* First published in FORTELL, May 2011 issue.
Till the 1970s or even 1980s perhaps, teaching idioms and proverbs was an essential part of language teaching. No doubt, it was done in a rather boring and mechanical way and one had to just memorize idiomatic sentences often without really understanding the meaning of the idiom or proverb being used. Then, with the popularity of direct method and more recently of communicative method and computer-assisted language learning, the teaching of idioms and proverbs went out of fashion. This is not a plea to go back to the old method of teaching such expressions.
However, one must realise that the language used in a substantial part of our day today, is actually formulaic. If you analyze any piece of conversation or a written text, say a story by Prem Chand or Ruskin Bond, you will soon realise that a substantial part of the text is socio-culturally rooted and frozen in idioms, proverbs and such formulaic expressions as greetings, opening and closing turns in conversation etc. The problem with such frozen expressions is that they constitute a list that has to be consciously learnt as opposed to the rest of language which is generative in character and where if you have internalised one set of rules you can produce an infinite number of sentences. Again, the meaning of such idioms and proverbs is NOT compositional in character i.e. there is no way you can even remotely tell the meaning of the whole from the meaning of the parts.