Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

From Hats to Boots - 25 Fun Idioms in English

The emperor's new clothesRecently I again came across Hans Christian Andersen's tale “The Emperor's New Clothes”. (image from Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales Stained Glass Coloring Book, Image courtesy of Dover Publications)

Those of you who grew up with fairy tales will know the story: Two scoundrels claim to fit the emperor with imaginary new clothes. They say that the clothes would be invisible to all who are stupid and incompetent.

His subjects of course pretend not to see that the emperor is indeed naked as he proudly walks through the city. It takes a child to say what everybody can see but is afraid to acknowledge:

“But he hasn't got any clothes on!”

The proverb "clothes make the man" is well known, and the English language is full of idioms that involve different items of clothing. Because idioms in a language don't mean what the individual words say, they can be confusing and challenging to non-native speakers.

Here are 25 idioms in English that all involve clothing items.

1. Idiom: Talking through your hat

Two hats

Meaning: Saying things that are absurd or not supported in any way. Talking about something without understanding what you're talking about.
Sentence: My brother tried to explain how a computer works. But if you ask me, he was talking through his hat. None of what he said made any sense.
(Photo by Max Anderson on Unsplash)

2. Idiom: Eating one's hat

Meaning: Expressing disbelief that something is true or will actually happen.
Sentence: If you really finish your homework today, I'll eat my hat.

3. Idiom: Something is old hat

Meaning: This means that an object, a film, a story, a phrase, etc., is outdated, old-fashioned, too familiar because it's been used frequently.
Sentence: That kind of story is old hat. I've heard it lots of times before.

4. Idiom: A feather in one's cap

Meaning: An achievement one can be proud of.
Explanation: The idiom may go back to the custom of a hunter putting the feather of a successfully slain a bird in his hat.
Sentence: Her promotion to manager is definitely a feather in her cap.

Glass in front of fireplace5. Idiom: Having a nightcap

Meaning: Having a drink at the end of the day or the end of a party.
Explanation: In earlier times, a "night cap" was actually a cap you put on before going to bed.
Sentence: This was a perfect day. Let's have a nightcap to round it off. (Photo by Thomas Park on Unsplash)

6. Idiom: Ride on somebody's coattails

Meaning: Doing something by being associated with someone else.
Explanation: "Coattails" are the flaps at the lower part of a formal tailcoat which is long in the back and shorter in the front. Riding on someone's coattails evokes the image of a person standing on those long back flaps.
Sentence: He got that important post by riding on the senator's coattails.

7. Idiom: Handle someone with kid gloves

Meaning: To be very careful and tactful when dealing with someone.
Explanation: A "kid" here is a young goat, so kid gloves are made of very soft leather.
Sentence: I have to be careful to handle my friend Alison with kid gloves. She gets offended easily.

8. Idiom: The gloves are offboxing gloves

Meaning: People are ready to fight or argue more aggressively.
Explanation: This expression probably comes from boxing, where gloves are supposed to cut down on the damage fighters do to each other. It also suggests the idea that a man would take his gloves off to get ready for a violent confrontation.
Sentence: What you said was really hurtful. As far as I'm concerned, the gloves are now off. (Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash)

9. Idiom: Keep your shirt on

Meaning: Stay calm, don't become impatient or angry.
Sentence: Please keep your shirt on, I'm sure we'll get there in time. I can't drive any faster.

10. Idiom: Lose one's shirt

Meaning: To lose a large amount of money or one's possessions.
Sentence: I put all my money into that investment, but unfortunately I lost my shirt.

11. Idiom: Have something up one's sleeve

Meaning: To have a secret scheme or plan of action. To have something in reserve that you can use if you need it.
Explanation: The idiom evokes a magician who can pull things out of a hat or coat to surprise his audience. It may also refer to a card player who has hidden a favorable card up his sleeve.
Sentence: Even if this plan doesn't work out for her, I'm sure she has a few other ideas up her sleeve.

12. Idiom: Wear your heart on your sleeve

Meaning: To allow your feelings to show.
Explanation: The expression dates back to jousting during the Middle Ages, where a knight wore the colors of his lady on his sleeve.
Sentence: Ralph wears his heart on his sleeve. It's easy to see when he's upset.

Cuff links on white shirt13. Idiom: Do something off the cuff

Meaning: Doing something spontaneously, without preparation.
Explanation: The cuff on a shirt is the band at the end of a sleeve. "Off the cuff" suggests reading a few words that were quickly put there as a reminder.
Sentence: I didn't have time to prepare a speech, so I said a few words off the cuff.

14. Idiom: Fly by the seat of your pants

Meaning: Do something using just guesswork or experience. Decide on the course of action as you go along.
Explanation: The idiom goes back to the early days of aviation, when planes did not have instruments to aid in navigation and communication.
Sentence: My boss put me on a project that I knew little about. For the first couple of weeks I was flying by the seat of my pants.

15. Idiom: Beat the pants off someone

Meaning: To show yourself to be much better than someone else. Decisively defeat someone in a competition.
Sentence: Our team beat the pants off our old rivals in yesterday's soccer game.

16. Idiom: Get something under your beltLeather Belt

Meaning: Getting experience that is important and useful.
Sentence: Once you get a few weeks of teaching under your belt, you'll feel more comfortable standing in front of the classroom. (Photo by Asiya Kiev on Unsplash)

17. Idiom: Hit someone below the belt

Meaning: Do something unfair to someone.
Explanation: This term comes from boxing, where it's against the rules to target someone below the waist.
Sentence: What you said was unfair and insulting. It really hit below the belt.

18. Idiom: Be in someone's pocket

Meaning: To be willing to do whatever a person says, especially out of weakness, for money, for personal gain, etc.
Sentence: The judge in the case was in the president's pocket.

19. Idiom: Line one's pockets

Meaning: To make a large amount of money, especially is dishonest ways.
Explanation: Lining something, means to cover it. So this idiom could well refer to putting money in your pockets. A similar expression would be "to feather one's nest".
Sentence: We were shocked to hear that our mayor was arrested for lining his pockets.

20. Idiom: Pull one's socks up

Meaning: To make a determined effort to achieve a target, to improve one's work, etc.
Sentence: This phrase originated in competitive running. At the start of a race, the runners would pull up their socks to get ready for the effort ahead.

Knock your socks off logo and product21. Idiom: Knock someone's socks off

Meaning: To have a strong positive effect on someone, by impressing or surprising them.
Sentence: Her speech knocked my socks off. It was inspiring and right on. (Picture courtesy of Knock Your Socks Off)

22. Idiom: Wait for the other shoe to drop

Meaning: To wait for an expected (negative) event or consequence.
Sentence: I lost my job and now I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop. I may have to move out of my apartment too.

23. Idiom: Do something on a shoestring

Meaning: To do something using a very small amount of money.
Explanation: A shoestring is a shoelace, i.e. something that costs very little money. So, the expression means doing something or getting by with very little money.
Sentence: That's a really good film. But did you know that it was made on a shoestring?

24. Idiom: Get the boot

Meaning: To be fired from a job.
Explanation: Getting the boot literally means getting kicked out of a place.
Sentence: When the boss found out that my colleague was feathering her nest, she got the boot.

25. Idiom: Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps

Meaning: To achieve success through one's own efforts.
Explanation: A "bootstrap" is a "loop sewn on top or each side of a boot to make it easier to pull the boot on". According to the site Useless Etymology: The phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” originated shortly before the turn of the 20th century. It’s attributed to a late-1800s physics schoolbook that contained the example question “Why can not a man lift himself by pulling up on his bootstraps?” First it was meant to be sarcastic, later it started to imply that it's something one should be able to do.
Sentence: As nobody was around to help him, he had to pull himself himself up by his own bootstraps.

English is the fifth language that you can play to learn on this site, but primarily as "English for Spanish Speakers" and with a few games for "English ESL".

To look for more idioms in English, or get more explanations and examples of the ones above, you can start with these sites: The Idioms, Writing Explained, The Grammarist.  But there are many more other sites, just search for "idioms".

