English and Vietnamese idioms concerning cats – A cross-linguistic Analysis and Pedagogical Implications
Phạm Thị Lan Anh
Lecturer: Dr. Nguyen Ngoc Vu
Ho Chi Minh City
“Idioms are always something special about any language, they build up some distinctive features which differ one language from another” (“Idioms in our life”, 2008). Idioms, indeed, account for an important part of the general vocabulary of a language. The uniqueness of a language as well as the nation to which that language belongs is determined partly based on the characteristics of the idiomatic expressions. Idioms are an accurate mirror of a certain cultural specificity national character. Idioms exist in all languages and depicts many aspects in people’s daily life through the use of normal things as symbols to build up meaningful conceptual metaphors. Among those symbols, cats are an animal that appear in many languages with different meanings. This paper is intended for the discussion of English and Vietnamese idioms related to cats. The similarities and differences of the two sets of idioms are cleared out in terms of quantity, frequency of use, cultural attitudes and meanings. Additionally, some useful implications for English language teaching and learning are finally recommended.
English and Vietnamese idioms concerning cats – A cross-linguistic Analysis and
No amount of time can erase the memory of a good cat, and no amount of masking tape can ever totally remove his fur from your couch. ~Leo Dworken
Cats have long been affectionate and cuddly animals that people keep as pets in their houses. As for cat lovers, a cat is not only a pet but also a close friend because it is known as a great companion which is independent, sensitive and caring. Despite the fact that cats are adored by a major of people all over the world, conventional perception of cats, generally, varies from culture to culture. Each culture has its own strongly-held belief about cats, either positive or negative. For instance, ancient mariners viewed black cats as unlucky since they were thought to bring bad weather. Meanwhile, Japanese sailors would carry a tri-colored cat with them during their voyage as they believed that the cat was able to "put the storm devils to flight" (“Cat facts and what famous people say about cats,” n.d.).
Like many other languages, English and Vietnamese have a number of idioms concerning cats. A large proportion of idioms in English as well as in Vietnamese include the image of cats. However, as it is out of the question to explore all the cat idioms in both languages, this paper attempts to conduct an analysis solely on the most widely-used expressions that are significant for the comparison purposes.
The present study aims to analyse common idiomatic expressions related to cats with the intention to examine the similarities and differences of the image of cats in English idioms and Vietnamese idioms in terms of quantity, cultural attitudes and meanings based on the detailed analysis, some pedagogical implications are suggested in order for teachers to help students learn and use the idioms correctly and efficiently. With respect to those intentions, the following research questions are posed:
Which language, English or Vietnamese, has more idioms related to cats?
How similar and how different are cats perceived in English idioms and Vietnamese idioms?
How can teachers help students to learn and use cat idioms correctly and effeciently?
This paper comprises three main parts. First, the researcher reviews the theoretical background of idioms in English and Vietnamese languages as a fundamental foundation for the contrastive analysis that follows. Cultural features are also emphasized in this section as this is the major reason for different perceptions of cats reflected in English and Vietnamese idioms. On the basis of this conceptual framework, a contrastive analysis of the collected idioms from the two languages will be carried out with respect to the study purposes. The sources of idioms are originally from the Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary, Oxford dictionary of English Idioms and some Vietnamese dictionaries.
Theoretical background of idioms in English
Definition of idioms in English
“The colourful linguistic spectrum of expressions called ‘idioms’ directly reflects the considerable difficulties linguists face in finding an appropriate definition and classification of these linguistic phenomena” (Langlotz, 2006, p. 2). Hence, only a short and simple definition is selected to mention in this paper.
“An idiom is a group of words (or a compound) with a meaning that is different from the individual words, and often difficult to understand from the individual words” (Redman & Zwier, 2010, p. 26). The meanings of English idioms are very special. People cannot infer the meaning of an idiom by working out the meanings of separate constituent elements but rather by considering the idiom as a whole. In other words, an idiom can be understood only by grasping its figurative meaing. The literal meaning means nothing. That is the reason why many English learners often get confused or stuck when it comes to guessing the meaning of a certain idiom. What Holleman (2006) remarks in the book entitled “American English idiomatic expressions in 52 weeks” helps confirm this fact. He says that “the use of idioms is a challenge for English language learners because, compared to standard vocabulary acquisition, understanding these expressions is not clear by simply referring to a dictionary.”
