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Now that you’ve begun learning American English, how confident are you in your ability to hold a conversation?
While learning common words and phrases in English is an important part of learning to communicate with American English speakers unless you start to learn American idioms you might still have difficulty following along with their conversations.
An idiom is a phrase that is more or less unique to a particular language or culture. These are phrases that you might not find in your American English textbook or phrasebook but are instinctively understood by native speakers.
One reason why idioms can be confusing for new language learners is that, even if you correctly translate the literal meaning of the words, the real meaning of the phrase may escape you. Sometimes, what you hear is not what the speaker is actually saying.
In order to improve your ability to communicate with American English speakers, you will want to learn some common American idioms. One good way to do so is to study lists of American idioms, like the ones we have here.
What it means: You can do it.
When someone tells you that you will “get the hang of it”, they are usually trying to encourage you to continue with a difficult task.
For example, if I tell you memorizing the words on this list will help you get the hang of idioms, I am telling you that you can understand American idioms.
What it means: Quickly or soon, be patient
When someone uses this idiom, they are talking about time. Specifically, the time before something happens.
You might hear this from a bus driver, for example, if you ask if you are close to your destination. They might say, “Sit down; we will be there before you know it.” They mean that you will be at your destination quickly or soon.
Another common American English phrase you might hear combines this idiom with “get the hang of it”. For example, if you are having difficulty grasping the rules of English grammar, your online tutor might say “You’ll get the hang of it before you know it.” This is meant to encourage and reassure you.
Similar idioms: In no time
What it means: Stop working
If someone says this to you, they are basically saying “stop working”. While you might not necessarily be through with a task or project, your companion is saying that what you’ve done is enough for now and you should take a break.
What it means: A conversation that doesn’t stay focused
When you originally hear this idiom, you might think it has something to do with directions, it say’s “map” after all. But what a native speaker is actually talking about is a certain type of conversation.
If the people engaged in the conversation are getting distracted or confused because too many topics or ideas are being introduced, someone might say that they are getting “all over the map” and call for people to focus on the main topic.
Similar idioms: Going off track
What it means: In love, infatuated
It might not sound like it but this is an idiom about love. If you are very attracted to or in love with someone, you could say that you are “head over heels” for them.
Similar idioms: Crushing hard, Fallen for
What it means: Trying to express anger or irritation
If someone is visibly angry or frustrated with a situation and walks away, you may hear your American English-speaking companion tell you to let them go as they need to “blow off steam.” This means that they need to get away from a tense situation because they are afraid of making it worse.
You might also hear an American English speaker talk about “blowing off steam” when they need to de-stress. For example, they may say “I go to the gym to blow off steam”.
What it means: Contact me
This American idiom might sound violent, but don’t worry, no one is going to physically hit anyone. When someone says “hit me up”, they are saying that you should contact them at a later date.
For example, if you talked about learning to surf and your new friend Paul lives near a surf spot, they might tell you to “hit me up” when you have the time to go.
Similar idioms: Get in touch
What it means: Keep me informed
This is slightly similar to “hit me up” in the sense that the speaker is saying that they want to keep in touch. Usually, this is used between people who have talked about making plans but have not made definite plans.
For example, if you are thinking of visiting Paul to learn how to surf and Katie wants to learn as well, she might ask you to “keep me in the loop”. She means that she wants to know if there are any further developments, such as a definite date, for the trip to Paul’s as she might want to come with you.
Similar idioms: Keep me in the loop
What it means: Feeling sick
You can use this weather-related idiom to say that you are feeling sick. It’s often used as a way to excuse yourself from commitment.
For example, if you have a headache and are going to file for sick leave, you are under the weather.
What it means: We were just talking about you
If you are at a bar and were talking with friends about your teacher and your teacher walks in, someone might say “speak of the devil”.
It doesn’t necessarily have to have unpleasant connotations, you might actually be happy to see the “devil” but it is unexpected.
