A Piece of Cake: Understanding Idioms


One of the most difficult parts of translating or working between languages is making sense of idioms. Idioms are those phrases that appear to be completely nonsensical at face value. But often are full of meaning and can be traced back through our cultural history.

Idioms are an interesting insight into the culture behind the language. English has quite a few idiomatic expressions. These tend to throw most learners through a loop (pardon the expression).  When translated literally into other languages, idioms such as an arm and a leg or a piece of cake lose the essence of their meaning.  An arm and a leg in French becomes un bras et une jambe and a piece of cake in Spanish becomes un pedazo de pastel.

The original meaning behind these idioms in English have lost their literal significance. The meanings are now steeped in cultural nuances. The translation into another language returns it to a literal interpretation. An indication of your knowledge of a language is your ability to understand and use in context these types of expressions.

But how do we go about learning these expressions in a foreign language? Is it something that will come naturally over time? Or is it better to have an understanding of the culture behind the language? For starters, it is important to not try to translate it word for word. Instead, find out the meaning. Often times, that requires asking or learning from native speakers. That is when tutors become so helpful. They offer the ability to get greater insight into the language by explaining the meaning of an expression or term in a way that is relevant to you. Instead of saying an arm and a leg is un bras et une jambe, they’d say it means une grande quantité d’argent, which is a large amount of money in English.

It is important to approach language learning from many angles. The ability to converse with a native speaker offers valuable insight into a language’s expressions.

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