A cheeky monkey - a staple of humour!

Humour and language learning: fuel your vocab with idioms!

Humour can be a great aide memoire when learning foreign languages. For one thing, humour increases the salience – or importance – our brains attach to learning material. We’ve all experienced how it’s easier to learn something that isn’t boring!

What’s more, many research studies have repeatedly demonstrated how humorous material can enhance learning. It can boost recall – it’s one of the reasons the keyword system of vocabulary learning can be so effective. It can reduce anxiety in an education setting. And some, like this one, even suggest that the dodgier, morerisqué the content, the better the effect!

So, where to look for humour in your target language? Perhaps the best place to start is the quirky turns of phrase, aphorisms and idioms, that are very particular to a given tongue. Just take English, for example: it’s not hard to smirk at such gems as . One reason language is so full of them is that our brains latch onto the entertaining imagery in them, operating along these lines of salience and ensuring that they’re easy to recall later on. It’s the same reason that the wild, fantastical stories of oral literary traditions were passed down the generations by memory for centuries before being written down.

Hunting for humour

The easiest way to source these is to simply Google for “funny idioms in French / German / Spanish / your language”. Humour is popular, and there’s therefore no shortage of collections of funny sayings for language learners!

Once found, the best way to integrate them into your learning is to pick out a few of your favourites, and add them to your own personal word lists. These could be offline, in a notebook, or in your favourite vocab / drill program like Anki Flashcards.

However, since idioms lend themselves to some hilarious, imaginative visuals, it’s a good idea to harness that in your learning, too. As a starting point, there’s a superb book of Castilian sayings for learners, which illustrates each saying with a simple but funny cartoon: 101 Spanish Idioms. Although the hard work is done for you here, it’s even more fun and satisfying to create your own illustrations, especially if you like to doodle. For simple scribbles, for example, I like to use to use Notability or Procreate for iOS. Find a saying, create a sketch, then export it to use in flashcards, or add to a drilling program like Anki.

More vocab for your buck

But don’t just learn the phrase – break it down, and mine it for vocab. Take the Spanish phrase tomar el pelo (to pull someone’s leg). It literally means ‘to take the hair’ (weird, right?). But from that phrase, you get two extra words for your vocab list, ‘to take’ and ‘hair’, both of which are pretty useful. So add them as separate items to your word bank, and you get multiple hits for the price of one.

Humour in idioms: some favourites

Without further ado, here are a few of my own favourite humorous idioms in a range of languages. As you’ll see, many of them are based on animals or food – strangely recurrent themes when researching the world of weird idioms!

English 🇬🇧

mad as a box of frogs 🐸🐸🐸
completely crazy, eccentric

French 🇫🇷

avoir le cafard
to have the cockroach 🐞 (I know that’s a ladybird – there’s no cockroach emoticon yet!)
to be depressed

Dutch 🇳🇱

een appeltje met iemand te schillen hebben
To have a little apple to peel with someone 🍏
To have a bone to pick with someone

The English translation is just as odd and quirky as the Dutch!

Finnish 🇫🇮

juosta pää kolmantena jalkana
to run with the head as a third leg 🏃🏽
to be in a mad rush

Just an aside: it was tricky to find Finnish idioms that didn’t contain some very dodgy language – this was by far the cleanest in my little ‘net search!

German 🇩🇪

Schwein haben
to have pig 🐷
to have good luck

Icelandic 🇮🇸

ekki upp í nös á ketti
not enough to fill a cat’s nose 🐱
very little

Italian 🇮🇹

trattare a pesci in faccia
To treat with fish in the face 🐟
To disrespect

Norwegian 🇳🇴

født bak en brunost
born behind a brown cheese
a bit dim

Some useful general vocab here, plus a lovely nugget of Norwegian culinary culture!

Polish 🇲🇨

myśleć o niebieskich migdałach
to think of blue almonds
to daydream

dzielić skórę na niedźwiedziu
to divide the skin while it’s still on the bear 🐻
to count your chickens before they’ve hatched

Another one where the English translation is just as animalistic and odd!

Russian 🇷🇺

делать из мухи слона (dyelat’ iz mukhi slona)
to make an elephant from a fly 🐘
to make mountains out of molehills

…another pair of translations which are as colourful and zoological as each other!

Spanish 🇪🇸

arrimar el ascua a su sardina 🔥 🐟
to bring the coals closer to one’s sardine
to look out for number one, be selfish

Swedish 🇸🇪

nära skjuter ingen hare
near shot, no rabbit 🐰
close but no cigar

Do you have more personal favourites from your own language explorations? Please share – more laughs are always a welcome thing!

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