Foreign Idioms Are No Cakewalk

Idioms have always been intriguing to me. For most English speakers, or really anyone speaking their native language, they sort of slip under the radar in our speech and go completely unnoticed. But when you start to notice them, you'll notice two things: first, they are very strange; second, we use them all the time.

For instance, I've already used one, if you noticed: slip under the radar. That one isn't so odd, but others that we use are just astonishingly bizarre. Something can be the cat’s pajamas or the bee's knees, but I'm fairly certain that cats do not wear pajamas nor do bees have knees.

Something can be a cakewalk, a piece of cake, or easy as pie. Why are baked goods so frequently linked with the idea of a task easily completed? I haven't the foggiest. But despite our lack of understanding, we use them so naturally. One could say that using idioms in your native language (or languages) is easy as pie. But what about using and understanding idioms in a non-native language? Not easy as pie. Not a cakewalk. Most certainly not a piece of cake.

You could, possibly, be having a wonderful conversation with a French person about a fine wine. They take a sip, explain the flavor, the texture, and then suddenly they're talking about Jesus.

As my father sometimes would say when I'd swear: “What’s Jesus got to do with this?”. Well, I will tell you what Jesus has to do with a fine wine. While we, in America, would call a fine wine or a really great steak “the cat's pajamas” or, if you weren't born in the 1920s, “bomb af” or maybe “lit,” the French would say that the steak or wine is “Le petit Jesus en culotte de velours!”. This roughly translates to, “It's baby Jesus in velvet shorts!”

What imagery! Little baby Jesus, struttin' his stuff in Juicy Couture sweatpants. Luckily, I happened to know this fun little phrase, but there are still plenty of idioms that I don't know, and that make it all the more difficult to communicate with other French people. Also, not only have I gained a whole set of new idioms I don't know, I have lost the set of idioms that I do know. This experience has really made me appreciate our dependence on roundabout ways of speaking, including idioms.

When talking in French, I frequently feel a bit frustrated because I know exactly what I want to say, but I just don’t know how to say it. And often when I do know how to convey a phrase, it’s only in the most basic language. All of the color has been sapped out of my language, and I didn’t realize that I would miss it until it was gone.

Despite the frustration, speaking consistently in French has also made me see how complex a language can actually be. Language is not just a set of words and grammar. (And I say “just” as if learning the words and the grammar was easy. After seven years of speaking French, my mental lexicon is still only that of a 12-year-old, and I make grammar mistakes left and right.)

Language is metaphors, and idioms, and connotations, and register of formality, and intonation. And yet, as we go about our daily lives, as native speakers of some language, we never once stop to think about any of these facets (unless you study linguistics, in which case you are probably thinking about these things all the time).

It was not until I embarked on the journey of trying to communicate and comprehend in French that I realized the complexity of French, and of English. And though this realization has made my life in France incredibly difficult, it has also made me more self-aware of my own language, and of other dialects of English.

For instance, I am currently traveling alone through the U.K., which means a lot of meals in crowded restaurants on my own, which means I have a lot of time to eavesdrop. And as I eavesdrop, I try to be less creepy by putting an academic spin on it. Can I identify slang words? Idiomatic phrases? Do the Scots systematically change the “th” In “three” to a “t” in the same way that the Irish do? How is formality different in Ireland, Scotland, and Paris?

In answer to some of these questions: The Scots, the Irish, and the Brits share a subset of slang words, but the Irish and the Scottish have an additional set that come from Gaelic. In Ireland, if you’d like to say, “what’s up?” or “what’s the 411?” you could say “what’s the craic?,” craic meaning “fun” or “general enjoyment.”

The Scots don’t change the “th” to the “t,” and formality is wildly different among countries. In Paris, conversations are, for the most part, very formal. In Ireland and Scotland, the level of formality is generally lower, and having long conversations with cashiers and waiters is somewhat more normal.

In any case, I would highly recommend eavesdropping in this way. Perhaps it's not the most empirical way to document change in language, but it is eye-opening and gives one an appreciation for the complexity of each language and, furthermore, the dialects in those languages.

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