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Cats, Windmills, Marionettes and More in Dutch Idioms

Scared cat in a treeDutch is spoken by 23 million people as a mother tongue. It's the only official language in the Netherlands, and one of three official languages in the neighboring province of Flanders, Belgium. 

It also holds official status in Suriname (South America) and in the Caribbean countries of Aruba, Curaçao and Sint Maarten.

Dutch is closely related to both English and German, and it's often said that in respect to grammar and vocabulary, Dutch comes between the two. (You'll find examples from the idioms below at the end of the post)

And even if you don't speak Dutch, you're sure to be amused by these 10 typical expressions.

What got me going on this blog post was the idiom "de kat uit de boom kijken". My Dutch mom loved to use it and I, of course, knew what it meant. But I never really understood the literal meaning. In English, the literal translation is "to look the cat out of the tree". Huh?

So when my husband - who is learning Dutch - asked me to explain what that means, I couldn't. But his question did get me to find out what's behind the saying. Here it is. And I've added a few other fun idioms that I grew up with.

1. De kat uit de boom kijken.

Idiom: To see which way the wind blows
Literally: Watching the cat [until it comes] out of the tree  (Photo by Lalita Tretiakova on Unsplash)
Explanation: To wait, not react immediately, but to first look carefully to see what's happening.
Origin: Onzetaal (see link at the bottom) suggests that the saying may go back to the way a dog will chase a cat up a tree, but then wait until the cat comes down again because dogs don't climb on trees. Apparently, the expression appeared already in the 18th century in a collection of proverbs.
Dutch Explanation: Afwachten, niet meteen reageren, maar eerst goed kijken wat er er aan de hand is.
German Idiom: Erst einmal sehen, wie der Hase läuft. (First of all see how the rabbit runs.)

2. Maak dat de kat wijs.

Idiom: Tell me another.
Literally: Make the cat believe that.
Explanation: Essentially, this idiom means: I don't believe you. Tell this nonsense to someone else.
The Dutch phrase "iemand iets wijsmaken" means "to make someone believe something (that may not be true)".
Dutch Explanation: Ik geloof je niet. Vertel die onzin maar ergens anders.

3. Een kat in de zak kopen.

Idiom: To buy a pig in a poke
Literally: Buying a cat in the bag
Explanation: Buying something without having looked at it before.
Origin: In earlier times, merchants at a market would often put a worthless cat into the bag instead of the pig or hare a person paid for. This worked especially well with inattentive customers.
Dutch Explanation: Iets kopen zonder het gezien te hebben.
German Idiom: Die Katze im Sack kaufen. (To buy the cat in a the sack.)

4. De molen is door de vang. Dutch windmill at rest

Idiom: It all went south.
Literally: The (wind) mill has [broken through] the catch. (This picture of a Dutch windmill was taken during our 2016 Canal boating trip in the Netherlands.)
Explanation: Everything is going wrong. The matter is lost.
Origin: The Dutch term "de vang" on a windmill is "the catch" or "the drum brake", which prevents the wheel from moving on its own, even in a storm. When the brake no longer holds, you lose control over the turning of the mill and that can cause problems or even accidents.
Dutch Explanation: Alles gaat helemaal mis, alles loopt fout. De zaak is verloren.

5. Dat is koren op zijn molen.

Idiom: That plays directly into his hands.
Literally: That is grain on his mill.
Explanation: That's useful to him. He'll use that as an argument for what he wants anyway.
Origin: Although windmills in the Netherlands were mostly used to pump water from lower lying areas, they were also used to crush grain.
Dutch Explanation: Dat komt hem goed van pas. Hij zal dat meteen gebruiken als argument voor wat hij toch al wilde
German: Das is Wasser auf seine Mühle. (In Germany there were many more watermills than windmills!)

Cattle eating grass on Dutch pasture near canal6. Over koetjes en kalfjes praten.

Idiom: To make small talk
Literally: Talking about little cows and little calves (Photo by Alwin Kroon on Unsplash)
Explanation: To talk about unimportant things.
Origin: This expression very likely originated in the Dutch countryside where farmers talk about their cattle with each other. But the idiom turns the meaning around: what may be important for farmers, turns out to be unimportant to everyone else.
Dutch Explanation: Over onbeduidende zaken spreken.

7. Een wit voetje willen halen.

Idiom: To curry favor
Literally: Wanting to get a little white foot.
Explanation: Seeking to advance oneself, often through flattery or fawning.
Origin: This curious expression goes back to an earlier time, when you had to pay toll while passing from one region to another. Apparently, if you had a horse with four white feet, you lucked out and did not have to pay. Later, when it became a more general idiom, one little white foot was enough.
Dutch Explanation: Bij iemand in de gunst willen komen, vaak door slijmen.

8. Van de prins geen kwaad weten.

Idiom: Butter wouldn't melt in his mouth.
Literally: To know no evil of the prince.
Explanation: a) To be totally innocent. b) To pretend you don't know anything about what's going on.
Origin: This is an old expression, dating back to the 17th century. Very likely, it refers to a prince from the House of Orange. You were either totally innocent and knew nothing. Or, you were aware that it was dangerous to speak badly about a powerful person, so it was better to keep such thoughts to yourself.
Dutch: a) Totaal onschuldig zijn. b) Doen als of je niets weet.

9. Nu komt de aap uit de mouw.

Idiom: The cat is out of the bag.
Literally: Now the monkey comes out of the sleeve.
Explanation: When it's suddenly clear what's going on.
Origin: This goes back to the magician's art of suddenly popping a monkey out of his sleeve. It suggests that something that was kept hidden suddenly comes out, for example someone's true intentions or character.
Dutch: Als ineens duidelijk wordt hoe iets zit.

10. Nu heb je de poppen aan het dansen.Dancing Marionettes

Idiom: Now the fat is in the fire.
Literally: Now you have the dolls dancing. (Photo by Sagar Dani on Unsplash)
Explanation: The quarrel or fight is starting. There's trouble ahead.
Origin: Puppet shows have been a popular form of entertainment since the Middle Ages. When the dolls start dancing - i.e. the puppet show starts - it's the beginning of conflict, quarrels, etc. Nowadays, the expression used for the moment when problems arise, when something starts going wrong.
Dutch Explanation: De ruzie of twist is begonnen. Problemen zijn onvermeidbaar.

In these our restless times, the last expression seems to come up a lot. I've heard it several times when listening to the daily Dutch Podcast on NCR Vandaag, and most recently in the one talking about the German Wirecard scandal.

It's almost impossible to find the absolute equivalent of an idiom in another language, because expressions are often shaped by a people's culture. For example, the Dutch idiom "nu heb je de poppen aan het dansen" contains an "entertainment" factor (it's a "show"!), which "fat is in the fire" doesn't have.

To find out more about the above idioms or to look for others, go on these sites 33 Dutch Idioms, Onzetaal, A Taste of Dutch.

You may not speak Dutch, but if you speak English or German you'll find that these three Germanic languages share many cognates. In some of these, the meaning changes somewhat. Here are a few  examples from the idioms above:




the cat

de kat

die Katze




the sack

de zak

der Sack

the mill

de molen

die Mühle




the cow

de koe

die Kuh

the foot

de voet

der Fuß




the puppet

de pop

die Puppe




Our recent posts looked at German, French, Italian and Spanish idioms

Dutch isn't one of our four languages that you can practice on GamesforLanguage.

However, if you want to learn some basics in Dutch: greetings, polite phrases or travel terms, go to our - also completely free - sister site Lingo-Late, where we have 30+ or so Dutch phrases. You can Listen, Record Yourself, and Playback Your Voice, as many times as you want to learn and practice.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Bread, Flour, Cats and More in Spanish Idioms

Carrying 3 loafs of breadHere are 12 common Spanish expressions you may come across.

In earlier posts we explored some of the lesser known German, French and Italian Idioms.

Spanish is spoken as an official language in 20 countries, and is rich in idioms and expressions. These are fixed phrases that have a figurative rather than a literal meaning.

