Vocabulary is without doubt one of the most important aspects in foreign language learning; but what elements does the term vocabulary include? Certainly not only single lexical items, but also multi-word units, i.e. recurring fixed expressions. One familiar type of fixed expressions is idioms. While no FL teacher questions the necessity of teaching single words, the majority of teachers consider the teaching of idioms as ‘sheer luxury’. Indeed, a student need not learn to say Tom spilled the beans. He/she can very well use the literal expression Tom revealed the secret instead. However, would these two expressions communicate exactly the same meanings, emotions and evaluations, and which one would a native speaker be more likely to use? Idioms mean a lot more than their literal paraphrases; they communicate a feeling or an attitude towards the event they denote, which is not as readily communicable in the case of literal expressions. Moreover, idioms enliven speech; they are ‘the life and soul’ of language. It is not surprising, therefore, that native speakers of a language use idioms quite frequently in their everyday speech. This explains the fact that, no matter how well the student learns the meanings and appropriate use of single words, without idioms he/she can neither ‘enter the spirit’ of the foreign language nor speak it with native fluency.
The purpose of this chapter is to draw FL teachers’ attention to idioms and to make suggestions concerning their teaching sequence. Before making these suggestions, however, we will present a short descriptive analysis of idioms, in order to help the teacher realize the different properties of idiomatic expressions which should be taught to FL learners.
Primary properties of idioms
We think of an expression as idiomatic if it is characterized by conventionality and invariability. The reason why our definition of idioms is based exclusively