Can I use idioms in the speaking test?

I’m often asked if it’s ok to use idioms in the IELTS speaking test.   Here is a question I was asked recently by a follower of my Facebook page:

‘I am unsure about whether using idioms in my IELTS speaking test is encouraged or not and which is better, using idioms or collocations? Many teachers say doing this will get 8.5 but why? is it necessary? Can you give me some solid examples for IELTS speaking?”

There are several important points to this question. I’ll start with the difference between idioms and collocations.

An idiom is a phrase that has a special meaning that is different to the literal meaning of the individual words. Idioms often help to create a mental picture of something. For example, you might hear a native speaker describe an optimistic person as someone who ‘sees the glass as half full‘, while pessimists are people who ‘see the glass as half empty.’ They aren’t literally looking at a glass of anything, but thinking of the image and the way a particular person would describe it, helps us to see whether that person generally thinks in a positive or a negative way. There are also many idioms connected to the weather. For example: it’s raining cats and dogs ( = it’s raining very heavily). Some idioms can sound very old-fashioned and non-native speakers have to reach an extremely high level of English and be around native speakers a lot to know which idioms are normally used and which ones you very rarely hear any more.

Collocation refers to using the correct combination of words and is more closely connected to showing your general lexical resource skills (in both speaking and writing). One example is knowing to use the verb ‘take’ and the preposition ‘for’ with the word ‘responsibility’. This is why I always recommend that you don’t learn lists of individual words – you need to also learn the words that go with them. So, you would learn ‘take responsibility for something‘ instead of just learning the word ‘responsibility’.

The next important point is to be extremely wary of anyone who suggests that simply using a magic list of words will increase your band score. A Band 8 or 8.5 candidate is a candidate that can communicate naturally and fluently in English and in a way that is easily understood. They may well not use a single idiom at all, and if they did it would be because it was a natural part of their speech.

Trying to learn lists of phrases to use in the test will most likely mean you actually reduce your score in the speaking test. This is because you are very unlikely to be given a perfect topic to naturally use those phrases – so they will stand out in an odd and unnatural way in your speech. You are also more likely to pause in your speech to remember the phrases – this will reduce your fluency and will make you sound hesitant.

The very best way to score well in the speaking test is to respond to the questions in a natural way.