Classification of idioms
Unquestionably, “idioms are very complex linguistic configurations” (Langlotz, 2006, p. 1). These expressions differ in many aspects such as “their structural complexity, their lexical, morphosyntactic, syntactic and semantic organisation as well as their discursive function” (Langlotz, 2006, p. 1). Thus, classifying English idioms into different types is a tough and heady job for linguists and phraseologists. It is hardly easy to come up with an exact classification system but in fact, some ideas on categorizing idioms have been mentioned in literature.
A unique classification system of English idioms are provided by Holleman (2006) in the book entitled “American English idiomatic expressions in 52 weeks” so as to help learners acquire and use idioms correctly and appropriately. The system includes 32 functional categories as listed below:
Achievement – the act or process of accomplishing or completing something
Agree/ Approval – to accept or share an understanding of something
Authority – referring to the power to influence, obey or judge
Bad/ Negative – something unfavourable or unpleasant
Business Action – relating to commercial or work activity to generate profit
Communication – the process of sending and receiving information through speaking, behavior or writing
Completeness – the extent of wholeness or having enough of something
Consequence – the effects or result of an action or circumstance
Different – not the same
Disagree – to have a different opinion or reaction to something
Emotion – a natural feeling such as joy, sadness, happiness, love or hate
End – the conclusion of something
Entertainment – something that delights or provides amusement
Error – something that differs from the correct or usual process
Failure – not succeeding in something
Health – the condition of wellness for someone’s body or mind
Importance – to be valuable or significant
Location – relating to where something is positioned or situated
Movement – involving motion or a change in something’s position
Ownership – concerning the possession of something
Personal Description – referring to traits, features or attributes of a person
Plan/ Prepare – concerning the process involved in accomplishing an activity
Quantity – relating to the amount of something
Relationship – referring to a connection between people including romance, friendship or hostility
Satisfaction – involving enjoyment and contentment in circumstances
Service – concerning assistance or being helpful
Similar – referring to the extent that something is alike or related
Superior – someone or something being better
Time – relating to a time period
Understand – referring to knowing and comprehending something
Work – relating to a job, employment or occupations
(as cited in Holleman, 2006)
Features of English idioms
In general, English idioms are described as “conventional multi-word units that are semantically opaque and structurally fixed” (Langlotz, 2006, p. 2). With regard to this property of idioms in English language, Langlotz (2006) discusses the internal organisation of English idiomatic constructions:
a. semantic characteristics
b. structural peculiarities and irregularities and
c. constraints or restrictions on their lexicogrammatical behaviour which cannot be explained by the general grammatical rules of the given language.
(as cited in Langlotz, 2006, p. 2)
The internal organisation of English idioms indicates that idioms are a very complex and distinctive entity peculiar only to the English language. That is, English idioms have their own fixed constraints in terms of semantic and structural characteristics. One cannot split a certain idiom into individual parts and try to derive the conceptual meaning from each part. Moreover, one cannot use the normal rules of English grammar to explain what is conveyed in the idiom.
Also concerning this issue, Chafe says that idioms have four different features that are worth considering:
The meaning of an idiom is not an amalgamation of the meanings of its parts.
Most if not all idioms exhibit certain transformational deficiencies.
Some idioms are syntactically ill-formed.
Any well-formed idiom has a literal counterpart, but the text frequency of the idiom is usually much higher.
(as cited in Strassler, 1982, p. 35)
Let us consider the four features one by one. First, speaking of semantic features, as stated earlier, English idioms are “semantically opaque” (Langlotz, 2006, p. 2) This means that the meaning of an idiom should never be taken literally. “The listener must never confuse the literal translation of an idiom with the underlying meaning of what is really being expressed or symbolised.” (Burke, 2005, p. 3) “If you try to figure out the meaning of an idiom literally, word by word, you will get befuddled (“Idioms in our life,” n.d.). People have to figure out the hidden meaning in the idiom by summoning knowledge of both language and cultural peculiarity as well as personal life experience. That is because idioms are closely related to the culture of the country that they belong to.
