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Proverbs in Language Teaching


There is a widespread opinion that the proverb plays an important role in language teaching as a part of gaining cultural knowledge, metaphorical understanding and communicative competence.

Proverbs are a part of every language as well as every culture. Proverbs have been used to spread knowledge, wisdom and truths about life from ancient times up until now. They have been considered an important part of the fostering of children, as they signal moral values and exhort common behaviour. Proverbs belong to the traditional verbal folklore genres and the wisdom of proverbs has been guidance for people worldwide in their social interaction throughout the ages. Proverbs are concise, easy to remember and useful in every situation in life due to their content of everyday experiences.

Here there is the general description of the proverb: A proverb is a short, generally known sentence of the folk which contains wisdom, truth, morals, and traditional views in a metaphorical, fixed and memorizable form and which is handed down from generation to generation.

According to the paroemiologist Wolfgang Mieder (2004), proverbs have been used and should be used in teaching as didactic tools because of their content of educational wisdom. When it comes to foreign language learning, proverbs play a role in the teaching as a part of cultural and metaphorical learning. Linguists also claim that the use of proverbs in the teaching of English as a second or foreign language is important for the learners ability to communicate effectively.

The use of proverbs and its declining in the teaching of modern languages has long been discussed.

Durbin Rowland (1926) points at some arguments pro the use of proverbs in language teaching. Rowland says that proverbs stick in the mind, build up vocabulary, illustrate admirably the phraseology and idiomatic expressions of the foreign tongue, contribute gradually to a surer feeling for the foreign tongue and proverbs consume very little time.

It was also said that proverbs are not only melodic and witty, possessed with rhythm and imagery; proverbs also reflect patterns of thought. As proverbs are universal, there are analogous proverbs in different nations that have related cultural patterns. Proverbs are therefore useful in the students discussions of cultural ideas when they compare the proverbs equivalents in different languages.

But as the experience shows the incorporation of proverbs in the foreign language classroom is rare. When proverbs are included, they are often used as timefillers and not integrated into a context. The proverbs that are used are often randomly picked from dictionaries, which often include archaic proverbs and new proverbs might therefore be missed. The suitability of proverbs in teaching is due to their form; they are pithy and easy to learn, they often rhyme and contain repetition figures like alliteration and assonance.

Some scholars propose the use of proverbs in a range of areas within language teaching: grammar and syntax, phonetics, vocabulary development, culture, reading, speaking and writing. They state that proverbs, besides being an important part of culture, also are an important tool for effective communication and for the comprehension of different spoken and written discourses.

The person who does not acquire competence in using proverbs will be limited in conversation, will have difficulty comprehending a wide variety of printed matter,

radio, television, songs etc., and will not understand proverb parodies which presuppose a familiarity with a stock proverb.

It is considered that both the structure and the content of proverbs are useful in ESL teaching especially when it comes to teaching and understanding of culture, as proverbs conveys the values and metaphors shared by a culture. Proverbs are also useful in teaching the differences between spoken and written language, something that often confuses language learners; they use conversational style when they write. Proverbs are one way to help the students to clarify the distinction between oral and written English.

One of the scholars compares the content of proverbs, which includes the metaphors contained in them, to a microcosm of what it means to know a second language. He points out that proverbial competence both requires knowledge of the linguistic structure of a target language (i.e. morphology, syntax, lexicon, pronunciation, and semantics) and of the rules and regulations that are necessary to be able to use a proverb accurately.

His conclusion is that the processing of proverbial language involves all the functions of both the right and the left hemisphere of the brain. The function of the left hemisphere is to interpret the incoming linguistic data, i.e. text, while the right hemisphere supports the understanding of context. Due to the metaphorical content of a proverb, the function of the right hemisphere is to create a literal meaning with the help of the contextual features in which the proverb is used, while the left hemisphere processes the linguistic structure of the proverb. Proverbs therefore serve an important purpose in the second-language classroom.

Proverbs change with time and culture. Some old proverbs are not in use any longer because they reflect a culture that no longer exists, e.g. Let the cobbler stick to his last, which has vanished more or less, because the profession of the cobbler nowadays is rare. However, new proverbs that reflect the contemporary society are created instead, e.g. Garbage in, garbage out, a proverb created due to our computerised time. Old proverbs are also used as so called anti-proverbs today, i.e. parodied, twisted, or fractured proverbs that reveal humorous or satirical speech play with traditional proverbial wisdom. One example is Nobody is perfect, which as an anti-proverb is changed to No body is perfect.

Work with proverbs and sayings at the lessons not only helps to diversify educational process and to make its brighter and interesting. Moreover it helps to solve a number of very important educational problems: proverbs in the classroom can improve students learning experiences, their language skills, and their understanding of themselves and the world. This happens because:


1.     Mieder (Ed.) Wise Words. Essays on the Proverb. New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 297-316.

2.     Mieder, Wolfgang. (1993). Proverbs Are Never Out of Season. Popular Wisdom in the Modern Age. New York: Oxford University Press.

3.     Mieder, Wolfgang. (2004). Proverbs - A Handbook. Westport, CT; Greenwood Press.

4.     Rowland, Durbin. (1926). The use of proverbs in beginners classes in the modern languages. Modern Language Journal 11:89-92.