The mark of a well-traveled person or a seasoned tour guide is her ability to understand idioms and colloquialisms in a foreign language. Some years ago, we vacationed in Mexico, and we hired a driver for a few days to show us the places of historical significance that we’d missed on earlier trips on our own. Wanting to impress us with his facility in both Spanish and English, the tour guide demonstrated it: He used an idiom or colloquialism every few minutes.
Clearly, his skill with languages is not the norm for most of us. In fact, my college friend Tim, who speaks seven languages and works at the UN, has always amazed me. Forget those people; they’re off the charts. The majority of first-language speakers have difficulty mastering their own language.
Americans refer to “springs” of water; Mexicans refer to the “eye” of the water (ojo de la agua). You’ll have great difficulty explaining these tidbits to those from other cultures: “Put the shoe on the other foot.” “He’s robbing Peter to pay Paul.” “It’s raining cats and dogs.” “Why don’t you put your own house in order?” “Don’t give me so much lip.” “You’d better make hay while the sun shines.”
Some people may not even realize that they’ve been insulted with these comments: “Well, everybody knows that!” “Even you should be able to run this machine.” “I’ll explain it again—for all the good it’ll do.” “Look who’s talking.”