It is common knowledge that idioms have set syntactic structures. Since English idioms are absolutely fixed expressions, it is impossible make any arbitrary changes or transformations to the original form of the idioms. The idiom “kick the bucket” can be taken as an example. This idiom is similar in meaning to the word “die” but it is much more informal. Obviously, we can say “Sam has kicked the bucket” or “Sam may kick the bucket”. (Strassler, 1982) The tense can be changed to be suitable to the context. However, we cannot make “bucket” plural or indefinite or both, or modify “bucket” with an adjective, as in “Sam kicked the buckets,”“kicked buckets,” or “kicked the wooden bucket” because this violates the literalization rule specific to English idioms (Strassler, 1982). “It is not there to be made plural or indefinite, but is introduced postsemantically by a literalization rule which specifies that it must be singular and definite” (Strassler, 1982, p. 37).
The syntax of idioms is not less perplexing as many idioms conform to no regular syntactic rules in English. That is why idioms are said to be syntactically ill-formed. Some examples of ill-formed idioms are a toss up, all Greek to me,fair go, finger lickin’ good, trip the light fantastic, kingdom come, etc. Apart from exceptional cases, other idioms are well-formed, though.
Any well-formed idiom has an synonym or a word or phrase that has similar meaning. For instance, “a fruitcase” (a mad man), “in seventh heaven” (extremely happy), “down in the dumps” (very sad), etc. Nevertheless, the idiom is more frequently used in real life in comparison with the equivalent single word or phrase. Practically speaking, people would prefer to say “He is over the moon about his new job” rather than say “He is very happy with his new job.”
Theoretical background of idioms in Vietnamese
Definition of idioms in Vietnamese
Vietnamese idioms are fixed expressions in the form of single words or sentences but totally belong to the spectrum of words. Most of them are encoded, containing artistic stylization and are only part of an utterance. (Nguyen, 2010, p. 659)
Idioms is an invaluable treasure of the Vietnamese. “In idioms, we can find the typical features of people’s thoughts, aesthetics, virtues, standards of human behaviour as well as the attitudes towards the good and the evil, the noble and the humble” (Nguyen, Nguyen & Phan, 2009, p. 3). For example, “cầm cân nảy mực” expresses the idea of justice in life. “Gió chiều nào theo chiều ấy” refers to the the kind of people who often take advantage of others to benefit themselves. “Cõng rắn cắn gà nhà”, “rước voi giày mả tổ” is an insult shouting at the people who make friends with their enemy and betray their own fellows. (Nguyen et al., 2009, p.3)
Classification of Vietnamese idioms
According to the book “Dictionary of Vietnamese idioms and proverbs” (Nguyen, 2010), there are 5 types of idioms which are mentioned below:
Idioms that contain well-selected words: “lá ngọc cành vàng”, “con nhà nòi”, “khóc tức tưởi”, “buồn nẫu ruột”, etc.
Comparison idioms: “vui như hội”, “đắt như tôm tươi”, “nhanh như chớp”, “rẻ như bèo”, etc.
Idioms with symmetrical structures: “được ăn cả, ngã về không”, “ăn chắc, mặc bền”, etc.
Alliteration idioms: “dấm dấm dớ dớ”, “đi đi lại lại”, “đi đêm đi hôm”, etc.
Reduplication idioms: “khúc kha khúc khích”, etc.
(as cited in Nguyen, 2010)
Features of Vietnamese idioms
Vietnamese idioms have some distinctive features in terms of organization, semantics and rhetoric.
First, let us take a look at the organization of Vietnamese idioms. “An idiom usually consists of three or more than three elements (most often 4 elements) which contain a symmetrical structure, alliteration or rhymes. Their constituent elements combine with each other in many different ways, which sometimes makes it hard to explain.” For example, “nóng như lửa”, “khóc như mưa”, “xấu như ma” are comparision idioms; “tai to mặt lớn”, “miệng hùm gan sứa”, “cùng hồi cùng thuyền” are idioms that utilize alliteration. Some other popular idioms are originally everyday utterances which are used so often and for so long a time that they become idiomatic expressions, such as “chở củi về rừng”, “theo voi hít bã mía”, “nước chảy chỗ trũng”, “đi guốc trong bụng”, etc. (Nguyen et al., 2009, p. 3)
In terms of semantics, “idioms are distinguished by their figurative meaning and metaphorical meaning. That is why understanding idioms is not an easy task, even when we know all about every individual element”( Nguyen et al., 2009, p. 4). Specifically, the content of idioms is a matter of culture-language-people. Hence, it is difficult to interpret these expressions in detail.
