Learning to speak all over again

eye on idioms

Everyone at my new church speaks English.

Many members, including young children, speak a bunch of languages other than English, but everyone speaks English – in most cases, they speak it very well. In fact, our website proudly states that we serve “the English-speaking community in Zurich and surrounding areas.” And we do.

So, even though we come from all over the world, we can understand each other. We can talk together about our faith and church life and families and the other things that are important to us, all because we have this common language, right?

Well, yes and no.

Turns out that a “common language” does not always mean that we understand each other.

I preached my fourth sermon yesterday at the International Protestant Church of Zurich, and on Saturday as I was putting the finishing touches on it – ordinarily one of the high points of the week for me – I suddenly began to perspire when I realized that my English, already corrupted by my American Midwestern accent, is heavily idiomatic and therefore, more than likely, hard for my new congregation to understand.

“No one,” I thought to myself, “is going to understand what in the world I’m talking about.”

For purposes of this blog, let’s say that an idiom is a phrase where the words together have a meaning that’s different from the dictionary definitions of the individual words.  The English language, as it turns out, is chock full of them. One website I found claims that English has nearly 4,000 relatively common idioms, and anyone who wants to master English should be familiar with all or most of them.

If I say, for example, that “on Saturday I was putting the finishing touches on my sermon,” I know perfectly well what that means. It means, of course, that I was tweaking it, polishing it to a high gloss.

But those words by their most common dictionary definitions may be confusing. Was I really using fine sand paper on it, in preparation for the primer coat? What exactly was I doing?

In a bit of a panic, I reviewed what I had and found that I had liberally sprinkled the sermon with nice, little idioms that I happen to like and that make my writing colorful and engaging (or so I’ve been told). I planned to say, for example, that “God is crazy about the world he has made.” (I even thought about saying “he’s crazy in love with the world,” but thought better of it.)

I know what that means, and I kind of like what it sounds like and suggests. But what does that phrase sound like to a person whose first language is not English, who would be coming to church for a few words of reassurance and hope?

I’ve had challenges in my preaching over the years, but this is a new one. I’m learning to speak all over again. I’m not ready to “sing the blues” or “put the brakes on.” I want to “swing into action.” I want to “take the bull by the horns” and “jump in feet first.” I’m not “seeking the limelight.” “That’s a given.”  But I’ve got to remember that “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” And then maybe I’ll “hit the jackpot.” Are you “on board” with that?

Don’t worry, I’ve got 4,000 more.

photo (8)

(Here’s some bonus material. That’s me buying a ticket at the train station in Meilen, the village where I live. It’s hard enough to do this in a language you understand. )

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

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6 Responses to Learning to speak all over again

  1. Lizzy February 17, 2014 at 12:23 pm #

    Nice coat!

    • Doug February 17, 2014 at 12:53 pm #

      I knew you’d notice “the Filson”!

  2. Scott Hoezee February 17, 2014 at 12:31 pm #

    I think I can draw a bead on what you’re saying here, Doug. And I’ll bet you dollars to donuts you’ll get this figured out in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. Really!

    • Doug February 17, 2014 at 12:53 pm #

      I figured I would start something like this, Scott. I just didn’t think it would happen so quickly. Thanks for the response (I think).

      • Scott Hoezee February 17, 2014 at 1:02 pm #

        On serious note (E-flat?), it’s a good piece and something we think about all the time when teaching in classrooms here at CTS with lots of Koreans and other international students in them and it’s something Witvliet and all of us at CICW ponder every year for Symposium, too. The thing is, once you switch on your internal “idiom monitor,” you may be surprised how often you end up stuttering and such as you try to avoid idioms and/or translate them on the fly (!) to something non-idiomatic.

        • Doug February 17, 2014 at 1:16 pm #

          It’s probably not a good idea to over-think a sermon, especially in the act of preaching it. On the other hand, I’m hoping that with a dash of mindfulness during preparation I can head off most of the confusing bits. To be honest about it, I’ve confused people over the years who spoke as much as idiomatic English as I do. So, I’m not going to be terribly surprised if I confuse someone who’s just arrived from Sri Lanka. That we can communicate at all is something of a miracle to me.

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