contributed by Isaiah Curtis
Have you ever heard the phrase “to be under the weather?” As a native English speaker, you understand this means to feel slightly ill, but someone who’s learning English may not know exactly what this means until having it explained. The expression “to get cold feet” means to get second thoughts about doing something to the point of even backing out of a commitment or a previous idea. Also, the expressions “to hit the hay” and “to hit the sack” are synonymous with going to bed and falling asleep. These phrases are among the hundreds of expressions used in English called idioms. Idioms are imbedded in our conversations and enrich our language.
Merriam-Webster broadly defines an idiom as “the language peculiar to a people or to a district, community, or class.” More specifically, idioms are a group of words used to convey a meaning not easily deducible from the meaning of the individual words. These phrases often have a metaphorical meaning and are generally widely used in their specific geographical location. In the United States, usage of certain idioms varies from region to region and can be influenced by social and economic norms.
For any language learner, idioms can pose a challenge and can lead to misunderstandings.
For instance, consider this short dialogue between an English native speaker (ENS) and an English learner (EL).
EL: How was work today?
ENS: It was a piece of cake!
While the native English speaker meant his day was easy or simple, the English learner may be left confused and in need of further clarification. The words in the phrase “piece of cake” do not literally deduce meanings of simplicity or easiness, leaving the English learner confused. Idioms are not specific to English, but rather can be found in many other spoken languages in addition to American Sign Language (ASL).For instance, if you were in France during heavy rainfall you might hear “Il pleut des cordes,” which means “it’s raining ropes” and is the equivalent of “it’s raining cats and dogs” in English. In Iran, someone might say in Persian that you are “ba namak.” While literally meaning “you’re salty,” it’s a compliment meaning you are interesting, cute, funny, or just an enjoyable personality. In ASL, a well-known idiom is TRAIN GO SORRY. When signed, its meaning is along the lines of “too bad” or “You’re out of luck.”
Learning a language is a daunting task, in part due to the task of learning slang, idioms, and colloquial speech. Although there are multiple online resources to aid in understanding idioms, the best way to understand idioms is to always seek clarification with the speaker after they are said. LUNA understands the challenges some interpreters might face when dealing with idioms, that’s why we’ve held interpreter trainings on idioms at LUNAcademy. Watch for upcoming trainings so you can learn more! For any idioms which you hear a lot or have difficulty understanding, please reach out to isaiah@LUNA360.com.