1. Nacer con un pan bajo el brazo

Idiom: to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth
Literally: to be born with a bread under your arm. (Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash.)
Explanation: This is said of a person who is very lucky or very privileged.
The expression may also go back to the idea that a new child born to a poor family will mean another pair of hands for bringing in the money.
Spanish: Se dice de una persona que es muy afortunada o muy privilegiada.

2. Ser pan comido

Idiom: to be a piece of cake
Literally: to be bread (to be) eaten
Explanation: You use it for something that's very easy to do.
Bread is a good image for something that is easy to get and doesn't need any elaborate preparation.
Spanish: Se usa para decir que algo es muy fácil de hacer.

3. Ser harina de otro costal Hands with flour

Idiom: to be a different kettle of fish
Literally: to be flour from a different sack (Photo by Jordane Mathieu on Unsplash)
Explanation: To be a separate matter, an entirely different thing.
This expression probably goes back to a time when people brought their own batches of various types of grain to collective mills. These batches were kept in separate sacks to keep them apart.
Spanish: Ser tema aparte.

4. Meterse en harina

Idiom: to get down to it
Literally: to get into the flour
Explanation: To buckle down eagerly to a job or task.
When a baker prepares bread, he is wont to put his hands right into the flour to knead the dough
Spanish: Empeñarse con mucho ahínco en una obra o empresa.

5. Estar en su salsa

Idiom: to be in one's element
Literally: to be in one's sauce
Explanation: To be in a familiar environment and to feel at home, comfortable.
Spanish: Estar en un entorno conocido y sentirse como en casa, comodo.

a cute cat6. Buscarle tres pies al gato.

Idiom: to make a mountain out of a molehill
Literal: to look for three legs on the cat (Photo by Ramiz Dedakovi? on Unsplash)
Explanation: You don't need to complicate things that are simple.
The expression doesn't make a lot of sense like this. It actually used to be: "buscarle cinco pies al gato, y no tiene más que cuatro" (to look for five legs on the cat, when it only has four) and over time it changed to this.
Spanish: No hace falta complicar algo que es sencillo.

7. Dar a algun gato por liebre

Idiom: to take someone for a ride
Literally: give someone a cat for a hare
Explanation: To deceive someone, con fool, trick.
In earlier centuries people were not always sure what meat they were eating. If they ordered rabbit stew, is that really what they got?
Spanish: Engañar a alguno, embaucar.

8. Empezar la casa por el tejado

Idiom: to put the cart before the horse
Literally: to start the house by the roof
Explanation: This expression is used when someone doesn't do something in the right order.
How can you build a house by starting with the roof? It can't be done, and when you try you're sure to run into problems.
Se utiliza cuando alguien no sigue el orden correcto para hacer algo.

9. En un abrir y cerrar de ojosa woman's beautiful eye

Idiom: in the twinkling of an eye
Literally: in an opening and closing of eyes (Photo by Amanda Dalbjörn on Unsplash)
Explanation: Something that happens quickly, in an instant.
The expression is said to go back to a passage in the New Testament, referring to the moment of resurrection that would happen in a flash.
Spanish: Algo que pasa rapidamente, en un instante.

10. Estar hecho como un flan

Idiom: to shake like a leaf
Literally: to be made like creme caramel
Explanation: To be very nervous or shaky.
This refers to people who are anxious, fearful, or unsteady for whatever reason. A flan is a custard-like dessert that has a light texture and trembles when touched.
Spanish: Estar muy nervioso o tembloroso.

11. Pedir peras al olmo

Idiom: to get blood from a stone
Literally: to ask the elm tree for pears
Explanation: Asking for the impossible.
Looking for pears on an elm tree is a pretty futile exercise. A pear is a sweet and delicious fruit. On the other hand, the small hairy fruit of an elm tree is not edible for humans.
Spanish: Pedir algo imposible.

12. Camina comenzado, medio andado.

Idiom: A good beginning is half the battle.
Literally: Road started, half walked.
Explanation: The first step is the most important one.
Once you take the first step, you're on your way. If you don't even take a first step, you won't make any progress.
Spanish: El primer paso es el más importante.

These expressions can be a fun topic of conversation no matter which Spanish-speaking country you're in. If your conversation partner appears puzzled by a "modismo" you're using, you may want to ask: ¿No se dice aquí? (Is it not said here?) 

During our one-month stay in Barcelona a few years ago, we had regular language-exchange meetings with a local student. He spoke Spanish, we spoke German, and we met in a neighborhood bar. Talking about equivalent idioms in our respective languages was a natural part of each session.

For the Spanish idioms that I've listed here, I looked at a number of different sites. You can find more about those expressions or look up new ones by clicking on the links of the sites: Significado y Origen de Expresiones Famosas   Diccionario de la lengua española   Happy Hour Spanish 

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Le Mani in Pasta and More in Italian Idioms

Making PastaFollowing our recent posts about German and French idioms, we are now looking at 12 Italian idioms.

A few years ago, we lived for several months in Rome, on Via di Genovesi in the Trastevere neighborhood. Our apartment was located directly across from a small restaurant, Le Mani in Pasta (Photo by Jorge Zapata on Unsplash)

It was then a restaurant for locals and none of the waiters spoke English. We loved going there. Our Italian at the time was still quite rudimentary and it was a fun challenge to order from the Italian-only menu. (The restaurant has since expanded and continues to be popular. A nephew who had dinner there with his family early this year liked it very much!)

As new Italian learners, we were puzzled by the form “le mani”, but our tutor explained that “the hand” in Italian is feminine: it's "la mano, le mani". What had obviously thrown us off was that most Italian nouns ending with “o” are masculine.

(Sometimes a look at related languages helps. It's “la main” in French, and - no surprise - “la mano” in Spanish. And even in German, the word hand happens to be feminine: “die Hand”.)

1. Avere le mani in pasta

Idiom: to have a finger in the pie
Literally: to have the hands in dough
Explanation: To be involved, especially in a business matter, or situation of power.
Italian: Essere addentro a qualcosa, in particolare a una questione d'affari, o a una situazione di potere.

2. Avere le mani di pasta frolla

Idiom: to be a butterfingers
Literally: to have pastry-dough hands; "pasta frolla" = shortcut pastry
Explanation: To be someone who drops things they are carrying or trying to catch, to be clumsy, awkward, not careful, not know how to do something or do it badly.
Italian: Essere goffi, impacciati, non accurati, non saper fare nulla o farlo male.

3. Calcare la mano

Idiom: to lay it on with a trowel
Literally: to tread or press down on the hand
Explanation: To exaggerate, especially regarding a punishment or accusation.
Italian: Esagerare in rigore e severità, soprattutto se riferito a una punizione, un'accusa.

4. Non perdere la mano

Idiom: to keep your hand in
Literally: to not lose the hand
Explanation: To not get out of the habit of doing something.
Italian: Non perdere l'abitudine di fare qualcosa.

5. Essere in gambaWomen soccer training

Idiom: to be on the ball (Photo by Jeffrey F Lin on Unsplash)
Literally: to be on your feet
Explanation: To be in good health. Also more broadly speaking, to be smart, skillful, expert, efficient.
The first meaning alludes to the fact that a sick person is generally in bed and does not use their legs.
Italian: In buona salute. In senso lato anche intelligente, abile, esperto, efficiente.
Nel significato primo, allude al fatto che una persona malata sta generalmente a letto e quindi non usa le gambe.

6. Fare il passo piu lungo della gamba

Idiom: to bite off more than you can chew
Literally: to take a step longer than the leg
Explanation: To risk going beyond one's own possibilities.
Italian: Arrischiarsi oltre le proprie possibilità.

7. Prendere qualcuno in giro

Idiom: to pull someone's leg, take somebody for a ride
Literally: to take someone for a stroll
Explanation: To make fun of a person, mock, taunt or fool someone.
Italian: Farsi beffe di una persona, burlarla, canzonarla.

