Our “Learning and Cognition” professor has presented us with a challenge on one of my favorite topics this week – figures of speech. We have been asked to come up with some examples, and if we speak a language other than English, share a few phrases or sayings showing how they might be baffling to English-speakers.
As an adolescent and young adult, I was not a fan of literature or poetry, so the figurative language I mainly remember are a few family idioms – and Southerners have some humdingers! Have you every squeezed blood from a turnip? Well, you can’t! Can you make a horse drink? No, but you can lead him to water! When I met my husband, he introduced me to a whole new set of adages from his family – he would always say, “My mother always told me . . .” and finish with one of a slew of sayings. We ended up coining a term “Rose-isms” for them (her name is Rosemary). Here’s one I have to tell my students all the time: “If if’s and and’s were pots and pans, we’d all cook up a storm.”
When I became an ESL teacher many years ago, the concept of figurative language as well as translation confusion really “came to a head.” In Texas, the majority of ESL students are Hispanic, and I knew very little Spanish. The aides who worked with me really helped me understand some of the issues I might encounter. One of them pointed out that the term “Special Education” can be confusing to limited-English parents – who would not want a special education for their child? She could not simply translate the term to educación especial; she had to find another way to explain it when translating at parent conferences. I had a very strange conversation with an Arabic-speaking student about why someone would want to eat a “hot dog.” This is when I realized we needed to have some lessons on figures of speech. In order to teach figurative language to ESL students, it often helps to give them a few examples in their own language. I was working with an advanced-level ESL student, and we found several Spanish idiom websites and blogs such as “Grammar Party” (Roof, 2011). As we read through the examples and talked about them, we came across la carne de burro no es transparante, which means “the flesh of the donkey is not transparent.” I laughed so hard because it reminded me of a saying my husband uses when someone blocks his view of the TV – “your daddy wasn’t no glass-maker.” As it turns out, the figurative Spanish version – “you make a better door than a window” – sends the same message my husband intends.
As an English teacher, one of my favorite (and my students’ favorite) figurative language lessons was having students illustrate the literal version of an idiom. English Idioms Daily Blog held a contest in 2012 resulting in some fantastic examples of just this lesson. Children’s book author Tedd Arnold does a beautiful job with illustrating several idioms and other figures of speech literally in his three books: Parts, More Parts, and Even More Parts. As a math teacher, I would tell my students all the time that “there is more than one way to skin a cat” meaning some of our word problems can be solved in more than one way.
Arnold, T. (2004). Even More Parts. New York: Penguin Young Readers Group.
Arnold, T. (2001). More Parts. New York: Penguin Young Readers Group.
Arnold, T. (1997). Parts. New York: Penguin Young Readers Group.
English Idioms Daily Blog. (2012). Kids’ English Idiom Art Contest 2012. Retrieved from http://www.english-idioms.com/kids-idiom-art-contest-2012/
Roof, Erin. (2011, March 10). Funny Spanish Idioms [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://grammarpartyblog.com/2011/03/10/funny-spanish-idioms/