Avoid Embarrassment in a Second Language by Avoiding IDIOMS
Oct 30, 2015 Speaking/Listening 2993 Views
When you first start learning the French language or the German language, or any second language, the fastest way to "open mouth, insert foot" is to use idioms like the one I just did. Idioms can make for idiots. Not really, but I love alliteration.
The initial response of my students when I impart that advice is "What's an idiom?" An idiom is an expression or phrase, where the meaning of each individual word does not add up to the message being conveyed. The whole is not the sum of its parts in this case. Therefore, the meaning of an idiom is not at all predictable. This is why they don't translate at all into the second language.
Here are some examples of idioms in American English:
- brain dead. Is your brain really dead? Of course not.
- I am full. What part of you is actually "full"? What are you full of? Don't say it. I know what you're thinking.
- What's up? "up" to a non-English speaker is in an upward direction, over one's head. The sky is up. The sun is up.
- I'm wiped out. Did someone use an eraser on you, wash you with a cloth, kill you?
- He kicked the bucket. Why did he do that? Was the bucket in his way? Did he not like the bucket? Did he hurt his foot in the process?
Idioms or "idiomatic expressions" are actually a product of the culture. American culture is not French culture or German culture, so why would their language share the same idioms? They wouldn't.
The reverse is also true. French idioms and German idioms would not exist, except on rare occasion, in English.
Twelve years of teaching experience has taught me that idioms are so imbedded in our language that often my students don't even realize when they are using an idiom. The problem with that is that in the beginning stages of learning a second language we're still "thinking in English". So let's say you are suffering from exhaustion or mental fatigue and you say "I'm so brain dead right now". You look up the word for "brain" in German and you look up "dead" in German and you attempt to Google Translate or whatever. You tell a German you're brain dead. Well, they'll either rush you to the emergency room, or they'll think "Stupid American. If you were brain dead, you wouldn't be standing there talking to me." I'm exaggerating a little, but it's nonetheless embarrassing.
Let's talk a closer look. Brain dead. What are you saying? You are saying you are having extreme difficulty thinking or coming up with the answer. In the second language, if you are not up to speed with their idiom for "brain dead", then you have to speak in a "literal" not "idiomatic" way. For example, you would have to say something like: "I am so tired, I can't think."
The German idiom for brain dead is Mein Kopf ist leer. Equally amusing. If the German translates his idiom into English while speaking with you, he will have just told you "My head is empty". Now it's his turn to be embarrassed, right?
Now I'll share my most embarrassing moment as regards the misuse of an idiom. Imagine this: It's my Junior Year Abroad. I'm in a small village near Strasbourg, France for a pre-arranged "weekend homestay" with a French family. They have prepared an awesome 4 course meal. In the usual hospitable French way, they keep trying to offer me more helpings. I politely respond with "No thank you, I am full." In French, that would be Non, merci. Je suis pleine. There's an immediate shocked gasp by everyone at the table, hands to their faces, shaking their heads. OMG. What did I say to deserve that reaction? My cheeks are turning red. I have just unwittingly communicated to the entire family, "No thank you. I'm pregnant."
Idioms can be fun, and certainly a much more colorful way of communicating.
However, my best advice until you are advanced in the second language is to:
1) Be able to recognize when the English phrase in your mind is an idiom.
2) Ask yourself, "What do I really mean by that?"
- I'm full. = I have had enough/plenty to eat. I am no longer hungry.
- What's up? = What's new?
- I'm wiped out. = I'm exhausted.
- He kicked the bucket. = He died.
3) Then you deliver that communication in the second language.