8. Tenere un piede in due scarpe

Idiom: to keep a foot in both camps
Literally: to have a foot in two shoes
Explanation: Staying involved in two situations (groups of people, opinions etc), while trying to profit from both of them.
Italian: Barcamenarsi tra due situazioni cercando di trarre profitto da entrambe.

9. Si è dato la zappa sui piedi

Idiom: to shoot yourself in the foot
Literally: He has given himself a hoe on the feet
Explanation: To hurt oneself, to come to harm oneself, particularly in a fit of anger.
It's used especially when someone hurts themselves while thinking they is harming someone else.
Italian: Farsi del male, procurarsi un danno, detto in particolare di chi agisce avventatamente o spinto dall'ira.
Usato soprattutto a proposito di finisce per nuocere a se stesso pensando di danneggiare qualcun altro.

Serving an omelet10. Ormai la frittata è fatta

Idiom: You can't unscramble eggs.
Literally: At this point the omelet has been made. (Photo by Cooker King on Unsplash)
Explanation: An exclamation that expresses resignation about a mess that was made.
Italian: Esclamazione, esprime rassegnazione per un guaio ormai avvenuto.

11. Rivoltare la frittata

Idiom: to turn the tables on somebody
Literally: to flip over the omelet
Explanation: To turn around a discussion, to change a situation to your advantage.
Italian: Rigirare un discorso, capovolgere una situazione a proprio vantaggio.

12. Avere grilli per la testa

Idiom: to have a head full of nonsense
Literally: to have crickets in the head
Explanation: To have strange, bizarre or overly ambitious ideas.
Italian: Avere idee stravaganti, bizzarre o troppo pretenziosi.

Since our stay in Trastevere, Rome, we've continued to have fun learning Italian in various ways and with various programs. Building our own GamesforLanguage site - together with native-language writers and speakers - has been a direct way to keep our hands in the language dough.

And, especially now that travel has become more complicated, our site and our blog has allowed us to connect with an ever growing online language community.
For more Italian Idioms check also The Intrepid Guide or Dizionario modi di dire

Posted on by Peter Editor

Apples, Butter, Rain and More in French Idioms

 Three ApplesBelow are 12 French idioms that you might not have heard yet.

In our last post, Sausages, Fruits, Ships, and more in German Idioms, we listed a number of typical German expressions. In fact, what prompted us to write it, was overhearing a German woman "translate" a German idiom into French by giving a literal equivalent.

In their literal translation, many French idioms are also confusing to a German or English speaker. (Whenever available, I added a French synonym from Le Petit Robert, a popular French language dictionary.)

1. Haut comme trois pommes

Idiom: knee-high to a grasshopper
Literally: as high as three apples (Photo by Elena Koycheva on Unsplash)
Explanation: Refers to someone who is not very tall, or just very young.
Origin: Even if you put three apples on top of each other, what you have is still not very high.

2. Tomber dans les pommes

Idiom: to pass out
Literally: to fall into the apples
Explanation: to faint, lose consciousness [Petit Robert: s'évanouir]
Origin: This expression first appeared in 1889 and may go back to the writer George Sand, who used "être dans les pommes cuites", a play on "être cuit" (to be cooked, exhausted).

3. Mettre du beurre dans les épinardsSpinach in pan

Idiom: to put butter on your bread
Literally: to put butter on the spinach (Photo by Kim Daniels on Unsplash)
Explanation: It means to earn a bit extra, to top up your income, or to improve a situation that is troublesome. [Petit Robert: améliorer sa situation]
Origin: This expression goes back to a time when butter symbolized wealth, while spinach was a common vegetable. Putting butter on your spinach makes it taste better, richer.

4. Vouloir le beurre et l'argent du beurre

Idiom: to have your cake and eat it too
Literally: to want the butter and the money for the butter too
Explanation: You can't have it both ways, you can't have it all.
Origin: This expression appeared at the end of the 19th century and is a piece of good old fashioned common sense (bon sens paysan). Once you sell the butter, you have the money, but no longer the butter. Or, in other words, to get something you want you may have to give up something else.

Rainbow at Arcachon, France5. Parler de la pluie et du beau temps

Idiom: to make small talk
Literally: to talk about rain and nice weather
Explanation: It means talking about trivial things, exchanging chit-chat. [Petit Robert: dire des banalités]
Origin: The weather is an innocuous subject to talk about, so it's a safe topic among strangers or a way to talk around topics you want to avoid.

6. Faire la pluie et le beau temps

Idiom: to call the shots
Literally: to make rain and good weather
Explanation: It means to be in charge, to control the situation or determine what action should be taken [Petit Robert: être très influent]
Origin: The idiom is said to go back to mythical times when the gods had power over the world. They could change the weather, create storms, hurl lightning, etc.

7. Ce n’est pas la mer à boire.Looking at the ocean

Idiom: It's not that big a deal.
Literally: It's not the sea to drink.
Explanation: This is a metaphor for something that's impossible or very difficult to do. It's also used in its opposite meaning: C'est la mer à boire - it's very difficult. [Petit Robert: C'est, ce n'est pas difficile.]
Origin: The expression dates back to a 17th century fable by Jean de la Fontaine.

8. Chercher midi à quatorze heures

Idiom: to make a mountain out of a molehill
Literally: to look for noon at 2 pm
Explanation: To complicate things unnecessarily, to see difficulties where there aren't any. [Petit Robert: Chercher des difficultés où il n'y en a pas, compliquer les choses.]
Origin: This expression is said to date back to the 17th century as "chercher midi à onze heures" (to look for noon at 11o'clock), to look for something where's it's not.

Rolled in the flour9. Se faire rouler dans la farine

Idiom: to be taken for a ride
Literally: to get rolled in the flour (Photo by Kari Shea on Unsplash)
Explanation: to be fooled, taken in, be cheated  [Petit Robert: tromper]
Origin: Flour-based makeup was often used in the theater and allowed actors to change how they looked and thus fool the audience.

10. Il ne faut pas mélanger les torchons et les serviettes.

Idiom: Don't mix apples and oranges.
Literally: One mustn't mix up dishtowels and napkins.
Explanation: Don't mix totally different things, don't combine things that are completely different. [Petit Robert: Il faut séparer, traiter différemment selon leur condition sociale, les choses selon leur valeur.]
Origin: This expression is based on the idea that you must not mix social levels - dishtowels were for servants and the poor, while napkins were for the bourgeoisie and aristocracy.

11. Ce n'est pas la mort du petit cheval.Small horse in grass

Idiom: It's not the end of the world.
Literally: It's not the death of the little horse. (Photo by Soledad Lorieto on Unsplash)
Explanation: It's not the worst thing that could happen. It's not as bad as it seems, even though it's a disappointment.
Origin: According to an article in Le Figaro by Claude Duneton, the expression "la mort du petit cheval" was probably coined in the 1930s and referred to losing one's bet on a horse that didn't win the race.

The expression was picked up by d'Hervé Bazin in the title of his 1950 novel: "La mort du petit cheval." In it, the protagonist makes a shocking discovery about his mother but decides that it's not the end of the world.

12. Avaler des couleuvres

Idiom: to swallow a lie
Literally: to swallow grass snakes
Explanation: to be taken in, to believe anything, to take insults without protest  [Petit Robert: subir des affronts sans protester, croire n'importe quoi]
Origin: This expression came up already in the 17th century and suggests swallowing something slithery, tortuous. The image evokes unscrupulous people who in the olden days added a few grass snakes to a plate of eels without telling their guests or customers.

Learning a few idioms in your second language is not only fun, but it may very well break the conversational ice next time you try out your French, on zoom or in real life.

For the French idioms that are listed here, I looked at a few different sites. You can find out more about these expressions, or search for new ones on the following sites (not linked here): www.expression-franç
I consulted Le Petit Robert, a single-volume French dictionary, for synonyms in French and added them to the explanations.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Sausages, Fruits, Ships and More in German Idioms

Sausages on GrillIdioms - in any language - can lead to hilarious laughter or confused looks, when they are translated literally into another language.

