Skip to main content

Funny American Idioms for Non-English Speakers

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

I am passionate about travel, languages, food, and home improvement.

A fried egg. In the United States, we call this a "sunny side up" egg. In Germany, we call it a "mirror egg." Can you see your reflection?!

A fried egg. In the United States, we call this a "sunny side up" egg. In Germany, we call it a "mirror egg." Can you see your reflection?!

It is both funny and curious to me that a dear friend of mine likes to call me a "wordsmith." A wordsmith in the English language, of all languages. A true compliment for a non-native speaker, I must admit.

Yes, I am lucky: I have lived in the United States for over 25 years, and except for the odd encounter with a stranger who likes to think they are detecting an ever-so-slight accent, my command of the English language is like that of most native people. Speaking English has indeed become very much second nature to me, a far cry from the days when I had mastered only the written language and had no capacity for the spoken words.

I was raised bilingually, speaking both German and Portuguese at school as well as at home. English instruction began in 5th grade as a foreign language, and I highly doubt my teacher back then was a native speaker. And, to make things even more interesting, the curriculum was set in British English, which, as many of you would expect, created a bit of confusion when I set foot on the North American continent.

The only way I can give credit to being a wordsmith is the fact that learning another language requires that the individual fully embraces each word (and combination of words) by understanding both their figurative and literal meaning. And the fact that the individual, often misunderstood at the onset of foreign language use, must creatively find another way to make himself understood.

I guess my friend might be right.

Just tonight at dinner, my six-year-old son looked puzzled when he questioned why his Oma (German for grandmother) spoke "American that sounds a little different." I think he was referring to her accent, which after all the years of living in the United States, continues to identify her as foreigner, even to the least suspecting ear.

In graduate school, I did extensive research on the acquisition of foreign languages and the retention of home country accents versus the acquisition of host country accents. In short, why do some of us sound perpetually like tourists while others seem to somehow just blend in? Suffice it to say in this context that of primary importance is the timing of foreign language acquisition.

The younger the person is who is learning a foreign language, the higher the likelihood that a native like fluency will be achieved. The ages of six or seven are often perceived as an important cut-off in this equation. By progression, it is also believed that around the time of a person's puberty, accent development starts in foreign language acquisition. Having moved to Brazil at the age of five and the United States at the age of 15, timing was a clear advantage for my language skills, even if it felt like a challenge in every other sense of the word.

But regardless of how fluent and accent free I can appear in the every day, American idioms are always a clear reminder that I am in fact not a native English speaker. It is the literal interpretation in juxtaposition to figurative speech that gets me every time. My brain hears one thing, and my mind visualizes another. No wonder I am such a sucker for puns.

Following are my top ten favorite idioms, mostly because even after all this time, I believe they are hilarious and don't make much sense.

  1. Pulling the wool over someone's eyes: How can you feel tricked with a sweater over your eyes?
  2. Having everything in your purse but the kitchen sink: I agree a purse is a magnet for everyone else's as well as your own stuff, but why go as far as mentioning the kitchen sink?
  3. Coughing up a lung: I will never forget first hearing this idiom when I was unable to track down my friend at school and fearing she was in really bad shape. Would the phrase violent or harsh cough not be more appropriate and less alarming?
  4. Not being able to have your cake and eat it, too: Us Germans love to eat cake in the middle of the afternoon. We even have a name for it: it's called Kaffee und Kuchen. Cake is made for nothing else than eating, and doing so should never be considered greedy.
  5. Cool your heels: I am all about calming down before proceeding, but doesn't the heat escape through your head and not your feet?
  6. Break a leg: How can breaking a leg ever be connected with doing something amazing?
  7. Being hungry enough to eat a horse: In Germany we have big appetites, too. But when we are really famished, we say we are "hungry like a bear." Want to see who could win an eating contest between a horse and a bear?
  8. To kill two birds with one stone: Not only is this physically almost impossible, but why not give your full attention to each bird (or problem)? What is the rush?
  9. Passing the buck: Last time I checked, getting a buck for something was a good thing. I think my kids would agree, too.
  10. A shot in the arm: My kids would say it hurts, and I can't disagree more. How can this be understood to be an act of kindness?


Marco Lanza on July 27, 2012:

Hi Writer and Everyone,

I don't like to write but here I have no choice. -:)

I just love your article - two thumbs up!

My history is "kinda" similar of yours. I have lived about half of my life in Brazil and the other half in US. I have an accent and heard many times and specially over the phone that I have a nice accent but not sure which one; perhaps Brazilian accent is not that common such as Spanish, for instance.

I agree with you that idiomatic expressions is not that simple for non-natives. It took me some years to laugh and appreciate a standing-up comedian, for example. Before that, I would understand a comedian talking but then think 'what's so funny about it'...

Nowadays, I really like, appreciate, and understand many sitcoms and words such as "yeah right", "dream on", "oh, boy (my favorite)", and many more - I can feel it.

Once again, just love it...

Robin Edmondson from San Francisco on June 26, 2012:

The school where I use to teach had a lot of foreign students and it was fun teaching idioms to them so they could try them out on their parents.

I have heard that when you keep your accent it is a sign of higher self-esteem and intelligence. You must be brilliantly smart and confident. ;)

Cynthia from North Myrtle Beach, SC on June 26, 2012:

I guess the English speakers, us Americans anyway, tend to exaggerate a bit. I love this hub. Will follow so that I can reread it over and over 'until it runs out of my ears'!