaks!). Of course, there are resources available online you can refer to but learning lists is not as efficient or memorable as deducing from context (or discussing them with your teacher).

However, if we have captured your interest in idioms, you will be interested in our next article which showcases some of the most useful ones – stay tuned!


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