In terms of style, we can use idioms to build up an essay, a speech or a conversation which is succint and rich in images. Idioms are a very useful source not only for spoken language style but also for the style of political commentary. (Nguyen et al., 2009, p. 4) For example, when talking about a boastful and pedantic person, Vietnamese has such idioms as “một tấc đến trời”, “bán trời không văn tự”,“mười voi không được (một) bát nước xáo”… Thus, learning and understanding how to use idioms appropriately is a must for students and has become a natural need of people in the society.
A contrastive Analysis of English and Vietnamese idioms concerning cats
Quantity comparison (the number of ‘cat’ idioms in the two languages)
There are thousands of idioms in English. Therefore, it appears to be impossible to come up with an exact estimate. The researcher has conducted research on 6 dictionaries, including 3 dictionaries of English and 3 dictionaries of Vietnamese. The number of English idioms are displayed in the following table:
Cambridge Idioms Dictionary (2006)
over 7000 current idioms
Oxford Idioms Dictionary for Learners of English (2006)
10, 000 frequently-used idioms
Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of English Idioms (2010)
over 6, 000 idioms
The number of idioms in English and in Vietnamese is more or less equal. However, a striking fact is that English has way more idioms related to cats than Vietnamese has. The researcher is not capable of making a calculation of the idioms involving cats in English because there are so many of them, perhaps nearly 100 hundred idioms. However, as for Vietnamese idioms, I find an online article that mentions the number of Vietnamese idioms concerning cats in comparision with that of other symbols in the Vietnamese animal designations. The following table is taken from the article as an evidence for the conclusion mentioned above:
Hình tượng con vật
Tổng số thành ngữ thống kê (Estimated number of idiom)
(as cited in Trần, n.d.)
From the table, we can see that there are only 42 Vietnamese idioms in which the image of cats appear. This number is very small as opposed to the number of English idioms concerning cats. Consequently, it is obvious that English idioms involving cats weigh way more than Vietnamese ones. However, based on this quantity comparison, we can not hastily infer that cats are more highly-valued in the western society than in Viet Nam. To reach a more reasonable conclusion, let us go into details on the meanings of cats reflected by the idioms of the two languages.
Meanings of cats in Vietnamese and English idioms
Connotative similarities and differences
In general, idioms are colloquial metaphor that people use with high frequency in everyday communication. Idioms are said to be part of the culture, not part of the language. The idioms simply originate from what happen in life and are generalized into fixed expressions by people of a particular culture. Each culture has its own customs, norms and beliefs. That is the reason why idioms vary across cultures. Vietnamese and English are not among the exceptions. They are the languages of two completely different cultures, that is, one of oriental culture, and the other of western culture. Each of these language have a variety of idioms related to cats, yet the connotations hidden in those idioms are not exactly the same, though they display some noticeable similarities.
