I like the way language works in real life; I like how people often say something but they mean something completely different. Consider the following situation:
A married man comes home late at night. He’s just checked out of the local motel where he spent a couple of hours with his mistress. He creeps into the bedroom where his wife is sleeping (at least he thinks so):
Wife: “What’s her name?”
Husband: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Wife: “Do you think I’m stupid?“
And this is what they actually mean:
Wife: “I know you are cheating on me. I don’t care about her name – I know already who she is anyway; I just want you to know that I know the truth”.
Husband: “Damn it. You know indeed. Now I need to gain some time to find out how much you actually know and/or to make up a lie”.
Wife: “I don’t think you think I’m stupid. I know you know I’ve figured it all out. So, for god’s sake, stop lying to me”.
Back to the classroom now. Something similar applies to phrases like tell me about it.
A knowledgeable language learner will use the phrase appropriately, i.e. when saying that he or she has the same experience, and/or will resist the temptation to elaborate on it when somebody uses it. However, a student who isn’t familiar with the idiom may embarrass themselves in a situation like this:
Student A: Mondays are terrible.
Student B: Tell me about it.
Student A: Well, you know we have so many lessons in the morning plus I have a piano lesson in the evening and …
Student B: Yeah. Tell me about it.
Student A: I told you already!
But how and where do our students learn useful idioms? From coursebooks? Sometimes. From the teacher? Maybe. Sometimes they are over-exposed to a phrase in its literal sense but never learn about its metaphorical sense.
So what can we do as teachers to help our students become more competent communicators? And when (at what level of proficiency) should we start dealing with idiomatic language?
Here’s a list of 12 phrases which mean something different to what you might think they mean:
- You don’t want to do that!
- He can’t help himself
- Shut up!
- Go away!
- I see!
- See where I’m coming from?
- You may want to…
- I don’t buy it!
- I’m looking forward to…
- Tell me about it!
- It doesn’t hurt to…
- How do you find this…?
If you go to the CEFR Profiler, you’ll get an interesting result: only one word falls into the B2 category, while most of the words are A1. Ironically though, one of the phrases learners are likely to encounter in coursebooks very early on is the most ‘challenging’ one: I’m looking forward to … Methinks: Could this possibly be substituted by I can’t wait to …
If you think about it, from a grammatical point of view, the structures above are far from advanced too. However, I dare say their figurative meaning is beyond the A1/A2 level. This is a serious mismatch and I think it’s one of the reasons why we sometimes avoid teaching what our students actually need to know. In my teaching context, for example, lower levels usually equal younger age. So it’s not really surprising that metaphorical language is reserved for later. This inevitably creates a sort of artificial language environment and some of the dialogues my students are supposed to drill from the coursebook literally drive me up the wall.
Luckily, our students are smart and they soon become autonomous language learners. They start reading English books and watching YouTube videos. As a result, they eventually make up for the sobriety of the classroom language. And then it’s us, their teachers, who actually need to catch up (see my previous post).