Language is built on trust, expectation and even hope. You trust that someone will understand you. Or you expect that what you say will be interpreted in the way you mean it. And you hope that you get your point across. Learning a new language involves hope and perhaps the expectation that at some point your listener will figure out what you’re saying. But it’s mainly a matter of trust. You have to trust that you’ll make yourself understood by relying on how well you believe you’ve comprehended what you’ve learned.
Since so much of language involves idiomatic expressions, you’ve also got to trust that those expressions will do some of the work for you, even if you don’t understand what those expressions mean word by word. And although I want to know how to express the same thought in more than one language, I’ve come to realize that this same thought isn’t ever exactly the same, or expressed in the same manner. We think alike in many instances no matter where we’re from, but we don’t arrive there by the same route when we express that thought. Still, we keep trying to find the identical phrase in another language. But if they were exactly the same they wouldn’t really exist in the other language would they? Yes, certain expressions do translate, but others that convey the same situation are entirely localized in the other language.
“Raining cats and dogs” and “tomber des cordes” (or falling ropes) both mean a downpour, but neither makes much sense literally. “Tomber dans les pommes” means to faint, but to fall into the apples doesn’t mean anything like that, except figuratively. “To bite someone’s head off” is a bit like “remonter les bretelles à quelqu’un” (to pull up the suspenders or braces or straps at someone), but you get to that meaning – reprimanding somebody rather sternly – through an entirely different sort of locution.
That’s the thing with expressions. We know what they mean but we can’t explain what they say without resorting to paraphrase that dilutes the force of the original. We’ve got to trust that even though the expressions we use might not make literal sense, they will nevertheless mean something quite clear to the listener.
Throughout my month-long class at Alliance Française in Manhattan, we students kept asking our teacher Pierre to give us the equivalent in French of English expressions, since Pierre grew up bilingual in Montreal and we assumed he’d be able to list all sorts of figures of speech almost automatically, since he lived and thought in both languages.
He could give us equivalencies sometimes, but in general he had to reflect on the meaning of the English phrase and search for something connected to it in French. It actually wasn’t easy, even for someone completely bilingual. The commonality of our existence, how we react to the events of a day, to each other, to situations, is rarely expressed the same way in different cultures, even in overlapping Western ones.
Most of us who are learning and speaking another language rely on common verbs, which can be translated with some degree of accuracy, though often even simple verbs can have quite a few other subtle cultural differences or meanings. Still, as we become more at ease in a language, most of us speak not in simple declarative sentences but with a range of expressions, metaphors and similes, shortcuts toward meaning, or perhaps paths toward deeper meaning. If someone is a heavy smoker, he smokes like a chimney in English, but “il fume comme un pompier,” or smokes like a fireman, in French. The individual words make sense here, but the phrase itself is what counts to express the idea in a way that’s more colloquial and even colorful.
You have to take the expressions on faith, another component of language-learning: trusting what people say metaphorically enough to use it yourself.
Of course, you’ve got to understand them too. I sometimes misuse common idiomatic phrases in French because certain subtleties have escaped me. The other day, when a friend I’d invited over for dinner wondered what he could bring, suggesting a baguette, I replied, “Ça ira.” That evening, just as we were about to sit down to dinner I asked him if he’d brought the bread. No, he said, “You’d told me that you’d had everything you needed.” I replied that I thought I’d said, “Ça ira,” meaning, that it would go nicely. Yes, he said, that’s what you said, but no, he explained, what I’d actually said in this particular exchange by writing “Ça ira” was this: “All good, i.e., don’t bother.” Now I know.
So much depends on context. Of course, I’m not likely to say, “Il tombe des cordes,” when I mention the weather to someone on a day when it’s bright and sunny, but I’m sure to stumble again and again as I try to explain myself in French by using colorful expressions in lieu of ordinary words. I’d rather use vivid expressions, since for me they mark a sort of progress in the language. And when I fall, it won’t be a literal misstep, or at least I hope not. I certainly don’t expect that when I say something stupid (which I will) that I’ll be accused of becoming someone who’s about to “sucrer les fraises,” or sugar the strawberries, which means to have a trembling hand or, by extension, to be going gaga.
Not yet, anyway.