When we start learning the English language, we are taught grammar, standard vocabulary and some phrasal verbs and collocations. Rarely, however, is the teaching focused on providing idiomatic expressions which are part of daily English conversation. On the other hand, English learners are prone to consider these expressions quite weird and hard to learn and/or use.

My aim here is to present some useful expressions or idioms that can improve your English speaking and make it sound more fluent and fresh. The goal here is to master the language with native-level competence. This is especially convenient for advanced English learners who are concerned about their speech and willing to take their studies one step further. Using idioms helps to convey a compelling message in order to catch the attention of a listener or an audience.

Here, I want to present some idioms in the context of living and working abroad. I am going to explain the meaning of each one based on my experience living and working in different countries around the world (like Thailand and England). Let's look at these idioms that I have compiled for the purpose of helping you to improve your English speaking:

Poker face (Showing no emotion)

This expression is very important to describe someone whose face is showing no emotion whatsoever. It is said that some people sometimes seem to have a poker face, which means that they rarely express their feelings in public. There are some cultures that tolerate the display of emotions and others that try to hide them. One should be careful with that matter when living abroad.


To lose your temper (To get angry)

This is another expression that you should remember when you work abroad. It is certain that you will have to face stressful situations when you work in another country but, even if you are really upset or angry, you should not argue, use bad manners, or show your anger. If you keep calm, in most cases you will get better results. For the sake of your health, try not to lose your temper!


To lose face (To lose reputation; to look bad to others)

Something that most people utterly hate is to lose face; they feel really bad if you expose them to humiliation of any kind. When someone divulges bad things about you, you can lose your reputation. Some people are particularly sensitive when it comes to losing their reputation, so when you meet people abroad in your work, you should avoid making jokes or comments that can be offensive to them.


Do a runner (To leave somewhere without notice)

This expression reminds me of the time that I was teaching at a school in Thailand and one of my colleagues suddenly disappeared! It is said that a lot of teachers in Thailand frequently drop out of teaching positions without warning. I do not know if this is a huge issue, but I can confirm that it is something that actually happens over there. It is considered not only rude, but is also a good way to spoil your career in teaching. However, I guess that whoever dares to do a runner at work probably does not care about professional references too much.


Work for peanuts (To work for very little money)

Many employees complain about their wages. For example, some foreign teachers are not highly paid by western standards, even if they earn a lot more than local teachers. They complain about teaching wages, since other expats that work in other industries get higher salaries. When I was in England, some people complained about their wages too, in spite of the fact that they were definitely higher than those in other countries like Thailand. Nobody wants to work for peanuts, but always remember that what you consider “peanuts” might be a big amount of money for someone else.


If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys (Only unskilled or unqualified people will work for a company if it does not pay very much)

This expression is directly linked to the previous one. Some companies struggle to recruit good employees because they want to pay peanuts (small amount of money, low salaries). You can not get good (qualified) employees if you pay very low salaries; instead, you will get monkeys (unqualified employees).


Get out of hand (You say this expression when you lose control of things)

In Thai state schools, classes contain large numbers of students; usually somewhere between 30 and 50 pupils. When you try to do an interactive lesson with games and fun in a class of this size, there is a high risk that things will get out of hand at any moment. Children are not always aware that they are still in the classroom when you play a game with them, so the teaching itself can easily become more of a show. At work, you need to avoid losing control when facing a new challenge, and this is particularly true when you move to another country.


Don't judge a book by it’s cover (Don’t make a decision based on a brief impression, oroutward appearance)

In real life, it is not always true that people are mostly rational enough to make the right decisions. When you live abroad you tend to judge things at first appearance. Afterwards, you might realize that some of these judgements were quite inaccurate. Therefore, as you should read a book first instead of judging it only by its cover, you should also avoid making important decisions based on hasty judgements.


Hit the books (To study very hard)

All teachers want their students to pass their exams. Students need to study very hard to succeed in tests and get excellent grades. Even the teachers themselves have to study to be trained and up to date. In fact, an employee who travels abroad should first study about the culture and customs in their destination country. It is also advisable to learn some vocabulary of the local language when you work abroad. Accordingly to that, one ought to hit the books before and while you are in your new home country.


No pain, no gain (To make an effort to succeed)

A lot of people accept the challenge to work abroad and, sooner or later, they find out that the only way to succeed is to be flexible, make an effort to understand new ways and acknowledge other points of view. Eventually, you grow as a person (you gain) and remember your pain as simply an outstanding learning experience.


Actions speak louder than words (People's intentions can be judged better by what they really do than what they say)

When you go to a new country and you meet new people, you can not trust them based purely on words. You need to watch out for people's real actions, because many people might speak good words but not behave in a way that backs them up.


The rat race (A frustrating financial lifestyle, usually involving a time-consuming job)

I met some people in Thailand who decided to leave their “normal life” and even their jobs to try a new experience over there. They tried to get rid off the inconveniences of the rat race.


Start from scratch (To start over again from the beginning)

When you are an expat in a new country, you leave behind your comfort zone and you start from scratch. Following your decision to leave your native country, you will have to build a new life which involves meeting new people and adapting to a new culture.


Variety is the spice of life (To try new experiences makes your life more fulfilling)

The more experiences you try, the more exciting life can be. This is especially true when you leave your native country to go and live in a new one. Suddenly, you realize that things that you took for granted are not present anymore in your new life. Alongside these losses, however, you get to experience new points of view and can gain a greater understanding of societies and life. It is quite exciting to taste new food, meet different people, learn words of a new language and experience a different culture.

Indeed, in English there are many more expressions and idioms than the ones I mentioned above. However, I think that to be familiar with these ones is a good start. You may use them sometimes in your speaking then (and maybe in your writing, too). In terms of enriching your English, you can try out one or several of these expressions and see just how it goes!


Image Source:

Image by picaidol (CC0)