I was reminded of that last year in French-speaking Switzerland when a German with obviously limited French skills, express his frustration to his partner like this: “C'est me absolument saucisse!” (Lit. That's absolutely sausage to me.)

From his partner's confused look, followed by a loud chuckle, I concluded that she also understood the German meaning.

The German idiom “Das ist mir völlig Wurst” means “Das ist mir völlig egal” and translates as “I couldn't care less.” (Photo by Khamkhor on Unsplash)

Not surprisingly – Germans are fond of good sausages – and there are several other German, sausage-related idioms. While some idioms can be understood with a little imagination, others are impossible to guess.

And as no. 12 below shows, the meaning of some idioms can change over time. Here are 12 German idioms that you may not be familiar with.

1. Spiel nicht die beleidigte Leberwurst!

Idiom: Don't get bent out of shape, don't be a sorehead!
Literally: Don't play the offended liverwurst!
Explanation: Someone goes off in a huff and sulks because his feelings were hurt.
German: Jemand zieht sich zurück und schmollt, weil er glaubt, dass man ihn gekränkt hat.
Origin: Scholars in the Middle Ages supposedly assumed that a person's emotions - anger, sadness, love, etc. - were produced in the liver. So if someone got annoyed, it's his or her liver where the emotion came from.

Plus, there's another traditional story behind the "offended liverwurst". There, a butcher has all kinds of different sausages in a kettle. When the kettle boils, he takes out all the other sausages first, because they need a shorter cooking time. So, the liverwurst bursts in anger because it's the only one left in the kettle.

2. In den sauren Apfel beißenBiting in a sour apple

Idiom: to bite the bullet
Literally: to bite into the sour apple (Photo by Khamkhor on Unsplash)
Explanation: To do something unpleasant, even though you find it hard to do.
German: Etwas Unangenehmes tun, obwohl es einem schwerfällt.
Origin: This expression is quite old. It comes up in one of Luther's letters where he writes: "Not lehrt in saure Äpfel beißen". (Hard times teach you to bite into sour apples.)

It means, that if you have no other choice, you'll just have to eat the sour apples. For example, if you want to pass your exam, you have to study for it.

3. Mit dem ist nicht gut Kirschen essen.

Plate of red cherriesIdiom: Best not to tangle with him.
Literally: Eating cherries with him is not pleasant. (Photo by Monika Grabkowska on Unsplash)
Explanation: He's hard to get along with.
German: Mit ihm kann man nicht gut auskommen.
Origin: For this expression there's an interesting origin. It dates back to the Middle Ages when cherry trees were not abundant and grew mostly just in monasteries or in gardens of the rich. Should you be passing a group of dignified gentlemen eating cherries, it could happen that they would chase you off and spit pits into your face to boot.

So, there are people that you wouldn't want to eat cherries with because they would treat you badly.
That could refer to people who think that they are better than you, and who are clearly contemptuous of who you are.

4. Wie man in den Wald hineinruft, so schallt es heraus.

Idiom: What goes around, comes around.Sunny forest
Literally: The way you call into the woods is the way it comes back. (Photo by Stepan Unar on Unsplash)
Explanation: The way you treat someone will determine their reaction.
German: So wie man jemanden behandelt, reagiert dieser auch darauf.
Origin: This expression probably goes back to the experience of hearing an echo in the woods - your voice bounces back after you've called to someone. The echo has a similar sound to what you called in the first place.

So more generally, if you shout at someone in anger, they often respond in anger too. If you don't treat others with respect, they may not respect you either.

5. Um den heißen Brei herum reden

Bowl of hot porridgeIdiom: to beat around the bush
Literally: to talk around the hot porridge (Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash)
Explanation: Avoid giving your honest and direct opinion.
German: Nicht ehrlich und direkt seine Meinung sagen.
Origin: Initially, the expression was: "Wie die Katze um den heißen Brei herumschleichen". (To tiptoe like a cat around the hot porridge.) The cat was of course looking for a cooler part of the porridge to start eating.

If you talk with someone who in the conversation tiptoes like a cat around the hot porridge, it means that they are afraid or reluctant to broach a certain subject.

6. Auf dem falschen Dampfer sein

Idiom: to bark up the wrong treeOld steamboat
Literally: to be on the wrong steamboat (Photo by ZEKERIYA SEN on Unsplash)
Explanation: To misunderstand something, be totally mistaken.
German: Etwas falsch verstehen, sich irren.
Origin: In the early 19th century, steamboat travel became increasingly popular in Germany, especially on the Rhine.
By 1850, steamship travel up and down the Rhine reached a million passengers. It was considered safer than travel by land, where raids and holdups were still common. By 1900, transatlantic crossings by steamship were well established.

If you now found yourself on the "wrong steamship", it was a real problem since the next harbor was often far off. The image of being on the "wrong steamship" suggests a grave error, that someone was way off in their thinking.

7. Lügen haben kurze Beine.

pairs of legsIdiom: Your lies will catch up with you.
Literally: Lies have short legs. (Photo by Matheus Vinicius on Unsplash)
Explanation: It's not worth it to lie because the truth will come out.
German: Es lohnt sich nicht zu lügen, denn die Wahrheit kommt immer heraus.
Origin: The image of a Lie having short legs suggests that someone with short legs simply cannot run that fast. So, the Truth with its longer legs (as we assume) can easily catch up to the Lie and expose the untruth.

8. Das ist Schnee von gestern.

Idiom: That's old hat. Yesterday's snow
Literally: That is snow from yesterday.
Explanation: The matter is no longer important.
German: Die Sache ist nicht mehr von Bedeutung.
Origin: Possibly, this expression goes back to François Villon's "Ballade des dames du temps jadis", (Literally: Ballad of the Ladies of Long ago), which has the line "Mais où sont les neiges d’automne ?" (But where are the snows of autumn?)

When something is "snow from yesterday", it means that it's not new, not important, not interesting, not fresh.

9. Etwas mit in Kauf nehmen

Idiom: to put up with something
Literally: to accept something along with a purchase you've made
Explanation: To accept something because it's inevitable.
German: Etwas als unvermeidlich hinnehmen.
Origin: This expression comes from the traditional world of trade and commerce. It was often customary for merchants to offer the combination of a high quality product with one of lesser quality. Or, the combination of a product that was high in demand, with one not so in demand. If the buyer needed the former product, he would also accept to take the latter one.

In that sense, "etwas in Kauf nehmen", means that if you really want something, you would accept certain unavoidable disadvantages that come with it. Or, accept the risks of an action that you see as inevitable.

10. Wo gehobelt wird, da fallen Späne.

Wood shavingsIdiom: You can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs.
Literally: Where a (carpenter's) plane is used, shavings will fall. (Image Credit: Clem Onojeghuo on Sawinery)
Explanation: A decision can also have disadvantages.
German: Eine Entscheidung kann auch Nachteile mit sich bringen.
Origin: This is a saying that originated in the world of trades, and points specifically to a carpenter's craft. When you "plane" ("hobeln"), you keep removing layers of wood until you smooth out the rough spots.

On the one hand, this expression can be used to justify ruthless or drastic behavior. On the other hand, it can also be a bit of wisdom: Something that has a lot of positives could also have disadvantages.

11. Aus dem Schneider sein

Idiom: to be out of the woodsTailor at work
Literally: to be no longer a tailor (Photo by Salvador Godoy on Unsplash)
Explanation: "To be out of the tailor" means that you have overcome a difficult situation, that the worst is behind you.
German: Aus dem Schneider sein, heißt eine schwierige Situation überwunden, das Schlimmste überstanden haben.
Origin: In the card game Skat, to be no longer a "tailor" (a profession of low standing in earlier times) means that you have more than half of the points needed to win (i.e. more than 30 points).

The expression "aus dem Schneider sein" is still commonly used in German. Actually, I've heard it multiple times used in connection with the COVID-19 crisis in German TV broadcasts. When will we all be "out of the tailor"?

