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Neither here nor there

Woes of an English as a second language learner and American Idioms

Neither here nor there

That was our weekly writing prompt for my writing group this week. I so wanted to write an inspirational and sophisticated piece, but when I hear this idiom, generally, all I think about is, if it is neither here nor there, where is it? This is how my non-native English-speaking mind works. Before I got the hang of American idioms, I was pretty challenged, trying to understand why one would “jump on the bandwagon” or “poop a party.” When I first heard someone say "riding shotgun," it stopped me in my tracks, leaving me looking like a deer in the headlights. Again, the first time someone told me to spill the beans, I looked around for the beans I was supposed to spill, wondering why on earth I should spill the beans. What really knocked my socks off was the "pardon my French." Why would I pardon your French when you are not speaking french? Oh… and why not "pardon my German?"

Believe me when I say the American idioms are the hardest to learn for foreign students of English. If one does not have the opportunity to spend time in America learning the idioms from the horse's mouth, one will be like a fish out of water when one hears someone talking about the economic bottleneck or the suspect at large.

I tend to take ESL liberties with the English language, hiding behind the "English is my second" language excuse. I will be sweetening the pie for you instead of the pot since there is no reason for the pot to be sweet. At least you can eat the pie! However, the well-meaning native speaker will jump in, unable to bear that some foreigner is wrecking their language, correcting me with a little slap on the wrist.

Eventually, I will figure out that the pot in the sweeten the pot does not refer to a cooking pot, but probably it is in reference to a poker pot. But the first time I heard it, it was all Greek to me.

The elephant in the room is that when a non-English speaking person tries to translate these idioms word by word into their own language, they will come up empty-handed and nowhere closer to the real meaning of the idiom. I mean, seriously, how do you make heads or tails of "bought the farm"? After all, when translated into any language, it will mean buying the farm, leaving the non-native English speaker wondering why you would say "bought the farm" if you are not buying a farm. By the time you explain what it really means and the person understands the meaning behind the phrase, the joke is lost anyway.

I know… I know… those of us who are not born into the English language should give the American idioms a fair shake, but sometimes shooting the breeze with someone when their conversation style is nothing but blurting out idioms every other sentence, we feel like we are so behind the eight ball and so out of our league that at some point it is neither here nor there that we keep up with the conversation. We will do what the native English speakers do when they pretend to understand us - we'll smile and nod.


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