Idiomatic expressions for the development of communicative competence

EDUMECENTRO 2023;15:e2142



Idiomatic expressions for the development of communicative competence

Las expresiones idiomáticas para el desarrollo de la competencia comunicativa


Kenya Utra Rodriguez1*
Yolanda Pedraza Linares1
Madelaine Zamora González2
Libyan Olive Styled1


1 "Gabriela Arias" student residence. Cardenas. Matanzas, Cuba.
2 Affiliate of Medical Sciences "Dr. Eusebio Hernández Pérez". Colon. Matanzas, Cuba.


* Corresponding author. Email:




When teaching a foreign language, to achieve a communicative competence of the learners, it should be taken into account not only their functional mastery of a new linguistic code, but also their capacity to interpret and interact in a sociocultural context of the target language. This paper aims at proposing exercises with some idiomatic expressions which contain parts of the body to strengthen the sociolinguistic competence and therefore the communicative one of the third year medical students. Some of these expressions are: pull someone's leg, turn one's back on, to put heads together, find one's feet, a shot in the arm. Learning these and other idiomatic expressions may facilitate the communication of health professionals during their social and professional role in an English speaking country.

MeSH: language; education, medicine; professional, education.


Al enseñar una lengua extranjera, para lograr una competencia comunicativa de los estudiantes, hay que tener en cuenta no solamente que estos alcancen el dominio funcional de un nuevo código lingüístico, sino también que sean capaces de interpretar y relacionarse en un contexto sociocultural de la lengua meta. Es objetivo de este trabajo, socializar ejemplos de ejercicios con algunas expresiones idiomáticas que contienen las partes del cuerpo para fortalecer la competencia sociolingüística y así la comunicativa de los estudiantes de tercer año de la carrera de Medicina. Algunas de las frases con las que se trabajan en estos ejercicios son: pull someone's leg, turn one's back on, to put heads together, find one's feet, a shot in the arm. El aprendizaje de estas y de otras frases idiomáticas pueden facilitar la comunicación de los profesionales de la Salud durante su desempeño profesional y social en un país de habla inglesa.

DeCS: lenguaje; educación médica; educación profesional, aprendizaje.



Submitted: 10/11/2021
Accepted: 29/11/2022



Given that language allows communication, it is logical that the objective of language teaching is to achieve communicative competence, promoting the development of linguistic, discursive and socio-cultural skills.(1)

As stated in the program of the English discipline: "The object of study of the discipline is constituted by the regularities of the English language system and in such a way that the graduates of the Medical Sciences courses can communicate with anyone in contexts where English is used as the mother tongue or lingua franca in professional and social communicative situations.(2)

However, the graduates of these careers have a lack of knowledge of socio-cultural elements that would facilitate communication in the fulfilment of an internationalist mission in an English-speaking country. Within these elements, the idiomatic expressions with the parts of the body whose meanings are meaningless if translated literally and bring problems between the sender and the receiver of the communicative act and play an important role, so it is necessary to learn the most frequent ones. For example, a pain in the neck does not have the same meaning when used with verbs be and have.

The lack of knowledge of the socio-cultural elements of the language and within them of the expressions of an idiomatic nature, commonly used by the speakers of each language within the socio-linguistic framework of its community is the frequent reason for the lexical and cultural interference that It can impair communication skills. Idiomatic expressions are an essential part of each language.(3)

During the investigation, exercises were carried out in which the little command of idiomatic phrases by the students was demonstrated.

Examples of exercises used:

1-Read A and B. Do the phrases in bold types have the same meaning?

Doctor Ernesto Hernández, a Cuban Orthopedist is fulfilling a mission in Saint Lucia.

A- (In the hospital) Dr. Hernández: (to another doctor) A new patient has arrived at the emergency room. She complains of pains in her neck and has injured an arm and a leg.
B- (Out of the hospital) Dr. Hernández needs to buy a new mobile. His has just got broken.

Dr. Hernández: (to someone in the street). Excuse me. Is there any mobile shop near here?

Someone in the Street: Yes, there is one next block, but mobiles there cost an arm and a leg, and the clerk is a real pain in the neck.

2-Tick the meaning that best suits

a- … cost an arm and a leg.
___having a low price. ___ expensive.

b- … is a real pain in the neck.
___ irritating ___ pleasant.

