Ten Idioms to Teach Your Adult English Language Learner

Posted by on December 15th, 2015

Learning the basics of a new language is difficult enough on its own, but learning the subtle details, including slang and idioms, can make the process even more daunting. Idioms, which are phrases with meanings that aren’t literal or obvious, can act as a barrier for learning a new language. Knowing these idioms can make understanding other English speakers much less confusing. Here are a few tricky idioms your English language learners should learn:


This is a common phrase used in the classroom, but it is not referring to a literal storm inside your brain. It actually refers to the process of coming up with new ideas. You can demonstrate this to your class by having your own “brainstorming session” as part of the lesson.


Put on Your Thinking Cap

This phrase is commonly used to refer to sitting down and thinking things through. If you are going to put on your thinking cap, you are going to figure things out. In fact, this term is actually very similar to the word ‘brainstorm.’


Speak Your Mind

If you are speaking your mind, you are revealing your thoughts. When teaching this phrase, it is important to demonstrate the proper connotation for these idioms. When somebody is “speaking their mind,” it is commonly associated with the negative.


Going Cold Turkey

To “go cold turkey” means to quit something. You are not literally becoming the feathered animal. Make sure to impart upon your students that this phrase most commonly refers to quitting something addictive or dangerous, like smoking.


Up in the Air

If something is “up in the air,” it is not literally floating around above you. People often say that their plans are up in the air, which means that the plans are uncertain or indefinite.


Rule of Thumb

This phrase does not allude to a specific law about thumbs. It is actually a reference to a rule that is unwritten but still obeyed. These rules are generally related to common sense. For instance, it is a rule of thumb that you should write the date on your assignments so that you know when you completed them.


Feeling Under the Weather

Yes, you are usually always under the weather; however, this phrase more often relates to simply not feeling like the best version of yourself. Students will use this phrase when they are feeling just a little bit sick or tired.


Hold Your Horses

If you ask somebody to hold their horses, you are asking them to wait. You should tell your students that this phrase is most commonly used when the other person involved seems very impatient. This phrase likely has a history dating back to a time when horses were used daily, but it is still commonly heard today.


Keep Your Chin Up

If somebody tells you to keep your chin up, they are telling you to stay positive or to stay strong. If you have recently broken up with a significant other or lost a job, a friend might tell you to keep your chin up. Ultimately, this phrase is meant to inspire or motivate, and this connotation is important for students to know.


Put Your Foot in Your Mouth

If somebody tells you that they put their foot in their mouth, it probably means that they said something they know they should not have. For instance, asking a woman if she is pregnant, only to discover that she is not pregnant, would cause you to feel embarrassed.


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