Anchorman, for example.

Try explaining the meaning of “bite the bullet” to someone on the spot without using any colloquial or difficult language. “Take what’s coming to you?” Nope, that’s a saying. “Put up with it?” Nope; saying. Take whatever hardships come your way and deal with it? Too long, plus the verb “to take” is not normally used for an intangible thing, and it’s unlikely that “hardships” is in the top 1000 most used English words. “Accept any difficulties that come to you?” Closer, but doesn’t really capture the essence of the saying. What you think is a short explanation to your work colleagues will quickly turn into a full-on game of shirades interspersed with Google searches, brain-wracking and vast quantities of umming.

Writing about this conjures up memories of the film, “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”, when Will Ferrell’s character is trying to understand one of the more common English sayings:

Veronica: “Oh, well, when in Rome”
Ron: “Yes? Please, go on.”
Veronica: “Uh, do as the Romans do? It’s an old expression”
Ron: “Oh! I’ve never heard of it.”
Veronica: “Oh.”
Ron: “It’s wonderful though.”

Later, he attempts to use it:

“Sometimes you gotta look at yourself in the mirror and say, “When in Rome.”

I consider myself very lucky to have English as my first language but, in day-to-day life, we only ever really skim over the surface. It is rare that you ever have to think hard about what you say; most of it is instinct; automatic (a serious problem for some people). Teaching English as a foreign language forces you to delve deep into the language; to figure out why we say certain things in certain ways, as well as making you realise how much of what we say is colloquial. If you want to see what I mean, pay particular attention to what you’re saying to the next person you speak to and ask yourself how much of it would be understood by someone who can speak only formal English. This boils right down to wanna, gotta, gonna, y’alright, how’s it going, what’s happening, and every saying we ever use.

Teaching these kinds of phrases to the teachers is often more rewarding than teaching the pupils, because the phrases tend to be quite comical for someone who has never heard them before. My JTEs often remember them and use them in conversation with me later on, puffing up like a proud cat when they do. That kind of thing is almost impossible to coax from my students on account of the group mentality that is so prevalent in Japan (i.e. it is not good to stand out from the crowd) but when it does happen, it’s probably the best thing about the job – even if the word/phrase is used in completely the wrong context:

At the beginning of every lesson, the students all stand up. One student leads with a couple of prompts and then they all bow, say “onegaishimasu” (“thanks in advance,” kind of) and sit down. Usually I just say “good morning” which they repeat back with varying degrees of enthusiasm and then I ask how they are, to which they answer “sleepy” or “hungry”. Every time. One time though, after they’d all settled down ready for the lesson, one of them shouted “for example!” at the top of his voice causing the whole class, including me, to simultaneously erupt with laughter. Just like a young, Japanese Ron Burgundy, flailing wildly with the English language, he didn’t make any sense but that’s what made it so funny.

Now he’s got the hang of it though, and often – rather helpfully – manages to say it just before I’m about to. If that’s the only thing he ever learns from me then at least I can say I taught someone something during my time abroad. And a very useful phrase it is too.

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