Why Double Meanings Matter When Learning a New Language


‘Break a leg!’ is a phrase used within theatre circles to wish performers good luck. It may sound rather dire — especially right before a performance — but it is understood to mean ‘good luck.’

There is some disagreement about the origin of the phrase, ‘break a leg.’ In Shakespeare’s day, ‘breaking a leg’ was understood to be the term, ‘to bow.’ However, others believe that it came from vaudeville in that a ‘leg’ was another term for a side curtain. When you broke the leg, or went beyond the curtain on a stage, you would be paid for your performance.

In any case, you can see how the understood meanings of phrases and what they literally mean are often at odds with each other. We all interpret things differently, and the way we say things can lead to some interesting altercations (and this is in English alone!). Imagine how much more confusing it is to converse within the nuances of a different language — where some words are even considered untranslatable. Mango’s learning features can help you differentiate between phrases with different literal and understood meanings and therefore spare your poor leg from injury.

Language is contextual

That’s why Mango is happy to provide some relief from this confusion with a special feature that does just that: Understood vs. Literal meanings. Whenever we introduce certain words or phrases in our courses, you have the option to toggle between the ‘understood’ and ‘literal’ meanings. In addition to helping you avoid misunderstandings, these explanations will give you a better understanding of how languages work. Exploring the differences between literal and understood phrases also helps to show the contextual nature of a language. Learning the literal meaning gives you a better understanding of what is important or not in a language. Mango will help you avoid misunderstandings, false friends, and awkward conversations in over 70 different languages.

Par exemple...

To be or not to be

That may not be the entire question, especially in some languages where ‘to be’ is omitted altogether. In Russian and Arabic, for example, when you refer to present time, the verb ‘to be’ is left out. To say ‘This is my husband’ [Это мой муж] or ‘This is my wife’ [Это моя жена], you would literally be saying ‘This my husband or ’‘This my wife’ [Это моя жена], respectively.

In Japanese, the copula, です ‘desu,’ means ‘to be,’ but it is much more complex than that. In addition, like all Japanese verbs, it is always placed at the end of a sentence.

Check out how you would ask someone’s name. Japanese is a contextual language — there is information omitted from the sentence because it is understood. The full sentence would be, お名前はなんですか ‘onamae wa nan desu ka’ [what is your name?] However, the ‘nan desu ka’ is omitted because it is understood that the speaker is asking for your name. You would literally be saying ‘As for name?’


Food for thought

Food makes up a large part of a culture, and with every dish a coveted set of traditions surrounding the occasion. For cultures that are rich in food, their languages can reflect this.

In Bavaria, Germany, a common idiom is Das ist mein Bier! [That is my beer!] or Das ist meine Wurst! [That is my sausage!]. At face value, it would seem that the speaker is simply calling out which typical German food item is theirs. However, it actually means something along the lines of, ‘That’s my business!’ So, if your Bavarian friends or relatives are getting too nosy, tell them to stay out of your stuff (and your beer!) with this handy phrase.

The use of beer [Bier] or sausage [Wurst] in various expressions, like this one, can also help us understand how important a particular word is in German culture. The selection of words for either phrases or idioms opens up a window into the daily life of this culture, as well as the important moments in its history.

Also, as shown in our German course, when you say, Ich lerne, wie man das Essen macht [I’m learning how to make the food], you would literally be saying, ‘I learn how one makes the food.’ The phrase is a bit more formal and explanatory than in English. It also helps the learner understand how to form ‘how to’ statements. Once you learn one of these phrases, you’ll have the tools to create sentences like this in the future — and make some delicious German food!


For example, here, instead of simply saying ‘my aunt’s house,’ you would say, ‘the house of my aunt’ [Das Haus meiner Tante]. As with the cooking example from above, by learning this phrase, Mango gives you the tools to structure your own sentences in the future; you’ll now know how to show possession when speaking German.

Hello and goodbye

In Mandarin Chinese, to say ‘hello’ you would say 你好 ‘nǐ hǎo.’ Although this is understood to mean ‘hello,’ it literally translates to, ‘you good.’ This phrase is a great example of how contextual languages can be, like we saw with Japanese. ‘Nǐ hǎo’ is the phrase used for greeting, but by learning the literal translation, you have the tools to form further sentences. For example, by learning I [‘wǒ’], you can say ‘I am good’ [我好]. English and Chinese aren’t so different after all!
Thai is another great example of a contextual language, as demonstrated in the greeting ‘Nice to meet you.’ ‘You’ is omitted in the literal translation of Thai greetings, as it is understood that one would say this greeting to a ‘you’ in a conversation.

Saying goodbye to someone, even in one’s native language, brings with it its own set of lexical complexity. Do you simply say ‘See you later,’ or do you go for the more formal ‘goodbye’?

In other languages, ‘goodbye’ has a completely different literal meaning. For instance, to say ‘goodbye’ in Arabic, you would literally be saying ‘with the safety.’ This could be similar to how in many parts of the U.S., ‘drive safe’ can be considered a farewell phrase.


We hope these examples of different literal and understood phrases give you insight into the complex relationship between language and culture, and how context plays a major role in our interpretation. By understanding literal meanings, you can better understand the cultures and contexts that make up a language and become better equipped to confidently converse in the language.

As Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”

With Mango Languages, you can try a lesson in any of our language courses for free! Click the button below to choose a language and get started.

Meet The Author:
Author - melanie moore
Melanie Moore
Linguist at Mango Languages
Melanie speaks German, Lithuanian, and Japanese and has dabbled in several others. She is an aspiring polyglot and enjoys sharing her passions for language learning and music with anyone she meets.

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