12. Das passt wie die Faust aufs Auge.

One eyeIdiom 1: They go together hand in glove.
Idiom 2: They go together like chalk and cheese.
Literally: That fits like the fist on the eye.
Explanation: Things go together very well or they don't go together at all.
German: Etwas passt sehr gut zusammen, oder gar nicht.
Origin: The German expression "Das passt wie die Faust aufs Auge" seems to have a clear message: Having someone put their fist on your eye is not a good thing. However, curiously enough, this expression is mostly used to mean the opposite.

Initially, the idiom was "Das reimt sich wie die Faust aufs Auge" (That rhymes like the fist on the eye). For one, "Faust" and "Auge" do not rhyme. Plus, fist and eye don't go together, the fist is hard, the eye is soft and delicate.

But already early on, the idiom was used ironically to mean the opposite, that two things fit perfectly together. Though, the original meaning shows up too.

So, to clearly understand what someone is telling you, you have to pay attention to the context in which it is used, and/or the speaker's tone of voice. For example, what does it mean when your partner tells you that your shirt and scarf go together like "a fist on the eye"?!

Keeping a few idioms in your German language “quiver” will make your language more colorful and authentic. And maybe at the next post-coronavirus dinner party you'll contribute to some laughter and fun.

For the German idioms that are listed here, I consulted a number of different sites. You can find out more about these expressions, or find new ones in these:,, Geolino Wissen, Wortbedeutung Info.

(For French idioms see Apples, Butter, Rain and more in French Idioms.)

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

3 Grammar Baby Steps for Self-Learners

baby-steps_by_david-brooke-martin-qa4-KH8UjRA-unsplashHow to deal with grammar is a question we get a lot from language learners. Yes, classroom learning often focuses a lot on grammar.

I also plead guilty to having used this approach with my students during my college teaching years. But I now know that it does not help your speaking abilities early on.

Fortunately, if you're learning a new language independently, it's okay to put grammar on the back burner. Still, not focusing on grammar doesn't mean you ignore it completely. A good approach is to start with "baby steps" to learn gradually how your new language works.

Grammar in any language is a huge subject. However, knowing a grammar book inside out doesn't mean you can communicate in the language. All it means is that you can remember a lot of abstract rules. And these don't automatically translate into fluent communication.

So, what are a few "baby steps" that self-learners can take? Here are the steps that work for me when I start out in a new language. (My examples are from the four languages on our site.)

Step #1: A Quick Glance At Grammar Basics

I do mean a "quick glance", and really just basic grammar.Grammar topics spread across page Do it in whatever way works for you - on the internet or in a basic grammar book. You don't really want to know ALL the grammar rules right off. Especially not all the dozens of exceptions to those rules to boot.

What you want to know is how your new language works. How it is essentially different from your native language(s). Knowing these main differences will help you when starting out with conversations.


In English, you always use pronouns. The same goes for German and French.

Italian and Spanish usually drop the pronouns, unless they are needed for clarity or emphasis.

The Pronoun "you"

English has just one word for "you", and it works for familiar and formal, for singular and plural.

French, German, Italian and Spanish have different pronouns for familiar and formal, and also for singular and plural. You need to sort out which pronoun and/or verb ending to use for each of those situations.

Present Tense Verb Endings

English verb endings are pretty simple. Generally, you just have to watch out for the third person singular, which adds an "s". (I go, you go, he goes, we go, you go, they go.) 

For Italian and Spanish the personal endings of verbs are important because of dropped pronouns.

For German and French, the different verb endings depend on which personal pronouns you use.

Articles and Gender

English has the definite article "the" and no gender for its nouns.

French, Spanish, and Italian have 2 noun genders.

German has 3 genders, plus various case-dependent forms of the definite article.


Each language has its own ways to express negation. English has "not", which is often attached to a helping verb, and contracted: "don't, isn't, can't, won't, shouldn't".
Generally speaking, negation is simple in Spanish and Italian. In Spanish you put "no" in front of the verb, and in Italian "non".

French uses the double negative "ne ... pas".

German has "nicht" for negating verbs and "kein" for negating nouns.

Basic Word Order

Here you don't want to learn any rules. You only want to observe and understand that there are differences.

Once you've had a quick glance at basic grammar differences between your native language and your target language, forget what you've read. It will all come back bit by bit, once you start listening, repeating and reading - a lot - in your new language.

Step #2: Look for Patterns

Patterns in sandWe may not feel that we are "wired for grammar" (as Noam Chomsky once suggested), but we are certainly wired for recognizing and internalizing patterns.


For children in their early years, language is primarily sound. Even as adults we hear spoken language all day - in conversations, on the radio, on TV, on the internet.

Sound remains an important part of communication. When talking with others, we produce the correct sounds to get the message across. When we write, we often silently pronounce what we're writing.


Learning the meaning of foreign words is important. But hearing and seeing them in complete sentences is essential: That's where "Grammar" is happening! 

When learning a new language be sure to include the sound of words, phrases and simple sentences. Listen and repeat as much as you can. It's important to get the sound of what you're learning into your ear.

As you listen, repeat and read, watch for patterns. Patterns of verb endings are basic, so listen and look for them. Watch out for the differences between questions and statements. Try to notice simple idiomatic ways of saying things.


Easy stories are a good next step. They will put essential vocabulary in context and therefore give you a more precise meaning of words and phrases.

Stories also show how the language works. You'll hear and see questions, responses to questions, emphatic forms, the use of familiar or formal "you", negation, word order variations, etc.

Reading & Writing

Once you're reasonably happy with your pronunciation, begin to pay closer attention to the written text as you practice listening and repeating. It will help you to master the correlation between sound and written text in your new language. It's a good way to get into reading.

Reading is a fantastic tool for acquiring vocabulary and for internalizing typical patterns of a language.

Step #3 More In-depth Grammar

When you're happily into your new target language,Grammar items when you continue to feel motivated and love the progress you're making, that's the time to tackle more grammar. But don't focus on rules. Focus on typical patterns. Below are two examples.

Gender and Articles

Suppose you've been reading and listening to Italian and notice that the simple English article "the" has several Italian equivalents: "il, la, lo, l', i, le, gli".

You've probably figured out the articles "il, la, i, and le". But you're curious enough to check when "lo" and "gli" are used. From then on, each time you see or hear "lo" and "gli" in context, you become more familiar with its use.

French and Spanish
They have have 2 genders, feminine and masculine, and four articles that go with it. In French, there's "le, la, l', les". In Spanish, you have "el, la, los, las". Good to know, but pretty easy to figure out on your own as you're hearing and reading a story.

It has 3 genders: "der, die, das" (masculine, feminine, and neuter). Plus, the definite articles, including the plural forms, change depending on the case of the noun. So, it will take more effort to really learn the correct German forms.

You'll want to study the various German article/case combinations written out in front of you on a sheet. Then, saying the forms often helps to make them automatic. Still, perfect mastery is elusive for most, and that's okay. (You're not alone: Mark Twain in his “A Tramp Abroad”, Appendix D, makes some very funny, but cogent observations.)

Asking Yes-No Questions

There are often fundamental word order differences between languages.

For example, it's not easy for foreigners to understand when to use "do" or "are" in a question in English.
You say: "Do you know?", while the question, "Are you knowing?" doesn't make sense.
On the other hand, you would tend to say "Are you going?" The question "Do you go?" needs more context, such as "Do you often go to the movies?"

There are various ways to ask yes-no questions. But these are different from English. For one, you can put the question particle, "Est-ce que" at the beginning of a sentence and thus turn it into a question, "Est-ce que vous parlez anglais ?"

Then there's the inversion of subject and verb, as in "Parlez-vous anglais ?" Or, you can just add "n'est-ce pas ?" at the end of a statement: "Tu parles anglais, n'est-ce pas ?" Finally, in informal speech, you can just raise your voice at the end: "Tu parles anglais ?" Once you start paying attention to questions when hearing and reading French, these patterns will become familiar and you'll learn when to use which.

