Elusive Idioms

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by Heather Pears (edited by Lynne Hand)

You are strolling down a wide boulevard carrying some shopping bags. As you walk along you exchange witty comments with the street stall vendors, make clever observations about the weather, speaking the language like a native. You smile modestly at a compliment and reply, “No, I’m not from (insert the country of your choice here!), I’m just here visiting.”  Hey, wake up! You’re daydreaming again! But what language learner doesn’t dream about one day having the words spill effortlessly from their lips? I’ve often imagined myself sitting at a cafe in Paris, ordering a cup of coffee and a croissant, and reading a local newspaper as the neighbourhood goes about its business around me.

One of the trickiest things about making those language dreams a reality is learning to use figurative language, those expressions that make a language entertaining and colourful. Figurative language includes things like metaphors, idioms, similes, and proverbs. All languages have them and native speakers grow up using them, they are part of the collective history. Those same expressions are what make it so difficult to speak a new language well. Idioms are especially common in conversation and a truly proficient speaker can use them with ease. And just like the other figurative expressions, an idiom can be difficult to understand because its meaning is not apparent through literal translation of its words. In Italian the expression “una buona forchetta”  translates into English as “a good fork” but refers to someone who enjoys eating. In Stockholm the slang expression, “Hur mycket gäspar skorpan?” translates as, “How much yawns the cracker?” Who could guess that it simply means “What time is it?”

I’ve mentioned two expressions that may be confusing but they are relatively harmless. Beware the non-native speaker, though, as the improper use of an idiom can cause a lot of trouble. Not only will you, the speaker, be embarrassed but you also risk offending someone. For example, never say to a grieving friend, “I was sorry to hear that your mum kicked the bucket.” This would be a very inappropriate use of an idiom and your friend is likely to be offended by it. Neither will your boss want to hear you say, “I ditched work yesterday because I was down in the dumps.” In other words you stayed home because you didn’t feel like going in to work that day. Use idioms with caution or you may have to, as they say in French, “avaler des couleuvres”. That expression translates as “swallow grass snakes” and is used when a person has to face humiliation.

There are other problems with idioms besides the fact that they seem to make no sense. Many of these expressions are slang and become obsolete quickly. They can also be culture specific. For example, the phrase “hit for six” is from the UK and apparently means that someone has suffered a shock. It is derived from the game of cricket. I don’t know the first thing about cricket so, being from Canada, my brain tries to connect this expression to baseball. However, I have no difficulty understanding “Houston, we have a problem.” This was originally spoken by a member of the American Apollo 13 space mission but has now come to mean that something is wrong. If you ever hear someone say, “My teenager is eating me out of house and home”, you can thank Shakespeare whose plays are the source of many English phrases still in use today. The King James’ version of the Bible has also contributed its fair share to the English language. Some examples are, “a drop in the bucket, bite the dust and at his wits end.” When you stop to think about it, it`s kind of startling how many idiomatic expressions there really are.

Trying to learn any language out of context, from a book, is difficult. You may be able to memorize all kinds of things but you`ll never be able to speak in a way that sounds natural. The best way to learn is to immerse yourself in that language and the culture.  The best way to handle idioms is by all means learn what they mean, but be very careful about using them, and even when you are certain what they mean, please try to restrict how often you use them.  If I were to say, “It’s raining cats and dogs,” every time it rained, people would think I was very strange.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could all live in Rome or Paris or London for six months? Many of you may already be living in a new country. In that case, and keeping my words of caution in mind, learning to use some common expressions in your new language is important if you want to stop sounding like an outsider but you`ll have to be prepared to be persistent and put in some hard work. Use them in your language class, try them out with a native speaking friend and practise, practise, practise. Find someone to become your tandem language partner; you teach them your language and they teach you theirs. You could even become a sneaky eavesdropper and listen in on other people`s conversations but for goodness sakes don`t let them notice you listening!