Friday, February 27, 2015

A Few Funny Idiom Anecdotes from Adult ESL


Kay has graciously permitted me, a classmate in her TESOL Principles and Practices of Online Teaching Certification Program Foundation course, to post to her wonderful Idioms blog.

Here are a few funny anecdotes about idiom confusion:

Bring a Dish from your Country for the Class Potluck
Students in a colleague's ESL class wanted to have an end-of-the-class pot luck.  Everyone pretty much understood what a potluck entailed, except, evidently, one student whose listening comprehension skills were not at the same level as her peers'.  The teacher explained to the student to bring a dish from her country.  The student seemed to understand.  On the day of the potluck, the student showed up with a Fed Ex package and proudly took out a beautifully hand-painted "dish" from her home country that her mother had paid a lot to ship to the United States.

Those Darn Phrasal Verbs!
An ESL student stayed after class one day to apologize for and explain her absences from class earlier in the week.  She told that teacher that her mother had been ill and had to be taken to the hospital.

The next day, the student was late.  She once again stayed after class again to apologize and explain.  The teacher asked about her mother.  The student said, "She's not doing too well.  Today she passed away."  The teacher was shocked.  "You didn't have to come to school today!"  The student was calm and said she didn't want to miss any more classes.  The teacher told the student that any upcoming absences would certainly be excusable and that she could repeat the class, if needed.  The student apologized again and said she promised she would not be absent again because she really liked the class and was learning a lot.  The conversation ended, and the teacher gave the student an American hug.  The student said she'd be back the next day and that she was on her way home to check on her mother.  Huh?! 

As is turned out, the student meant that her mother had "passed out" -- NOT passed away!

The Beautiful Woman in Iraq
My student Mustafa had good English and a strong interest in women and finding a girlfriend (especially one with green eyes).  One time he was explaining how much he wanted to find a girlfriend with green eyes and how there had been a beautiful woman in his home country, Iraq, that had such eyes -- and many, many male admirers.

I commented that she really must have been beautiful to have such a following.  Mustafa hesitated and then said, "No, she washed their minds."  - meaning, of course, she "brainwashed" them.

These are just a few that come to mind.  Thanks to Kay for setting up this blog to compile such anecdotes.  ESL students should know that we are definitely not laughing at them, but rather at the interesting ways in which people learn, interpret, internalize, and produce a language that is not their mother tongue.

I am sure that these stories will be good segues into lessons on idioms in English!  Look forward to reading more contributions!
-- Kristi Reyes


  1. Hi, Kristi,

    Thanks so much for your kind words and your stories are precious. Idioms are so common! Part of what I hope this blog will accomplish is to raise English “idiom awareness.” It is such a large part of second or foreign language student comprehension, but such a small part of what (given our other responsibilities) we do as ESL/EFL teachers. We need to make both students and teachers very aware of this problem. English Language L earners around the world are going to have trouble understanding idioms – and every time the native English speaker uses an idiom they are giving the “international” listener an obstacle to jump. Plus, there is a good chance the message will be missed or misunderstood!

    Idioms add color to any conversation. I just hope this blog helps us become aware of their use and the need to adjust when necessary… ensuring that the message we are trying to communicate does in fact get communicated.

  2. Great to read these examples. I apparently have a terrible memory, because I can't think of any stories to share at this point. I'll be on the look out! I appreciate Kristi's comments about being careful that students don't think we are laughing at them. In a warm and supportive classroom, we do often laugh at language mistakes, but we have to be sensitive that students know we are laughing with them, not at them.