I recently read an article about how difficult it is for individuals with developmental delays or a cognitive disability to understand English language idioms in this country.  An idiom is a group of words that have a meaning not immediately deduced from the individual words. It occurred to me that – especially with some of the idioms – it must be very difficult for the newly transitioned, those who are culturally diverse and those who are learners of English as a second language to understand and use idioms which may seem so peculiar to those who are not familiar with them.

The idiom, 'raining cats and dogs' does not mean that domestic animals are falling from the sky but that it is raining heavily.  Considerable confusion can occur when idioms are misunderstood.  A Scottish colleague was embarrassed when she arrived at a function with several empty plates having been asked to 'bring a plate', with the implied meaning that a plate should be covered with food. In this case, cultural diversity – not language difference – contributed to the confusion.

Early Australian settlers from England were familiar with the Cockney 'rhyming slang' so Joe Blake became synonymous with 'snake' and a 'bowl of fruit' came to be understood as a reference to a 'suit'.  No wonder there was confusion about the use of idioms!

There are numerous idioms that are scattered throughout the English language but additional idioms that are specific to the Australian context. There are idioms that are now historically out of favour and are less likely to be utilized in current language usage but perhaps certain pop references in recent songs or movies may renew the use of some idioms. 'Seize the day' was made famous through another language in the movie, 'Dead Poet's Society' when 'carpe diem' was a Latin phrase used in the movie.

Just as Australian cuisine has been significantly changed by the introduction of foods from other lands and cultures, made famous by people who brought an appreciation of these foods with them when they moved to Australia, it is likely that language and idioms will also reflect these same trends.  'Joie de vivre' is a French term that has been adopted into the language used in this country.  Many understand the term means the 'joy of life', but it is the French term that is used and has become an idiom – especially to those who do not speak or understand the French language.

When high-ability students acquire a new language, a certain progression occurs. Initially, functional language is acquired.  Only much later are the disembodied voice, humour (especially wordplay), and idioms mastered. Idioms are an indicator of language acquisition and indicative of the time spent in Australia rather than used as a reliable indicator of cognitive ability.  It is important that the use of idioms is explained rather than an understanding assumed.

​© Michele Juratowitch

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Last reviewed 28 July 2023
Last updated 28 July 2023