Saturday, February 28, 2015


Understanding and learning idioms, phrasal verbs and other challenging word combinations used by native speakers is a key part of mastering English beyond intermediate level. The purpose of this post is to provide an innovative strategy to effectively learn them.

The strategy is based on a fun 10 Episode YouTube mini-sitcom series called Idiomatic Inc that covers 5 different types of idiomatic language in a fun story-based format. Those types are: idiomatic expressions, phrasal verbs, slang, collocations and proverbs. If you're not sure what the difference is between each type, the following descriptions might be of help.

  • idiomatic expressions - a phrase where the words together have a meaning that is different from the dictionary definitions of the individual words
  • phrasal verbs - an idiomatic phrase consisting of a verb and another element, typically either an adverb or a preposition, the combined meaning of which is different from the meaning of its separate parts.
  • slang - informal words and phrases more common in speech than writing, typically restricted to a particular context.
  • collocations - a group of words commonly used together
  • proverbs - a short, clever and popular saying that states a general truth or piece of advice.
During the 10 Episodes, the series delivers that key 10 target language items and 20 plus secondary ones. By modeling each of the Idiomatic Five, the main purpose is to provide a general idea of how native speakers use simple word combinations to communicate more complex ideas in conversation.

In the story of Idiomatic Inc, a customer assistant in language services answers questions about idiomatic language in context. As it is a comedy, crazy things happen along the way. And it's those funny moments that help to drive not only meaning of the key language, but also additional language items.

Learning in Context

Of course, many people are overwhelmed at the notion of studying lists of idioms. And they should be because it is a terrible idea. The best way to truly learn idiomatic language and to understand the different types is to see how they are used in context.

Idiomatic Inc has been created so students can see how one idiomatic type differs from the other. In other words, how a phrasal verb is really used in a situation. How a proverb differs from slang. How collocations are the real backbone of the language native English speakers speak and how their combinations are limitless.

So then, beyond these 10 videos, how can English users continue to improve their proficiency in the Idiomatic Five? The best way to answer that is that by working with authentic material in context. This means text, audio and video created by native speakers for native speakers.

Truthfully, it would be pointless to study and learn all the existing idiomatic words or word combinations. There are just so many idiomatic expressions, phrasal verbs, slang expressions, collocations and proverbs. Natives certainly don’t know all of them. So why would you want to?

Instead, it is more productive to study and learn idiomatic language not only in context, but based on your interests, needs and priorities. So then, the question becomes how do you decide what those are.

Your Turn

OK, forget about idioms for a moment. Seriously. Let's talk about you. What are you interested in? What do you really like? Are you into sports, technology, fashion, politics, music, film, business, education, parenting or anything else in this world? You probably are.

This will be your topic. Choose source material about that topic. It can be a short article or video (with an available transcript). It could be a scene of a movie. Do the following.
  • Read the text or watch the video.
  • Write a 100 word summary describing what it is.
  • Did you use the same style of language that is used in the source material? If you didn't, it's OK. It means you need to acquire idioms.
  • Re-read or watch the original material again. Compare.
  • Select a short passage of the text or segment of the video.
  • Identify idiomatic language.
  • Look for the meaning if you don't know it. Use dictionary, Google, etc to verify.
  • Rewrite the summary and incorporate the idioms.
  • (Wait a week) Tell someone else in English about what you read about or watched. It could be during class or during a study group session.
  • Repeat again with a different topic and source material
  • Repeat again with the same topic and another source material.
  • .
Getting Creative

Choosing idioms from a previous topic and source material, write a short story using some or all of the idiomatic language from that topic. The story doesn't need to be long. It only needs to have 4 things: a beginning, middle, end and a conflict. Share your story with your class and peers. Submit it to correction. Repeat with more idioms. With many more idioms.

Soon you will find you are incorporating idioms about the things you are interested in and are even about a few more. 

The key is: Have fun! Do not get stressed. Share your work with others and most importantly, help others with their work. You will find this last part is the most rewarding.