Why hearing your target language “in the wild” may be different than how you learned it (Part 1: idiomatic expressions!)

Apa khabar! Welcome back, language learners, to Adventures in Language!

In this mini-series, we’re talking about why hearing your target language “in the wild” may be different from how you learned it. It all boils down to 3 main things:

  1. idiomatic expressions 

  2. sound blending 

  3. dialectal diversity

Without understanding these 3 main points, it’s easy to lose confidence in your language learning progress. However, once you understand what’s happening under the hood when you go into those real-life conversations, you’ll feel more confident and in control of your language learning process. In this article, we break down idiomatic expressions: what are they, why do they matter, and what can you do about them to reach your fluency goals? Well, 시간낭비 하지말고 (Korean ‘without further ado’), let’s get to it!

What are idiomatic expressions?

We’ve all heard of them and all languages use them — but what are they exactly? An idiomatic expression (or more simply — an idiom) is a group of words whose collective meaning is not deducible from each of its individual words. A few examples you may be familiar with in English are: “hitting the hay,” “getting out of hand,” and “spilling the beans” – which respectively mean ‘going to bed,’ ‘getting out of control,’ and ‘revealing secrets.’ Nothing to do with actual hay, hands, or beans! For you Spanish speakers out there, you may be familiar with idioms such as: “me importa un pepino” (lit. I care a cucumber; meaning I don’t care at all) and “estaba pensando en la inmortalidad del cangrejo” (lit. I was thinking about the immortality of the crab; meaning ‘I was lost in thought).’ Because idioms are so common, we might not even realize we’re using them when we’re speaking in our native languages. But they definitely stick out when we’re learning a foreign language. For example, imagine an English language learner hears someone say “C’mon – spill the beans!” If they don’t know that particular idiom, they’re left to take a literal interpretation, wondering “Is this person asking me to find a can of beans, open it, and spill it? Are they okay?

Why do they matter to language learning?

Long story short, idioms can play a complicating role to your language learning process — particularly when you go from learning in a classroom to conversing “in the wild.” Even learners with really impressive vocabulary inventories struggle when they encounter idioms in the wild. So what can you do about it as a language learner? Don’t focus just on single-word vocab training; bring idioms into the mix. There’s a ton of information out there if you do a simple web search for “idioms in language x.” Of course, make sure you trust the source before using it as your study material. If you’d like a curated language learning experience that incorporates key idioms every learner should know in that language, then check out the Mango Languages App. Our linguists and language teachers bake cultural metaphors and idiomatic expressions into all of our 70+ language courses within the app. If you’d like to learn more about the app, check out our website or download the Mango Languages app!

Finally - let’s just acknowledge that learning a language is a difficult task!

Adding idiom learning to your more traditional single-word vocabulary will certainly help you sound more like a local. Of course, doing that alone won’t get you to your fluency goals. If you haven’t recently checked in on your language learning goals and progress, check out our FREE Setting Good Goals worksheet.

Thanks for reading!

Selamat tinggal! Want more engaging language content like this?  Sign up here for more FREE language learning content! This starts with getting your free copy of the Setting Good Goals worksheet mentioned above!

Wondering what languages were used in this article?

  • English (recording language)

  • Malay | Apa khabar? means ‘Hello – how are you?’ (lit. Hello – what news?) and Selamat tinggal means ‘goodbye’ (lit. safe leaving) 

  • Korean | 시간낭비 하지말고 means ‘without further ado’ (literally translates as ‘without wasting time’) 

  • Interested in learning English, Malay, Korean, or one of the other 70+ languages that the Mango app offers? Click here to learn more!

Meet The Author:
Author - Emily Rae Sabo
Emily Rae Sabo
Linguist at Mango Languages
Emily Sabo (Ph.D., University of Michigan): A travel-hungry content creator with a Linguistics Ph.D. in bilingual language processing, Emily has studied 7 languages and loves getting to use them to connect with people around the world. When she’s not creating content for the Mango community, you can find her dancing, yoga-ing, or performing some good ole’ fashioned standup comedy.

To embark on your next language adventure, join the Mango fam!

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