If you take a look at the IELTS grading criteria for vocabulary, you’ll see this sentence:
Uses some less common and idiomatic vocabulary and shows some awareness of style and collocation, with some inappropriate choices.
This sentence has caused all kinds of confusion for IELTS learners and that’s a shame. The truth about vocabulary learning is a lot simpler than most students believe.
To make things worse, a lot of time gets wasted on ineffective learning. By the end of this article, you’ll know the truth about using idiomatic language and idioms in the IELTS writing and speaking exam.
What is an idiom?
An ‘idiom’ is a commonly used phrase where the meaning of that phrase doesn’t match the meaning of the words. For example, if I say someone is ‘sitting on the fence’, the meaning is about not making a decision rather than sitting.
Other examples of idioms are:
- It’s raining cats and dogs.
- He has a chip on his shoulder.
- Let’s call it a day.
- She’s feeling under the weather.
However, even though the word ‘idiom’ sounds a lot like ‘idiomatic’, these two terms don’t have much to do with each other.
What is idiomatic language?
Idiomatic language is language that sounds natural. Another way of putting this is that if you are speaking idiomatically, you’re saying things in the way people normally say them.
This generally means that it makes good use of collocation, which leads us to our next question…
What is collocation?
Collocation is about which words ‘go together’ in a language. If a speaker has good collocation, you might not notice it. However, when someone uses collocation badly, this will stand out or not sound quite right.
A famous example of colocation is:
- It rained heavily last night.
In this sentence, rained and heavily sound right because they usually go together. However if I said:
- It rained strongly last night.
This sounds strange! The interesting thing about this is that there is no good reason for this to sound strange. The sentence is absolutely fine grammatically.
The only reason that bad collocations sound strange is that people grow up learning languages and hear words going together a certain way. They then repeat this pattern and the next generation growing up learn the same collocation.
How can I learn to speak idiomatically?
You might be reading this and thinking ‘This is an interesting lesson about linguistics, but how can I speak more idiomatically?’ I have four suggestions:
- Stop studying idioms.
- Don’t rely on word lists.
- Increase the quality and quantity of your English ‘diet’.
- Get feedback on your English.
Stop Studying Idioms
As we’ve seen, idioms won’t help your IELTS score. I’ve noticed that many IELTS learners find idioms interesting and you can still learn them for fun. However, don’t think that these phrases will improve your IELTS score.
Don’t Rely on Word Lists
Word lists are another popular way of learning vocabulary. However, they’re also ineffective for improving your IELTS score. The reason for this is that these lists can’t teach you collocation. Whenever I grade IELTS tests, I will notice students who use ‘high level’ words in ways that sound unnatural. I usually assume that these students have been overly reliant on word lists.
Increase the Quality and Quantity of your English ‘Diet’
As I mentioned above, people learn idiomatic language because they hear that language all the time. If you want to also speak idiomatically, you should be exposing yourself to as much English as possible. You can check out this video on how to improve your English vocabulary for more details on this.
When I am tutoring an IELTS student. One of the things I will focus on in speaking classes is to tell them if they are using the wrong collocations. Another advantage of this type of tutoring is you will be able to ask your teacher to answer the question themselves and pay attention to the collocations they use. If you’re ever unsure of how to say something idiomatically, IELTS classes are also your chance to ask.