Speaking phrases vs. Listening phrases
Ever buy a book of idioms or phrases in the language you wanted to learn? Somewhere at my wife's parents' house in Japan is a book that I bought several years ago with several hundred pages of phrases. I tried studying some of them, but at some point tried out a few on native Japanese speakers. The response I got was,
"No one says that."
Not being a native speaker myself, I didn't have the facilities to judge whether this was an accurate claim. It may be that the Japanese people I associate with are not particularly literate. Or maybe, in their enthusiasm to find enough phrases to make a book out of, the authors ended up including a lot that were not very common.
But - me and my language conspiracy theories - I have another explanation for why my friends may have claimed that the idioms from the book were not that useful.
Consider the following English phrases:
- "bring home the bacon"
- "the concrete jungle"
- "the old ball and chain"
- "two of one, a half dozen of the other"
- "no man is an island"
Now take a look at this list:
- "play your hand"
- "it is what it is"
- "kill two birds with one stone"
- "don't hold your breath"
- "bitch and moan"
There are a few differences between the two lists. For one, the first list is more colorful and interesting. They're probably also much more well-known and widely accepted than the second list. But the main difference I considered when writing the two lists was whether I would use each phrase in daily conversation without feeling self-conscious about it. For the first list, the answer is "no". For the second, it's "yes".
A few caveats: 1) Everyone's different, and the phrase that flows off the tongue naturally for me may seem contrived and awkward to you. 2) This is not to say that I don't use the phrases in the first list. I do, but when I use them, I put a big set of mental quotation marks around them. I say them as a joke, or as a conscious anachronism. Listeners may not interpret it that way because- see caveat #1. But that's how I intend them.
If I had to guess, I'd say that the book I had was full of a lot more idioms from the first category than the second. And despite what my friends told me, I bet there would have been a lot of value in continuing to study them. Because there's a lot of communication out there that's not "everyday conversation". Speeches, literature, TV dialogue, and advertisements all use different registers of language that are more likely to include this kind of variety.
But what we do need more of in language education materials is more focus on the idioms that are perhaps less colorful but more common in everyday communication. And we need more accurate information attached to our phrases to tell us whether it's a speaking phrase or a listening phrase.Print this Article