Cliche and Idiom in the Teaching of English as an Additional Language Writing

“In the face of mounting pressure to gut or eliminate  the IRS, it continues to shoot itself in the foot by biting the hand that feeds them”

(Boston Globe, letter, as quoted in The Chronicle of Higher Education).

That sentence would have never made it past my English teachers, who (quite rightly) trained students to cut cliche and mixed metaphor wherever possible. And yet I teach cliche.

How could I not? Imagine a learner of English trying to read the above quote: “shoot itself in the foot?” “Bite the hand that feeds them?” なに? Que?

A cliche is simply one kind of idiomatic expression, and many language learners are interested in learning idiomatic speech and writing. Idioms help students make meaning when reading and listening, and also help students who want to sound more “native-like” to do so. Thus, teaching writing to people who use English as an additional language means balancing two contradictory principles: idiomatic writing can be easy to understand; good writing avoids cliche.

On the surface, that seems simple enough, and some decisions are easy. In general, in a US context, it’s fairly obvious that “I’m interested ___ her” requires the preposition “in;” otherwise the writing will most likely be judged incorrect by most readers (at first glance, “interested in” may not seem idiomatic: however, think about the literal meaning of “in,” as in “in a box.” The meaning of “interested in” is thus a figurative and not literal meaning, and has little connection to the basic meaning, so language teachers call that an idiomatic usage). So, I teach my students to write “interested in,” unless there is a strong reason why they should choose a different grammatical construction. Writing centers and language classrooms are filled with such lists of dependent prepositions.

Mixed cliche metaphors are at the other extreme. For example, if my students were to write that Boston Globe letter I quoted above, I would advise that mixed metaphors are generally considered confusing an better avoided when clear communication is desired. Thus, pedagogic decisions about the simplest cases (idiomatic use of dependent prepositions on the one hand; mixed cliched metaphors on the other) are easy to make.

Cliche can subtract from an otherwise beautiful piece of writing. One of my students wrote the following in an essay about Bethany Hamilton‘s Soul Surfing:

 I gave up many things and followed my heart coming to America. Now, I seem like a baby. I have changed from intellectual to illiterate, from eloquent to speechless, from high-paid to low-paid. I had to start from scratch. This is precisely my soul surfing.

The expression “start from scratch” seems so out of place among the rest of this student’s description of her experiences, and the piece is much stronger with it removed. This Chronicle of Higher Education piece explains wonderfully how cliche can be tweaked and resuscitated when identified.  But how are my students to know if something is cliche and when something is simply a well-known idiom or common metaphor? And, of course, since all writing depends on audience, “cliche” depends on who the reader is. What is cliche to me may seem fresh and original to a Samoan reader, and vice-versa.

Even seemingly simple decisions need to be complicated once the realities of international communication are considered. As I’ve touched upon previously in this blog, English is now spoken by more people in countries like China, Japan, Korea, and Russia than in countries like the US, and this is changing the English language (and there is also significant variation within the US). One change is that when English is used as a language of International communication or as a lingua franca, the idioms that US Americans or Britons prefer may be obstacles to communication. I know this to be at least anecdotally true: I heard a group of international, multilingual scientists discussing a conference in Helsinki, with presenters from 30 or 40 different countries. They said the hardest presenters to understand were the Britons (which could just have easily been any of the other traditional “native speakers”) because they used so many idioms in their speech. On the other hand, in other contexts, English as a local language may incorporate expressions that are confusing or weird to American or British speakers (like shake legs or make merit).

Therefore, it would seem that for international or lingua franca communication, it may be preferable to understand common expressions and idioms of target varieties, but also to develop an awareness of what would be difficult for readers to understand.

Finally, I leave with a quote from Jack Kerouac, whose writing mixes metaphors like paint, always turning, turning, turning, towards freedom!

the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.



On the rectification of names.

ESL? EFL? what’s the difference? A walk in the words helpfully summarizes this commonly-made distinction: ESL, or English as a Second Language is commonly taught in an English-speaking country; EFL, or English as a Foreign Language is taught in a non-English speaking country. At least, that’s the commonly understood distinction. The actuality, however, is more complicated.

The first, and most obvious objection is that many students don’t speak only two languages (English as a third or fourth language?). My own students, particularly those from multilingual countries, often make exactly this sort of objection. Proponents of the term ESL argue that it stands for English as a Second Language not the Second Language (though this idea brings with it the idea that there is a fundamental difference between First and Second language learners, which is somewhat problematic too).

Another, perhaps more important issue is that English is less and less “foreign” world-wide. There are English speaking communities in more countries than you might expect. And it’s entirely possible to get by in the US without speaking English (much as many Americans studying in Spain never get around to speaking any Spanish). So the concept of a language belonging to one country and being foreign to another is somewhat less relevant.

UK schools often use “English as an Additional Language” which I often find myself using when I need a term. In most American DOE schools, the terms Limited English Proficiency (LEP) and English Language Learners (ELL) are the most common terms, but these also have their own baggage. LEP defines students by their lack of English, and thus is part of a deficiency model of language teaching. For this reason it is generally avoided (and in truth, it rarely describes the kind of English teaching I do). The term English Language Learners seems less problematic, but like many of these concepts gets fuzzy at the end–who are English Language Learners? Aren’t all schoolchildren learning English? When does one stop being an English Learner?

What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet…

In my own classrooms, I find myself struggling to describe my students and what it is exactly, I do. While teaching First-Year Composition in the English Language Institute I usually used the phrase “multilingual students” to describe my students–which my students generally appreciated. Many of them had been using English for years (if not decades) and were very competent writers–though they were just different from monolingual writers. And yet, when talking about the course to others, I could tell that I was constrained by the realities of who was in my class (and who was not): I asked English TAs “do you have any multilingual students in your class?” and they responded “oh sure, lots of them speak other languages–almost everyone takes a language class in High School.”
And then, of course, we have English as a Global Language (EGL), English as an International Language (EIL), or English as a Lingua Franca (ELF or LFE). More on these, later.