What it means: Short nap
This is a cute little American idiom that basically means to take a short break to sleep.
Similar idioms: Take five
What it means: Go to sleep
This idiom is basically used to say that the speaker is leaving to go to sleep.
Similar idioms: Hit the hay
What it means: Prepare yourself
When someone says that you need to “bite the bullet” they aren’t really talking about any gun-related violence. They are saying, however, that you need to prepare yourself for something unpleasant.
Similar idioms: Brace yourself, Face the music
What it means: Drink because you are sad
When someone invites you to “drown your sorrows” they are offering sympathy because they see that you are sad. They are asking you if you want to get a drink.
What it means: You are sad
If someone says that you look “down in the dumps” they are saying that you seem sad or upset. They might ask you if you want to “drown your sorrow”.
What it means: To congratulate
If someone says that they want to give you props, they want to congratulate you and say a good job.
What it means: Admit you are wrong
If someone says that you need to “eat your words” they are saying that you should admit that you were wrong.
Similar idioms: Eat humble pie
What it means: To irritate or annoy.
Someone who “ruffles feathers” disturbs someone else. They could be a friend that another friend finds irritating or just someone who tends to say the wrong things.
What it means: To get scared
If you “get cold feet” the implication is that you are trying to get out of an agreement because you are scared or worried about the outcome.
For example, if you agreed to go rock climbing with your friend Freddie but decide not to the day before the trip, you got cold feet.
Similar idioms: Back off, Chicken out
What it means: To disappoint
If a situation that you thought was going well goes wrong, it can “take the wind out of your sails” or disappoint you.
What it means: Worry about the problem when it arises
When you are planning or problem-solving and you are going “all over the map” because you are worrying too much about all the potential problems, you can say this.
When you say this, you are acknowledging that a worry is valid, but it’s slightly unlikely so don’t worry about it first.
What it means: Admit something was bothering you
If you are bothered by something and you need someone to listen to you, you need to “get something off your chest”.
Similar idioms: Need a listening ear
What it means: Similar
This is usually used to describe two people who are very close because they are very similar. You can also use it to explain why you are friends with someone: because you share a lot of common interests.
What it means: Similar situations
This is kind of similar to “two peas in a pod” in the sense that it means you have something in common with a person and that is your situation or circumstances. Sometimes it means that you have the same problem.
For example, if you and Mark didn’t do the readings, you are in the same boat when the teacher springs a surprise quiz. In danger of failing the quiz.
What it means: Be jealous
If someone tells you to “eat your heart out” they are trying to make you jealous.
Similar idioms: Turn green with envy
What it means: It’s easy
If someone tells you that something is “not rocket science” they are saying that you can do it. It’s similar to “get the hang off” in the sense that when someone says this, they are expressing confidence that you will learn something as it is easy.
Similar idiom: Easy as pie
What it means: A lot of stuff
If you hear this American idiom used, someone is saying that you have a lot of stuff. For example, if you are meeting your friends at the train station for an overnight trip to the mountains, and you have a big duffle bag while they have small knapsacks, you brought “everything but the kitchen sink”.
Learning American idioms and American slang words is important if you want to sound like a native speaker. Another important reason to learn idioms is that it will help you understand American English Speakers.
Most American English speakers will use these idioms and more in their daily conversations. They won’t even have to think about it or translate them in their mind. In order to be able to keep up with them, you need to learn to automatically understand these idioms as well.
One good way to learn American idioms is to watch American movies and TV series on Netflix. But the best way is to work with an online native American English-speaking tutor. Make sure that you work with an American English-speaking tutor, however, as British English and even Australian English speakers will use different idioms, expressions, and slang words.
Download the PDF of American Idioms that we listed here and discuss them with your native American English-speaking tutor, they can help you better understand how and when to use them You can also ask them to recommend their own list of useful American Idioms that you should learn.
You will get the hang of it before you know it!
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