Friday, July 1, 2011

How to Learn American Idioms

   Approximately fourteen weeks ago I decided that wanted to learn another language.  I went on the internet and found a site called which provided me an opportunity to learn Russian at no cost and be able to take part in any many written exercises as I choose. 

    The other benefit to this site is that it allowed me the opportunity to interact with people from all over the world who are learning various languages. As a life-long American citizen and native English speaker I have received numerous friendship requests from people throughout various parts of the former USSR who are interested in speaking with me as well as helping me to learn Russian.

     Learning a new language is not easy at the age of 46.  This is particularly true when it comes to learning Russian because we do not even share the same alphabet and the grammar rules are completely different.  I am grateful to my friends on this website for the help that they have given me.  I keep in touch with them through the website and also through Skype, which allows me to speak with them and see them via webcam for free.

     One of the things that my friends and I share on is information about various idioms which are used within a given country. Every country has its own set of idioms.  They normally do not translate very well; however, everyone within that country would understand them.  Some of my students on (those I help to learn English) will ask me to teach them American idioms as a way of helping them to learn the language.  It is interesting because we often come to realization that our languages share many common idioms; however, they are worded somewhat differently. For example, in the United States if someone is not speaking clearly it is sometimes said, “That person was speaking like he or she had marbles in their mouth.”  The Russians would say, “That person had porridge in their mouth” and the Brazilians would say, “That person had a potato in their mouth.” 

     Every once in a while I will encounter someone who will want to contact me on Skype for a very specific reason.  One person in particular was Sirob.  Sirob is from Russia.  He has a very important job with the government and he initially contacted me with the desire to “teach me English”.  He saw me on and sent me a message asking if he could speak with me on Skype.  I gave him my account address and he immediately called me. 

      In his very heavy Russian accent he said, “Hello, I am here to teach you English.”  I tried to explain to Sirob, “No, I am here to teach you English.”  He said, “That is what I said, I am here to teach you English.”  I asked, “Sirob, how much English do you know?”  He said, “Hello, have a nice day, I am fine, where is the bathroom?; what is your name?; and goodbye.” I tried to explain to him that I know all these phrases.  Once he realized what I was saying he simply vanished from Skype without even saying goodbye.  Our entire conversation was done without any emotion on Sirob’s part.  He stared directly into the camera, never blinked, and attempted to teach me phrases that I already knew.

    I expected that this would be last time that I would hear from Sirob. Then, a few days ago, I receive a surprise phone call from him on Skype.  He said, “I am calling to teach you a new American idiom!”  Apparently the fact that I had told him earlier that I have lived in the US all my life and profile states that I am from the USA  did not make any impression on Sirob.  He was determined that he would teach me this new idiom that he learned. 

     Since he showed no emotion at all, it is difficult to say that I saw how excited he was so I asked him to tell me.  Instead, I simply said, “Please tell me this idiom.”  At his very deliberate pace he said, “Now the shoe is on the other foot.”   I said, “That’s great, do you know what it means?”  He proceeded to tell me. If Mr. A is doing well and Mr. B is not, but then Mr. A has problems so that he is no longer doing well, Mr. B might say, “Now the shoe is on the other foot.”  This means, “Now you know what I am experiencing.”

    I have had discussions about psychology, philosophy, religion, art, music, literature, culture, customs, education, and various other things with people from a wide variety of countries.  In addition to the people from the former USSR, I am also helping people from Spain, Turkey, Germany, Argentina, Peru, Brazil, Costa Rica, Italy, Colombia, and several other countries to learn English. However, I never expected that I would be learning about American idioms from someone like Sorib. 

     It would not surprise me if, after he ended our conversation, he felt very proud of himself for teaching me that idiom.  Normally I would see the excitement in someone’s eyes as they shared some new and important information; however, in Sirob’s case he might as well have been reading the St. Petersburg phone book to me.  He stared at me like a statue, never even blinked, and spoke in a very monotone deliberate voice.  He wanted to make sure that every word would be understood.

     If I try to engage in a conversation with Sirob I am told, “I am here to teach you English.”  I did not expect to learn English from someone who knows only eight phrases, but I am certainly willing to try. 


Sveta said...

Hello Robert!
You made me smile no one time while I was reading your story :). I study English with help, too. I found it recently, approximately seven or eight weeks ago. But I have never told with anybody by skype, yet. My English is not enough good and I would not try to teach someone English :))))

Anonymous said...

I continue reading Ur blog. Hope U're not against me to express my thoughts about some of the posts.
U also found me on busuu. Do U remember the letter U've sent me, its text? In the end U wrote- “free”. That is the crucial moment. It's not a problem to socialize with Canadian or Australian, a bit more difficult to talk to British, but it's highly difficult to find an American native speaker who will talk to U for free or at least without any background thoughts. That is one of the reasons why I don't look for or “hunt” the natives on busuu. This is a well-known fact. Actually, for me it was a surprise when I first discovered it for the first time. A lot people from the USA do some tricky things, they start socializing with U and than offer their should-be-paid-off-services. That offends people on busuu. Yes, I know that there are too many people who learn English and sometimes it's very difficult to chat with them. Even for me, for a person who also is not brilliant at English sometimes the chat with someone turns into a real disaster. In order to sound more fluent they invent their own English and think it's cool. At the same time many people really try to do their best and if I can,I help them without asking anything in return. The same with my native language. I used to have some friends who studied Russian here, in Moscow, and when they asked me I tried to help them. We spent hours together and I didn't have even a thought to ask them to help me with English (or pay me) but when I asked them to help, I'm in touch only with one person out of six (...) And I asked them only to check my essay (three pages) and two verses, that was all I asked about. By and large,it's not a surprise that so many people ask the native speakers for friendship as well as it's not a surprise many people try to play jokes on them. Because sometimes Americans behave really cocky, though it's not Ur case.

Now, as for the idioms. When I was 15 and couldn't make up my mind who I want to be, my parents hired 13 (yap, thirteen) teachers from different shields for me, so that I could enter any faculty I would have wanted at the end of the 11th grade. One of them were from the Literature University. I decided to study culture in another University but I was still in touch with this teacher. Soon, he offered me to join his Russian club. I did it. In this club we investigated the Russian language as well as we did some individual research projects. One of my projects was about zoomorphisms in Russian, German,Spanish and English. I was 17 and from this moment I realized that I like languages, that it's my real passion in life. While discovering the similarities and differences in the languages I opened a new world. I started to understand the characters of people better. Unfortunately, this teacher died and the club was closed (no one wanted to do it for free). But even now,when I have time and I don't skip the opportunity to read smth about comparative linguistics. I totally agree that “the language is a soul of the nation”. I wish I could devote my life to this but I need to support my family now and pay off the bills. Anyway, I'm glad that other people are also interested in idioms and languages themselves.

Jessica Reyes said...

That's a great article. Aside from english, I also learn russian through skype at that's why I can relate to you.