learning American idioms

Teaching American English Language Idioms: “What’s Up?”

by Steven Rashba, ARM, University of Bridgeport

If I don’t “shake a leg” and finish this quickly, my boss will go “through the roof,” but it is so difficult to do since I’m “green around the edges” and feel like “a fish out of water.” I’m “between a rock and a hard place;” perhaps “I have bitten off more than what I can chew.” Or perhaps I should “keep a stiff upper lip” and go “full steam ahead.” After all, there is “no use in crying over spilled milk!”

American English, like many languages, is filled with idiomatic expressions that can be very difficult for the non-native, or perhaps even non-local, speaker to understand. But we can help. Classes at University of Bridgeport’s English Language Institute not only teach students about grammar, reading, listening/speaking and research writing skills, but also focus on the living language — understanding how people speak — the expressions people use on a daily basis. ESL not only involves study but also requires extensive practice since the student’s goal is mastering a vibrant, living, and ever-changing language.

UB English Language Institute classes not only introduce students to common idioms but also provide the opportunity to study/use them in context. Our classes employ a series of idiom-laden class readings and activities for students to use their critical thinking skills to decipher meanings.

One of the class readings is about foreign doctors who come to the United States to practice. Because these doctors are well versed in textbook and medical English but have never been exposed to “street language,” idioms, and slang, they encounter difficulties communicating with their patients. For example, when told that his patient was feeling “under the weather,” the doctor asked if it was going to rain. Similarly, a pediatrician was confused when his young patient complained of a “tummy” ache; after all, the word “tummy” is informal and does not appear in most medical dictionaries. Another article described its protagonist as being “sick and tired” of having his car “broken into,” subject to misinterpretation as expensive car repairs leading to exhaustion and illness.

Idioms and informal language may not help with research essays and academic presentations, but a general understanding and awareness certainly makes the transition into American university life far easier for students. When asked, “What’s up,” our students are likely to answer, “Not much; how about with you,” and not “dark clouds.”


The English Language Institute and the Bridge to College program are part of UB’s College of Science and Society.

Steven Rashba, ARM, is the Director of Modern Languages and the English Language Institute and currently teaches Advanced ELI 140 (Research Writing for ESL Students). The English Language Institute welcomes international students with Intermediate and Advanced English language proficiency. Rashba has been affiliated with UB for 23 years and is one of the world’s approximately 3.95 billion bilingual (or more) speakers. A dedicated runner and cyclist, Rashba and his students are active members of Greater Bridgeport Toastmasters and Toastmasters International.