); Skip to content

Let’s Grow Some Figurative Language

What in the world is figurative language?

Actually the expression “What in the world” is an example of figurative language. Figurative language can be anything people say that means something different than it sounds like it means. It can be an idiom but not always. Often it’s just commonly understood expressions that a native speaker of the language would know.

How do children learn figurative language?

Figurative language is one of those things that most children just “absorb”. People “pick up” expressions from the verbal interactions going on around them directly or even indirectly. For example, the first time a child hears “hold on” they might think or even reply with “hold on to what?”. There are usually contextual clues such as a parent or teacher holding up a finger to indicate “wait a minute” as they say “HOLD ON”. This is how a child learns that “hold on” really means “wait” or “stop” without direct explanation.

However, when a child has a language learning disability or communication deficit he/she might not be able to recognize and interpret non-verbal clues. Figurative language can often represent more abstract concepts or ideas than a young child with challenges in communication is able to understand.

In addition, children with language learning complications (for whatever reason) may also be accustomed to not understanding. In this case a child might not even notice the expression is different than it sounds.

When a family discovers their child has difficulty learning language they tend to use less expressions. Parents begin to simplify their own language and speak in more concrete ways than they naturally would. So it’s a “double whammy”. First its hard for the child due to the language learning challenge and secondly the family uses less challenging language in order to help the child understand more of what they say. Now there is less overall access to figurative language in the environment. The child will have even more difficulty learning if the adult language models over simplify or avoid figurative language completely. After all, it’s really impossible to learn something you never experienced.

Consider a child who is deaf learning to communicate through American Sign Language (ASL). English expressions would usually be interpreted in ASL to display the conceptual meaning of the idiom rather than use an English word-for-word translation. In this instance the actual English words wouldn’t be used in American Sign Language translation at all.

Each spoken language or culture has different common expressions that wouldn’t make sense with a literal translation of the words.

This is why a non-native speaker of any language may miss some of the nuances of a new language. It can take many years to learn to use these expressions in a natural manner.

Here’s some examples of common English expressions:

  • The 11th hour
  • Get carried away
  • Elbow grease
  • Get carried away
  • Make ends meet
  • Put someone on the spot
  • Pull a few strings
  • Down the drain

In a language rich environment expressions are more likely to be learned as easily as any other new words. Most adults are able to hear an unfamiliar expression from daily conversation and still be able to understand what it means without explanation. The key is knowing that language doesn’t always mean what the words actually sound like it means. THIS is the lesson that children learn before they typically come to understand before any formal instruction related to idioms. Once children understand language is not always literal they are in a better position to make some good guesses about what these expressions really mean.

For a collection of 224 of these common expressions you might be interested to check out an item we created to use with our students with hearing loss called “ENGLISHISMS” which is available as an instant download in our Teachers Pay Teachers Store.

Pamela Talbot

Pamela is an ASHA certified Speech-Language Pathologist dually certified as a teacher of the hearing impaired. She is a Listening and Spoken Language LSLS-AVT. Pamela has extensive experience training parents and professionals at the international level.