Friday, January 30, 2015

Idioms: A warning

This article someone posted on Facebook got me to thinking about the richness of language (as well as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, (also perhaps more appealingly referred to as linguistic relativity) which we will address later. In essence, it is the idea that "language determines thought," or more complicatedly:
The principle of linguistic relativity holds that the structure of a language affects the ways in which its respective speakers conceptualize their world.
Perhaps nowhere could cultural quirks and habits be better expressed in language than through the idioms that a language uses. There are, of course, fascinating things to be learned from a language by its complicated and very specific words that are practically untranslatable in any other language, perhaps the most complicated (and frankly, I find, beautiful) example of which is 'mamihlapinatapai' which is an experience I'm sure everyone has had, but just lacked the perfect word to express it. Now you have it. 
What image do you use for idioms? "Forgive me!" Rome, Italy, 2010
My purpose here is not to discuss examples of idioms (perhaps I will do that later) or to defend my statement of their cultural significance, but to issue a warning about them.
They are powerful. They are useful. They are expressive. But if you're trying to communicate effectively either in someone else's language or to someone who's trying to understand yours, don't use them.
In fact, I'm not even really only talking about idioms. I'm talking about idioms, idiomatic expressions, collocations, phrasal verbs, or anything else in a language that isn't literal. Translating your own speech into its simplest, most straightforward, grammatically pure equivalent isn't
easy, and I maintain that it's nearly impossible for someone who isn't bilingual (as in, someone who only speaks one language) to do on-the-fly, as they're speaking, in real time.
We language students, either in an effort to speak in our target language or to learn how one language corresponds to another, have far more experience making these linguistic connections, distilling a thought down to its simplest word(s), or confining the meaning of a word to the one you want. Let me try to think of an example, something that any of us may say in a normal conversation:
"I just didn't get around to all my chores this weekend. I'll get caught up later."
While that sentence (and I'm sure I could think of a better example) is perfectly understandable to any native speaker, there are a number of areas where a non-native speaker could get tripped up, depending on their native language.
First, the contraction 'didn't' may be a no-no, but it should be okay for a basic speaker.
Second, 'get around to' is no good. For English speakers (or at least me), it conveys the idea of working up to, having the time, pushing yourself or making the effort to do something you need to do. But it's an idiomatic expression, a strange phrasal verb that would very easily throw off a listener who isn't familiar with it.
The word 'chore' could be difficult. As used in this sentence, it usually refers to housework: cleaning, washing, perhaps yard work or some repairs. But it also has another (related) meaning, to describe something as a chore (that isn't housework) is to say that it's troublesome, laborious, bothersome, and makes you tired. The inherent understanding of 'chores' in American English to mean 'housework' could easily be misunderstood, or not understood at all.
The same thing can be said for 'get caught up' as was said for 'get around.' There are tons of phrasal verbs like this in English, collocations with verbs like get, have, do, make, be, etc. that have very specific meanings, and perhaps multiple ones. These could be regional, and it's best to avoid them.
So, if you needed to say that to someone for some reason, how could you, as quickly as possible, reduce that down to the least possible words to convey a similar meaning? What about
"I was busy. I will do [it/that] later."
Perhaps it isn't as expressive or detailed, but one thing you'll realize in conversation is that it's often a good move to sacrifice detail or emotion for clarity.
Now that may seem like a contradictory expression, sacrificing detail for clarity. But it's true. If detail is going to obscure your meaning or make the essence of your statement unclear, leave it out. I would even go so far as to suggest using a word like 'tomorrow' that a speaker might more readily understand rather than being more specific about when you will do it, even if you're not going to do it tomorrow (assuming that detail isn't important).
It's this kind of self-editing that will make you far more easily understood in a linguistically confusing setting. And let it be known (and you certainly do if you know me or read either of my blogs) that I am an incredibly wordy person. But this is a skill I have come to learn from many cross-lingual interactions. Also, the interlanguage becomes a serious part of the conversation, but that's a topic I am super excited to talk about later. In any case, speaking as simply as possible is a skill, and idioms aren't included in it.
I remember when my father and my brother came here to visit (on separate occasions, my brother twice). Both of them are very gifted speakers, and express themselves (while in different ways) very effectively. But I was so surprised, I even found it comical at some points, at how they tried to communicate with others who spoke extremely poor English. Granted, even with the most extreme simplification of whatever they wanted to say, the people they were speaking with probably still wouldn't have understood, but it was just interesting to see how they tried to re-navigate their own mother tongue in a new setting. They don't speak any foreign languages (but I maintain that at least my brother has a gift for it), much less Chinese, so we're seeing the process from two very different areas. I know what grammatical constructions to avoid so as not to confuse a Chinese speaker. If I were speaking in English to a Hungarian or Albanian or Marathi speaker, I may not do so well.
Regardless of the situation, idioms can add color and depth and humor and meaning to your speech when used in a proper setting. They can also make you impossible to understand. Next time you have to speak to a student or someone whose language you don't speak, take just a second and give some mental effort to identifying and perhaps avoiding these linguistic potholes.
We'll talk about the advantages of idioms in a later article. That's all for now.

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