Eating Your Way to Language Learning

14 Apr Eating Your Way to Language Learning

It’s no doubt that eating is a vital element of our lives, but today, it is increasingly becoming a true pleasure and passion for many people across the world. Chefs in different countries explore the resources of food, innovating and creating different blends of taste, and developing new sensations that tingle the palette.

The great advantage of food is that it has a language of its own, recognised internationally, and that is taste! You don’t need words to understand and enjoy the taste of something, and cultural experiences are the same.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, a French anthropologist, ethnologist and linguist, worked on the relationship between language, food and culture. In the mid-20th century, his study focused on the eating patterns of tribal groups in North and South America. He concluded that within these societies, food was categorised following its provenance and whether it had been changed through human intervention (cooked, peeled, chopped, etc). Following that, food is interpreted according to cultural elements and beliefs: for example, in one society something raw was rejected and not eaten, but in the other, raw foods were accepted and considered edible.

This explains why there is such a variety of cuisines around the world: they all obey different cultural identities. Language and food are such key elements of a culture that often they become interconnected; every language has a range of idioms related to food!

Food idioms point out a very particular aspect of each food, often making them humouristic. Here are a few examples from English:

In English

  • Being ‘full of beans‘ means having a lot of energy – because beans are high in carbohydrates packed with energy
  • Icing on the cake‘ describes something that makes a situation even better – because what is better than a layer of thick sugar on a cake?
  • As cool as a cucumber‘ means being calm – because cucumbers are rarely considered as energy providing vegetables and more often than not are placed in the fridge.

Food idioms are also very common in other languages. However, their explanation is often unclear to non-speakers and requires a great knowledge of that culture. Here are a couple of examples from other foreign languages:

In French:

  • ‘Avoir du pain sur la planche’ (to have bread on the plate) means to have many things to do.
  • En faire un fromage’ (to do a cheese of it) means to exaggerate a situation.

In Russian:

  • Запретный плод сладок’ (Zapretnyy plod sladok – the forbidden fruit is sweetest) means being tempted to do something you are not supposed to.
  • Вешать лапшу на уши’ (Vešat’ lapšu na ušy – to hang noodles on someone’s ears) means to lie to someone.

In Spanish:

  • ‘Importar un pepino’ (to mind a cucumber to someone) means not to care at all.
  • ‘Tener un cacao mental’ (to have a cocoa mind) means to be extremely confused.

In Hindi:

  • Oontth ke munh mein jeera‘ (a cumin seed in a camel’s mouth) describes an insufficient offer.
  • Thali ka baingan‘ (an eggplant on a plate) describes a person that cannot be trusted.

Did you notice how most of the time, the foods used in these expressions are typical of the language, cuisine and culture they come from? Staples such as bread and cheese for France, beans and pie for English-speaking countries and cumin in India signifies the relationship between the region’s culture and its language.

Next time you munch on something, have a quick think about how it is used in your language, you might be surprised by how much you employ the word without realizing.

All there is left to say is, Bon Appétit!

Want to continue learning quirky and fun food idioms from around the world? Begin your foreign language learning journey to get started!

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