You can make a statement into a question by letting your voice go up at the end, and/or adding a tag: "È americano?, È americano, vero?, È americano, no?" It's as simple as that.

Similarly, you can change a statement to a yes-no question by using question intonation and sometimes adding a tag: "¿Hablas inglés?, ¿Hablas inglés, no? ¿Hablas inglés, verdad?" Or, in some cases, you can invert verb and pronoun: "¿Tiene Ud. sed?"

For yes-no questions, you normally invert subject and the personal verb: "Sind Sie Amerikaner?" Or, "Wollen Sie jetzt essen?"

Make Grammar a Treat not a Chore!

There are exceptions, but most language learners don't learn grammar to become fluent in grammar. They learn a language because they want to be able to speak with others. 

It's more fun to figure things out than to memorize rules. So, try to figure out little by little how your new language works. Don't focus too much on the rules.

Becoming fluent in another language is a hugely satisfying achievement. It's great fun to step out of your native language and step into another way of communicating. It can be a wonderful life-long adventure!

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of She's a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments right here below!

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

How to Use the German Modal Verb "können" German Modal Shoot Quick GameNo better way to practice the German Modal Verb "können" than with one of Gamesforlanguage's most popular games: the German Modal Shoot.
It's a three-minute interactive online game that gives you a quick practice of the basic forms of the German modals.

What are Modal Verbs?

Modal Verbs are helping verbs, also called auxiliary verbs. They add a chunk of meaning to the main verb of a sentence.
In conversations they show up all the time.

German has six modals. They express ability, necessity, obligation, permission, a wish, etc.
They are:
- können (be able, can),
- müssen (to have to, must),
- sollen (shall, ought to),
- dürfen (be permitted, may),
- wollen (to want) and
- mögen (to like).

So for example, take the sentence: Ich arbeite heute (Architect greeting foremanI'm working today) and add the modals:
- Ich kann heute arbeiten. (I can work today.)
- Ich muss heute arbeiten. (I have to work today.)
- Ich soll heute arbeiten. (I ought to work today.)
- Ich darf heute arbeiten. (I'm allowed to work today.)
- Ich will heute arbeiten. (I want to work today.)

But: Ich möchte heute arbeiten. (I would like to work today.)
Arggh, here you would use the (subjunctive) "would" form in German: "möchte", not "mag".
(The present forms of "mögen" can't be used with an infinitive verb.)

The modal "können" (can, to be able) is a very useful helping verb.

But its changing forms and conjugations often make it frustrating for the English-speaking learner, who is only used to “can” and “could”.

German Modal Verb "können" - Present Tense

In the Present singular form, "können" changes its stem vowel from "ö" to "a":
- ich kann (I can)
- du kannst (you[fam.] can)
- er, sie, es kann (he, she, it can)
- wir können (we can)
- ihr könnt (you-all can)
- sie, Sie können - they, you[form.] can

Below are examples of different ways you can use it.

"Können" - for a polite offer or request:
- Ich kann Ihnen helfen. (I can help you.)
- Können Sie/Kannst du mir helfen? (Can you help me?)
- Ja, das kann ich. (Yes, I can.)

"Können" to express know-how:
- Er kann Gitarre spielen. (He can play the guitar.)
- Kannst du Deutsch? (Do you know German? i.e. Are you able to speak German?)
- Ja, aber ich kann kein Englisch. (Yes, but I don't know any English.)

"Können" to express possibility:
- Das kann doch nicht wahr sein. (Surely that can't be true.)
- Kann das wirklich stimmen? (Is that really correct?)
- Ja ja, heute kann's regnen. (Yes yes, today it may rain.)

"Können" to ask or give permission:
- Kann ich jetzt gehen? (Can I go now?)
- Nein, das können Sie nicht. (No, you can't. [formal])
- Ja, du kannst. (Yes, go ahead. [familiar])

Did you get all this? If so try this Quiz #1 for "können" on our sister site Lingo-Late.
Or, if you are looking for a fun German Quick Game: Practice "Können"

Modal Verb "können" - Simple Past Tense

Unfortunately the Simple Past is not that simple for English speakers, who conveniently use "could" for all persons.
In German, the stem drops the umlaut, and is "konn-" for all persons. But you still need to add the so-called "weak" personal endings for the Simple Past:
- ich konnte (I could)
- du konntest (you could)
- er, sie, es konnte (he, she, it could)
- wir konnten (we could)
- ihr konntet (you-all could)
- sie, Sie konnten (they, you could)

Past situations:
- Sie konnte mich nicht verstehen. (She couldn't understand me.)
- Ich war in Deutschland aber ich konnte kein Deutsch. (I was in Germany but I didn't know German.)
- Warum konntest du mich nicht anrufen? (Why couldn't you call me?)

For making excuses:
The Simple Past of "können" is also perfect for making excuses, especially when you add "leider" (unfortunately)
- Ich konnte leider nicht anrufen. (Unfortunately, I couldn't call .)
- Leider konnten wir nicht früher kommen. (Unfortunately, we couldn't come earlier.)
- Mein Mann konnte leider seine Autoschlüssel nicht finden. (Unfortunately, my husband couln't find his car keys.)

Modal Verb "können" - Imperfect Subjunctive Tense

This unapproachable-sounding tense is actually easier, if you remember the Simple Past forms above. You just add an umlaut to every Simple Past form.
- ich könnte - I could, would be able
- du könntest - you could, would be able
- er, sie, es könnte - he, she it could, would be able
- wir könnten - we could, would be able
- ihr könntet - you-all could, would be able
- sie, Sie könnten - they, you could, would be able

Use this tense for polite requests (with or without "bitte"):
- Könnten Sie mir bitte sagen ... (Could you please tell me ...)
- Könntest du mir das Salz geben? (Could you pass me the salt?)
- Könnte ich etwas anderes bestellen? (Could I order something different?

Make a polite suggestion:
- Wir könnten jetzt gehen. (We could go now. Let's go now.)
- Ich könnte dich morgen anrufen. (I could call you tomorrow.)
- Du könntest auch später gehen. (You could also go later.)

Express a tentative possibility:
- Das könnte teuer werden. (That could get expensive.)
- Es könnte morgen schneien. (It could snow tomorrow.)
- Wir könnten den 8Uhr Zug nehmen. (We could take the 8 o'clock train.)

Related verbs: können and kennen

Hearing the difference between “können” and “kennen” is often a challenge for the beginning German learner.
We've seen that the auxiliary verb "können" means "to be able, to know how".
On the other hand, the verb "kennen", means "to know, be acquainted with", referring to a person, a place, a song, a book, etc.
You say:
- Peter und ich, wir kennen uns. (Peter and I, we know each other.)
- Ich kenne Helsinki noch nicht. (I don't know Helsinki yet.)
- Kennen Sie London gut? (Do you know London well?)
- Kennst du dieses Buch? (Do you know this book?)

One clue to know whether you hear a form of “können” or one of “kennen” is to listen for another verb: In most cases, the auxiliary verb “können” needs another verb. (But as you've seen above there are exceptions.)

So, go ahead and use "können" as much as you can.
Ich kenne dich nicht, aber ich weiß, du kannst es. (I don't know you, but I know that you can do it.)

Posted on by Peter Rettig

“Offerieren" – “Offro io”: being surprised in Gstaad, Switzerland

Glasses with nose padsSometimes, your day can just become a little brighter after you have been pleasantly surprised. In this case it concerned my glasses. And here is the little story:

During our recent skiing vacation, Ulrike and I decided to walk down to Gstaad. We had skied the day before, and in the evening I discovered that one of the little nose pads on my glasses was missing.

It's about an hour's walk through fields and past chalets to get to Gstaad from Schoenried, where we usually stay. On this day, the weather felt like spring and there was no snow. (Snow was to arrive the next day.)

Mirage – Gstaad, SwitzerlandGstaad Mirage inside

On our way down, we visited Mirage Gstaad, a house made of mirrors that stands in the middle of an open field. It's another installation of such a  house by the well-known American artist Doug Aitken.

