If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well, so the old adage goes.
However, when it comes to learning French, do we really need to include an understanding of idioms?
Looked at in isolation, sayings such as ‘pigs might fly’ (or the French equivalent quand les poules auront les dents) seem bizarre and outdated.
Pay attention carefully during conversations in English, though, and you might find you use them more than you think.
The same goes for native French speakers.
Help you feel included
Katy Beauvais, a language specialist and host of The French Instinct podcast, says: “Learning common French idioms is essential since the French use them a lot in their everyday conversations.
“If you are not familiar with them, you will face difficulties understanding and can feel left out and disconnected from French culture and society.”
This does not necessarily mean you should swot up on hundreds of sayings and pepper your conversation with elaborate comparisons, but learning a few common idioms could be the icing on the cake when it comes to using the language.
Plus, you will be less confused (or terrified!) the next time someone describes your neighbour as having hair in the palm of their hand (avoir un poil dans la main).
Relax: they are telling you he is lazy, rather than crazy.
Add depth and personality to communication
Whether or not you feel idioms are a necessary part of communication comes down to personal choice.
Most people would agree, however, that at the very least these tried-and-tested (and sometimes strange) phrases are interesting and fun.
“Idioms add depth and personality to communication. You can express yourself in a more natural way and communicate more clearly,” says Ms Beauvais.
“Additionally, when you use idioms in your speech, you signal to the French that you are familiar with their culture and its rich linguistic heritage.”
Most idioms do not translate directly
If you are going to use an idiom – or respond to one – make sure you know your stuff.
While French and English have some idioms that translate directly, such as ‘a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ (un tiens vaut mieux que deux tu l’auras), assuming that all are interchangeable could lead to a world of confusion.
If you decide to risk it, you might end up making a fool of yourself – or, as the French might call it, ‘making a sausage’ (faire l’andouille).
Idioms we are accustomed to might sound completely normal to our ear, but examining their literal meaning will have non-natives scratching their heads.
This works both ways.
Just imagine someone telling you they have a cat in their throat. They have not swallowed poor Fluffy – they just need a little cough (our equivalent, ‘a frog in the throat’, is hardly more logical).
Meanwhile, if someone describes you as having your fingers in your nose, you might be insulted (or shocked – how did they know?). Don’t worry, they just mean you can do something easily.
“To avoid misunderstandings or awkward situations, the best approach is to learn and understand French idioms in their original language and in context,” advises Ms Beauvais.
“Only then can they be accurately translated to ensure the intended meaning is conveyed appropriately.”
Six idioms to get you started
Keen to take the bull by the horns and jump in at the deep end?
Here are some great idioms to cut your teeth on:
1. Faire la grasse matinée – ‘Doing a fat morning’ is the French way of saying you are having a lie-in
2. Il fait un froid de canard – Your interlocutor has not gone completely quackers here: describing the temperature as ‘duck cold’ simply implies extreme chilliness
3. Tomber dans les pommes – To fall in the apples actually means to pass out, with or without some fruit to catch your fall;
4. Pas ma tasse de thé – Identical to our own saying (‘not my cup of tea’) and hopefully just as useful
5. C’est la fin des haricots – If things are really tough and you have run out of money, or food, then c’est la fin des haricots – translated as ‘it’s the end of the beans’. Traditionally, beans were the last items to be eaten, so once gone, the cupboard was bare.
6. Se noyer dans un verre d’eau – Clearly, nobody is likely to drown in a glass of water. This idiom is used to describe someone making a big fuss about nothing (a ‘mountain out of a molehill’)