Learning idiomatic expressions in a foreign language can pose a series of challenges: even if we understand the basic vocabulary, sometimes the unfamiliar imagery can obscure the real meaning. And then once we have fully understood the meaning, we are tempted to show them off, only to be greeted by polite smiles.
“Sorry, mon ami, but we wouldn’t usually say it like this...”
Being aware of the cultural reference points can be just as problematic as mastering the linguistic constructions.
There are some idioms which appear to be cross-cultural:
“Avoir une mémoire d’éléphant” would not pose us any problems, and nor would it be difficult to understand just how hungry someone was if they said: “J’ai une faim de loup!” And to be as stubborn as a mule also translates directly: “Têtu comme un âne.”
However, out of context, I wonder how clear this would be:
“Il fait un froid de canard” (It is a duck’s cold). That’s right: “It’s freezing cold!”
Whether it’s from the cold, or from fear, you might get goose bumps. Every language seems to refer to a different type of poultry for this phenomenon. In French it’s the chicken, and it’s the flesh not the bumps that are referred to: “avoir la chair de poule”.
How unlikely is it that I will consistently pass for a native French speaker? Pigs might fly! A direct French translation of this would produce the Gallic shrug; instead, their metaphorical reference of The Highly Unlikely refers to hens having teeth: “quand les poules auront des dents”.
“Avoir un chat dans la gorge”, we might assume, is close enough to the English “frog in the throat” for the meaning to be clear. If so, it is something of a faux ami, as it is closer in meaning to “cat got your tongue?” i.e. when you are unable to express yourself, not due to a physical blockage, but because you feel unsure.
There is another cat expression, which is a simple one to remember: “Il n’y a pas un chat!” This would be used when you turn up somewhere, expecting to meet other people, and there is no one there.
I hope this has been interesting to read. If not, you might be tempted to say that you were as bored as a dead rat “Je me suis ennuyé comme un rat mort!”
If you enjoy reading these blogs, why not contact me to find out more about learning a new language, or brushing the dust off an old one. Learning a language as an adult is not necessarily easy, but our groups are fun and sociable even now that we’re on Zoom – but even more so when we’re allowed to meet up in cafés and pubs again, and recommence our programme of language-based events and excursions.
Andrew Wenger, founder and lead teacher, SameSky Languages