The outside walls mirror the beautiful natural scenery that surrounds the house. Inside, as you go through the rooms, you see yourself move reflected in dozens of images.

Gstaad Mirage has become quite a destination for many visitors in the Gstaad area and is an interesting idea. As one of the Italian visitors called out: Che bella idea!

"Offerieren" @ Optik Gstaad

But on to my quest for those little nose pads. Normally, in the US I find pads like that in a drugstore, but I knew it was unlikely that a Gstaad pharmacy or a “Drogerie” (i.e. drugstore) would have them.

In Switzerland, shops are more specialized than in the US. When we asked at a Drogerie, the clerk pointed us to “Optik Gstaad”, the only optician in town.

There I showed my glasses with the missing nose pad to a friendly saleswoman, and she understood immediately. I also asked her for a couple of extra pads in case I should lose another one. She nodded, suggested that we take a seat and disappeared to the back of the store. I had expected that she would just sell me a bag with a few pads.

About 15 minutes later – I was already wondering what could take so long – a young man appeared holding a silver tray: on it were my spotlessly clean glasses, with one new and one replaced nose pad, as well as two additional pads and a little bag on the side.

As I moved over to the payment counter – already trying to calculate what this little repair might cost – the young man wouldn't have any of it and said in Swiss German: “... mi möchtn's offerieren!”. I didn't really catch the first part of his explanation. But it took me only a moment to understand what he meant, i.e. that there was not going to be any charge, neither for the Peter leaving Optik Gstaadreplacement nor for the extra pads.

In fact, in this context “offerieren” did not just mean “to offer” - the usual translation, but to offer the provided service (and product) for free.

I thanked him in my best Swiss German and put on my glasses. As I left the store, the world looked indeed very bright and clear through them.

And where do you think, I will buy my next sun glasses? This Swiss business clearly understood how good will is created. Rather than selling me a few Silicon pads for a Swiss Frank or two, the folks at Optik Gstaad understood that they are also in the service business. (And if you should be traveling to Switzerland in the near future you'll find travel tips in All about Swiss.)

“Offro io” – It's on me, my treat In an Italian café

Why did I understand, after only a moment's surprise, what the young man was telling me? Maybe it was because I had recently played our Italian Quick Game: “In an Italian Café”. The game  starts with the expression “Offro io”, which means, I offer it, it's on me.

In English, "to offer something" generally means to provide something, free or with a condition attached. The other person can accept or reject the offer.

by Nader Arman on Unsplash“Darf ich Ihnen einen Cognac offerieren?” - May I offer you a Cognac? If you hear this question asked at a dinner party, you don't expect to have to pay for it. On the other hand, if a waiter asks you that in a restaurant at the end of your dinner, and you accept, you'd better expect to see the charge for it on your check.

So the meaning of “offerieren” and “to offer” without any condition, will very much depend on the context and situation in which it is used.

As a noun, “die Offerte”, just translates as “the proposal” for a service and/or product and  typically includes conditions such as price, delivery schedule, etc. It's used quite frequently in business German.

Well, that's the true fun of learning a language: It gets you out of your monolingual corner and opens you up to surprising moments of discovery and pleasant personal encounters. That way, life becomes so much brighter and more interesting.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

3 Techniques for Speaking More Fluently

Flowing river by tim-peters-on-unsplashBeing "fluent" in a language is not a very precise term. Actually when we learn a language, we go through various stages of fluency. Plus, fluency in a language is often a subjective issue and can mean different things to different people.

Here are a few takes on Fluency by several well-known Polyglots in a recent Lingualift post. You'll get the drift.

Benny Lewis, The Irish Polyglot: If I can talk to people confidently about normal things, at a normal speed, and understand their replies without them having to adjust to me as a beginner, then this seems like a reasonable place for us to assign “fluency”.

Lindsay Williams, Lindsay Does Languages: What if there’s different types of fluency? You’re ready for your holiday to Germany? You’re holiday fluent. You spend all day emailing Thai companies about Facebook? You’re business email fluent.

Luca Sadurny, MosaLingua: After building up your vocabulary and practicing, you start to express your thoughts in a more automated, fast and spontaneous way, even if you make some mistakes.

Ellen Jovin, Words and Worlds of New York: Language fluency for me is when my words have the consistency of a liquid rather than a solid. For example, if I suddenly can’t remember how to say “broccoli,” I can replace it, as I continue talking along unimpeded, with “you know, that green vegetable that looks like a little tree that George H. W. Bush refuses to eat.”

Shannon Kennedy, Eurolinguiste: I feel that there are also different degrees of fluency — one can have a fluent reading ability or they can be fluent in the language just for a specific industry (for example, they can talk about laws and contracts without hesitation but might not be able to talk about the weather) or they can even just be conversationally fluent (and unable to go too in-depth on really specific topics).

Conversationally Fluent

To me, being conversationally "fluent" in a language means not needing to prepare every sentence in my mind before saying it. It means feeling pretty comfortable talking about everyday things. I'm not constantly stumbling over basic grammar or getting stuck because I can't find that exact word I need. But it does not mean that I don't make any mistakes.

Obviously, the best way to improve your fluency in speaking a language is to talk regularly with others, ideally with native speakers. And, for keeping your conversations going, you need enough vocabulary and a sufficient familiarity with relevant language patterns (word order, idioms, types of sentences, verb endings, etc.). For that, reading and listening a lot to your target language is helpful.

But to improve the flow of your speech, you can practice some specific techniques. They might just give you that extra push to better fluency.

These three practice techniques have helped me to speak more fluently in a couple of my languages. You can do them feeling none of the stress and anxiety you get when speaking up publicly. In Ellen Jovin's words, they have given my speech, "the consistency of a liquid rather than a solid".

1. Practice Sentences Aloud

Talking aloudTake an audio story that matches your level and which allows you to easily stop and replay any of the audio chunks.

A lot of programs have these. For example Duolingo has such stories for four languages. (I'm using the ones for Portuguese right now.) But there's also LingQ that has mini-stories and podcasts in more languages. You can also use a YouTube video, video series you watch on your computer, books on audible, etc.

Replay and repeat each chunk or full sentence two or three times in natural rapid speech, imitating the speed and melody of the speaker. If your pronunciation is already pretty good, you can even take just a written text and read it aloud, repeating each sentence several times.

This practice has helped me:
• Focus on and smooth out sound combinations that are hard for me
• Sharpen my sentence intonation
• Speed up my speech to a more natural pace

2. Explain Things in your Target Language

Friends arguingWhen you explain how to do something step by step in another language, it forces you to be both imaginative and precise. That really helps you to become more versatile in using your target language.

Finding "how to do topics" is easy. Think about a hobby, a sport you love, a dish to prepare, or something practical, like ordering a book online, or fixing something that's broken. Use topics and vocabulary that interest you.

Conversations with a native speaker are the perfect place to try out some of your explanations. Urge him or her to keep asking questions to make you clarify what you mean. If you don't have someone to talk to, write your explanations in a journal. You can then go over what you've written, check vocabulary, figure out other ways of saying it, etc.

This practice has helped me:
• Find ways to keep going even when I can't remember a specific word
• Become more resourceful in creating new sentences
• Aquire vocabulary for topics that I'm interested in

3. Talk in your Head

If you're like me, you often talk silently to yourself. Sometimes I do it just to make sure I'm Talk in your head focused on a particular task. But you can do self-talk your target language at any time during the day. It's a useful stepping stone to thinking in the language.

Tell yourself stories, go over things you need to do, figure things out verbally, or have internal arguments with an imagined conversation partner. You may even end up dreaming in your new language! I'm told that's a sure sign of improved fluency.

This practice has helped me:
• Keep the language in my mind off and on throughout the day
• Learn to think in my target language
• Try out conversations without the stress of being in a real one

Learning a language is a journey of discovery with many ups and downs. As you go along, it's not always obvious that your fluency has improved.But there may be moments, when you realize you were talking away in your target language without thinking about endings or worrying about stumbling. Those feel great!

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