30 April 2019

More than Words: Learning Non-English Idioms


Learning a language and its accompanying culture can be an entertaining challenge. It is one thing to conquer the vocabulary and structure your thoughts into grammatically correct sentences, but another thing entirely to understand the idiosyncrasies of a language that is evolving all the time due to cultural influences.

One of our recent articles looked at the inherent Britishness of certain words from the perspective of one of our American colleagues, such as ‘cheers’ (as in ‘thank you’) and ‘fancy’ (as in ‘fancy a cup of tea?’ – which in itself is an extremely British thing to say!). In this article, we are going to take a step further and consider the complexity of idioms (those groups of words that have a culturally understood but usually non-literal meaning, such as ‘over the moon’ or ‘a piece of cake’).

When you know the idiom, you can understand what these otherwise baffling statements mean and how they relate to your situation. However, if you are not familiar with them, you might be wondering what cake has to do with the matter, and how going over the moon has any practical bearing on the conversation!

Here, we share a few potentially mystifying business-related idioms from languages other than English that could bemuse you if you are not familiar with them. If you are learning one of these languages, they might help you develop your cultural language skills – but even if you are not, they might still provide some entertainment value (as well as a useful reminder that learning a language is about more than words).

It is too late, it is done (French)

The common idiom ‘no use crying over spilled milk’ has a French counterpart that might sound bizarre if you were not already aware of it.

In France, you exchange milk for vegetables to get the same idiomatic meaning (that something has been done and cannot be changed), so you would instead say, ‘Les carottes sont cuites!’ literally meaning, ‘The carrots are cooked!’

If this phrase comes up over the negotiating table, it may be time to do some damage control to keep your options as open as possible.

Darn it, I forgot! (Spanish)

In Spain, you might hear, ‘Se me fue el avion’ when someone has forgotten something (maybe that crucial report on your next business opportunity that you had been hoping to review).

If your Spanish connection declares this (which literally means that ‘the aeroplane got away from me’), you can rest assured that they have not missed their flight – which is at least one positive (even if it means you’re a little frustrated with them!)

Leave me out of it (Polish)

If things are going to hell in a handbasket for your latest overseas business prospect and you are looking for a solution, you definitely will not want to hear your Polish colleagues declare, ‘Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy.’

If your polish language skills are fairly advanced, you might recognise this as ‘Not my circus, not my monkeys.’ In other words, ‘Not my problem.’

Might be time to prepare for Plan B, or work on re-engaging your Polish team members.

Surprise! (German)

Your business might have a well-thought-out strategy, but sometimes the best laid plans take a surprising turn.

If you hear your German clients say ‘Ich glaub, mein Schwein pfeift!’ they simply mean that they cannot believe what has happened (good or bad).

The literal translation of this surprised exclamation is, ‘I think my pig whistles!’ – which could seem faintly ridiculous without understanding the idiom!

Pull out all the stops! (Spanish)

If you are planning an event in Spain and your Spanish colleagues say, ‘Tirar la casa por la ventana’, it is time to celebrate because you have been given permission to spend as much money as you need to make your event a huge success!

In other words, this decree enables you to ‘spare no expense and pull out all the stops.’

Fortunately, it is not suggesting that you take this Spanish phrase literally, otherwise things could get really messy and expensive – the literal translation is ‘throw the house out the window’!

One for language learners everywhere… (German)

Try not to be disheartened if your German colleagues say to you, ‘Ich verstehen nur Bahnhof.’ This phrase means, ‘I do not understand’ – literally, ‘I only understand the train station.’

You may think your language skills need some more work, but it could also be that the proposal you are discussing is more confusing than you realise. So this may be the point at which you need to figure out whether your project needs a little more thought.

Learning a language does not always feel like a piece of cake (or, in a similar vein, ‘Bułka z masłem’ – which in Polish means ‘It’s a roll with butter’ and refers to something that is really easy).

However, with time and practice you can build the kinds of language skills that can lead to enhanced professional challenges in today’s global business world.

Contact us today to find out more about the bespoke language training solutions we provide, from language learning to cross-cultural communication, and all the nuances of a language that fall in between.

If you enjoyed this article and want to discover some more curious idioms from overseas, you may find this article from the TED blog an illuminating read too!

Common Non English Idioms
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Common Non English Idioms
What does a carrot, a circus and a plane all have in common?
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SIMON & SIMON International
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