Something I’ve learned during my time in Spain is that my speech is full of idioms. When Jamie called me out on this, I thought, well maybe I use these expressions once in a blue moon, but really? Every sentence?
Yes, it’s true. My language is peppered with these expressions. Just today I said the city is missing the boat if they are not taking a fee to allow vendors to set up on every street corner. I find myself in a pickle quite often. Idioms just roll off my tongue. Since nothing about living in a foreign culture is a piece of cake, I’m afraid I’ll be breaking this habit slowly.
And I’m not the only one.
Today, I sent a text to a friend to schedule a coffee chat. She wrote back to say she was under the weather. I responded telling her I hoped she was on the mend.
When a problem is not a problem
My rock solid knowledge of idioms has been a blessing in disguise during my volunteering experience with Vaughan Town, an English language immersion program for Spanish speakers. In the program we spend six days, fourteen hours a day together in conversation. During that time I get to shine when explaining how to use an idiom like a native English speaker.
We review idioms in one-on-one conversations, work them into skits, presentations and role-play exercises, and genuinely have fun with them.
Idioms are such a huge part of the English language that the Vaughan Language School created a textbook on the subject. And I noticed the English speakers in Portugal are also quite familiar with our English idioms. On a recent trip a young hotel employee named Elvis (because his father was an Elvis fan, why else?) was helping us and sent a WhatsApp saying Elvis is in the building. I was impressed. He’s so familiar with idioms he can modify them to fit the circumstances.
Where I plan to go from here
We were hiking the other day and I told my friends I had hit a wall. Literally, there I was with an ancient retaining wall in front of me that I could not scale without help. So, I think that when I use an idiom for a literal translation, it’s a sign of improvement.
This week I also pronounced that’s the way the cookie crumbles, once in a blue moon, and hit the nail on the head, so the retraining is coming along slowly.
But while I work to reduce my English language idioms I plan to pick up some Spanish idioms.
Here are a few Spanish idioms I really like.
Echa aqua al mar. Its literal translation is to throw water into the sea but it really describes something pointless. In English we would say that whatever you are doing is just a drop in the bucket.
Estar más sano que una pera. The literal translation is to be healthier than a pear. And what do we say? To be fit as a fiddle. It’s funny that we should aspire to be fit as a musical instrument and the Spaniards want to be fit as a piece of fruit but it’s good not to put all your eggs in one basket.
Ser pan comido. I think I can use this idiom often. It’s short and the perfect translation for one of my favorites, piece of cake. Literally it means to be eaten bread but the translation is identical to our English idiom meaning something is easy to do.
Making language study fun
Building a vocabulary and knowing basic grammar is essential in studying a foreign language. However, it is even more fun to unlock the mystery of words that don’t mean what they say and then use them in a conversation. That’s when you feel a mastery that allows you to shoot the breeze.
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Susan Carey retired in 2017 after a long business career most recently in animal welfare leadership. She writes about her experiences as a recent retiree living in Spain. Susan lives in Valencia, Spain with her husband, Jamie, and the senior pets they brought with them from the United States.