Alien Languages - Bilingual Children's Books
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Break a leg

 

My friend’s father tells an amusing anecdote about an unfortunate evening at a Parisian restaurant. Turning to his companion, an elegant French lady of some social standing, he asked her politely whether she would like some whisky, adding (perhaps a little unnecessarily) that it would “put hairs on her chest”. The father had been learning French and so, feeling brave, made his very polite request en francais. Sadly, far from smiling coyly and accepting his offer, the poor Parisian gasped in abject horror and fled from the table. Puzzled by her reaction, the father verified his question with another Frenchman in the party. It appeared the elegant lady had mistaken his use of English idiom for an uncouth chat up line, believing that in fact he wished to lay his head upon her ample bosom.


This highlights only too well the need to take care with idiom and colloquial turns of phrase. Both provide interesting insights into languages and the thought processes of their speakers and, as my friend’s father found out only too well, aren’t that easy to translate. When English speakers talk of “making mountains out of molehills” for example, the more ecologically-minded Estonians make “elephants out of gnats”.  English speakers “cross their fingers”, whilst the Germans “press their thumbs” and when we bestow luck on others by willing them to “break a leg”, they go a step further throwing a “neck” into the mix; a blessing with infinitely more sinister overtones.


The point is, idioms are bite size nuggets of linguistic eccentricity. They exist only in their entirety; in other words, simply knowing the vocabulary within an idiom does not necessarily mean a learner will understand its meaning.  Idioms, like irregular verbs, just need to be learned.  If a Swede sanguinely informed you in the face of adversity that “there was no cow on the ice”, you might be forgiven if you rushed to the window to verify his statement. In fact, he would be telling you not to panic. You would be rightly rather baffled, or, as the French say, “like a chicken who’s found a knife”.


The use of familiar language, slang and these so-called untranslatable phrases is the next step in second language acquisition. In using them, learners go from simply translating what they want to say word for word and instead “think like a native”, expressing themselves in a way which is far removed from their usual experience of language and phrasing. Understanding that a familiar phrase in your own language might be at best nonsense and at worst mildly offensive in another is a crucial part of improving language skills. In some cases, as with my friend’s father, it’s a lesson learned the hard way.  Él que tiene boca se equivoca, as the Spanish say. He who has a mouth, makes mistakes.