Why Teaching Idioms is Important in Business English

Like many of you I have a profile on the networking site LinkedIn. (You can find me at http://www.linkedin.com/in/communicationcoach)  One of the benefits of LinkedIn is becoming a member of a group related to our fields or interests.  I subscribe to a number of groups, and sometimes feel compelled to add my two cents to the discussions, although not often.  Today was one of those times.

In the group Business English Instructors, a man named Matthew Halsdorff opened a discussion about President Obama’s recent slip-up when he mixed a Star Wars and a Star Trek reference together during a speech.  (The exact expression he created was “a jedi mind-meld.”)

This posting in LinkedIn led to a discussion amongst the members of the Business English teaching community to discuss and debate the virtues of teaching or not teaching idioms, slang and pop culture references in their BE classes.

I felt that due to my direct experience with teaching idioms I should reply, and so I did.  Below is a copy of my comment on the subject, which may interest some of you:

“The question a teacher or trainer needs to ask is “what is the operating language of this location?” When I was teaching English in China a long long time ago there was very little need for idioms to be taught. The focus was on getting students to pass exams and communicate on a certain level with other Chinese or some foreign teachers, in China. The operating language was ‘functional and academic’ English, for the most part, and I adjusted my conversations and teaching style to match.

When I was asked to do manager training many years later in Moscow, part of the requested curriculum was to teach business expressions and cultural notes to the North American style of office communications. They ‘operated’ in English with North Americans and some British, and wanted to better understand their counterparts’ words and culture.

As a Communication Coach working mostly in Toronto, a lot of my clients are immigrants and foreign workers. They have excellent hard skills and education, but often lack the soft skills we would like them to have to fit in. I know that sounds harsh, but it is an unspoken reality – we want them to understand us and our way of business communications here. This is the location. This is where business is done. You need to understand us and our way of doing things.

I often teach everyday and business idioms and expressions to clients, even if it is for just 10 minutes at the beginning of the session, as a warm up. They want to be better equipped for the water cooler as well as the boardroom. Ignoring idioms and pop culture references limits their ability to build relationships, to fully understand those around them, to join in the discussion, to understand the nuances and contexts of conversations, etc. Remember – I am talking about working here in Toronto’s business world, not overseas.

As a last morsel of food for thought, I’ll share this with you too: When my company created an English Communication Skills Assessment for a prominent police service to be used in conjunction with the hiring process, idioms and expressions were tested for, in addition to the usual suspects of grammar, spelling, reading comprehension, writing and speaking/listening. Why would we do this? Because we were told by senior training officers that they found it frustrating when they spoke to new recruits in a casual, informal way (i.e. with idioms and slang) and some newbies didn’t understand them, and it slowed down communication. When you think about the seriousness of policing, you might imagine how miscommunication could impact the lives and the safety of officers and the public.

I know on one hand it sounds too strict or maybe too much focus is being given to idioms, but I think when you consider how prominent idioms, slang, lingo and pop culture references really are, especially in an English-speaking operating country/company, you will realize the benefits of teaching them to those that could use the knowledge to improve their personal and professional lives.”