Taking into account the identified problem, the objective of this work is to propose exercises with some idiomatic phrases that contain the parts of the body to strengthen the sociolinguistic competence and thus, the communicative one of the third-year students of the Medicine career.

The basic bibliography of third year of Medicine English4 Health (4) and its program allows the introduction of some idiomatic phrases through exercises that are suggested in this work.

Examples of exercises that can be developed:

Example 1

Unit 1, exercise 6, part g of the Cultural Awareness section on page 12 of the basic textbook English 4 Health is appropriate for working with some sentences.

Students are asked: Is it a good idea to keep foreign students at a distance and ignore them? Possible answer: No, it is not.

The teacher gives examples with sentences that contain parts of the body to begin introducing sentences.

Teacher: "It is not a good idea to keep foreign students at arm's length. We should not turn our backs on them…"

The professor presents the following phrases: pull someone's leg (to cause someone to annoy), put heads together (to collaborate in a mental task), rub elbows with (meet and talk in a friendly way), turn one's back on (to ignore), pat someone on the back (to congratulate), at arm's length (at a distance). And he asks them for the meaning that they think they have. When the meaning is reached, they are asked to give recommendations using these phrases.

Teacher: "Can you add more recommendations to avoid the cultural shock using the idiomatic expressions suggested?"

Example 2

Exercise 7, item c of unit 1, page 13 consists of writing a postcard to a friend and is conducive to presenting other phrases. Students are asked: Are you working in any project or investigation this year? Possible answer: yes, we are.

The professor expresses himself using a phrase: "So you are sinking your teeth into (to become enthusiastically involved in) new investigations…."

This phrase is presented and they are asked if they know any phrase in Spanish that is equivalent to it. Also presented: A shot in the arm(a stimulus, an impulse.),head in the clouds(having impractical dreams), feet on the ground(acting in a practical manner) and head over heels in love(madly in love with someone). When the meaning of these sentences is reached, they are asked to write a postcard.

Write a postcard to a friend in another province or country. Tell him/her about your activities this year, how you feel, etc. Use the phrases suggested above.

The teacher can suggest a beginning.

Dear ______,

I have received a shot in the arm this school year…

Example 3.

Unit 3 is appropriate for introducing idiomatic phrases: have as sweet tooth (a liking for food that is sweet) and mouth-watering food (appetizing).

In the introduction to this unit, the teacher can ask the following question: What kind of food do you prefer salt or sweet?

Student: I love sweet food especially homemade desserts. (Possible answer)

Teacher: "So you have a sweet tooth when it comes to homemade desserts." The phrase is presented, and its meaning is reached.

In exercise #1 the phrase mouth-watering food can be introduced by asking the question: Which of the food in the chart makes your mouth water?

Student: Cheese, pizza…

Teacher: So, cheese, pizza…are mouth-watering food. (Appetizing food)

Example 4

Achilles heel (weakness) plural form: Achilles heels (weaknesses) can be introduced through the questions: Who was Achilles? How was he killed? Was he killed by an arrow wound to the heel? They are exemplified: "So his heel was his vulnerability, his weakness." What is your Achilles heel?

Communicative competence is what a speaker needs to know to communicate effectively in culturally significant contexts.(5) This competence has three dimensions: linguistics, pragmatics and sociolinguistics.

According to the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) the communicative competences raised above have other types of competence embedded in them that enrich each one, and in the same way these are developed and strengthened according to the level of the language.(6)

The use of the figurative meaning of idiomatic expressions has been extended to everyday language, which makes it possible to maintain an active social life as it opens doors to learn more about other cultures because these expressions are used as a vehicle for the transmission of culture, or whatever it is. The same is the way in which we can express ourselves or communicate, whether by written or oral means.(7)



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Declaration of interests

The authors declare they have no conflict of interest.



Contribution of the authors

Design and methodology: Kenia Utra Rodríguez and Yolanda Valentina Pedraza Linares
Literature review: Kenia Utra Rodríguez, Yolanda Valentina Pedraza Linares, Madelaine Zamora González and Libia Labrada Oliva
Preparation and review of the final report: Kenia Utra Rodríguez, Yolanda Valentina Pedraza Linares, Madelaine Zamora González and Libia Labrada Oliva

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