After a thorough reasearch, I figure out 2 major conclusions which are presented and discussed here:
In Vietnamese idioms, cats are:
moderate: ăn nhỏ nhẻ như mèo
wise: mèo con bắt chuột cống
patient: rình như mèo rình chuột
In English, cats are:
superior, dominant: live under the cat’s foot, fat cat, cool cat, sitting in the cat bird seat
wise, smart: busier than a one-eyed cat watching two mouse holes, honest as the cat when the meat's out of reach
skillful: catwalk, walk like a cat on eggs
highly-valued: high as the hair on a cat's back
As we can see from the above list, some of the idioms in both languages have postive connotations of cats but the number is not considerable or significant enough. Indeed, cats have many good characteristics, yet only few of them are remembered and reflected in idioms. In both cultures, cats are seen as smart and wise. They are not only skilful at catching mice but also capable of forming attachments to their owners. Vietnamese people have the idiom “mèo con bắt chuột cống” (kitten catches big rat) which refers to a weak but intelligent person who is able to use his wisdom to defeat a more powerful opponent. However, in English, cats are also thought to be smart. Even an one-eyed cat can spend hours watching a two mouse hole to catch both. However, once having recognized that there is no way it can take the prey, the cat will turn away to guarantee his life. The behavior “ăn nhỏ nhẻ như mèo” (eat as gently as a cat) is perceived as well-behaved in the case of a girl or woman, yet it is a sarcastic saying in the case of a man. In oriental culture, girls should be feminine and polite but man must show their masculinity by eating like a horse. Observing the cat watching the mouse, the Vietnamese figure out another positive personality of the cat, that is, patience. There is no chance the cat will give up on the mouse until it finally catches or, unfortunately, misses that mouse. On the other hand, cats are highly valued as superior and dominant. Even “cat’s meow” or “cat’s whisker” is enough to show the power of a cat. “Sitting in the cat bird seat” means being in an advantageous position. “High as the hair on a cat's back” implies something very costly and perhaps, valuable.
Generally, very few positive personalities of cats are mentioned in idioms. While in English idioms, to some extent, cats are put on the pedestal out of their intelligence and superiority, they are socially inferior in Vietnamese community with no real value but gentleness, wisdom and patience – therein still bear some negative meanings.
The 12 animal designations of the Vietnamese include Rat, Ox, Tiger, Cat, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. Cat comes fourth in this order. A cat is considered an animal which is keep as a friendly pet in most Vietnamese families. In everyday communication, ordinary people use various idioms involving the image of cats. A majority of those idioms contain implied negative meanings which aim to criticize or mock at bad behaviour and humble characteristics of human beings:
useless: chó gio mèo mù, chó khô mèo lạc
weak: mèo cào không xẻ vách vôi
stingy: giấu như mèo giấu cứt
of inferior status: chó tha đi, mèo tha lại, có ăn nhạt mới thương tới mèo, hùm mất heo hơn mèo mất thịt
miserable (shameful): chửi chó mắng mèo, đá mèo quèo chó, không có chó bắt mèo ăn cứt
stealthy: im ỉm như mèo ăn vụng, giấu như mèo giấu cứt, mèo hoang lại gặp chó hoang, anh đi ăn trộm gặp nàng bứt khoai.
clumsy and jumpy: lèonhèo như mèo vật đống rơm, lôi thôi như mèo sổ chuột, mèo vật đụn rơm
unlucky: mèo đến nhà thì khó, chó đến nhà thì giàu
wicked: mèo già hóa cáo
cowardly: mèo già lại thua gan chuột nhắt
spoiled, lazy: mèo lành chẳng ở mả; ả lành chẳng ở hàng cơm
snobbish: mèo khen mèo dài đuôi
hasty, thoughtless: như mèo thấy mỡ
A cat is an animal that is closely connected with the lives of Vietnamese ordinary people. Cats help catch troublesome mice in the house and are pampered by their owners. Through what is portrayed in the idioms concerning cats, we can see a vivid and colourful picture of Vietnamese people in their everyday life. These idioms have long become a special trait in their cognitive culture.
In English, cats are associated with the following bad characteristics:
corrupt: cat around, cat burglar, catcalls, morals of an alley cat and scruples of a snake, hotter than a six peckered alley cat
clumsy: as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs, like a cat on hot bricks, Like a cat on a hot tin roof
wicked: cat’s paw
mean: catty remarks
snobbish: conceited as a barber's cat, looking like a cat that swallowed a canary, cat’s pajamas
cowardly: scaredy-cat, fraidy cat
weak and fragile: weak as a kitten
chanceless: cat-in-hell chance
pugnacious: fight like Kilkenny cats, fight like cats and dogs
One of the most significant difference between Vietnamese and English people is the way they perceive the world, especially the animal world. Vietnamese has an oriental culture that has been formed and preserved over thousands of years. Social and historical conditions exert an extremely great influence on the customs and beliefs of Vietnamese people. On the other hand, England is a western country in which people prefer a free and independent life without so many cultural constraints. This should result in completely different attitudes towards cats in the two cultures. Surprisingly, as listed above, the perceptions of English and Vietnamese people have so much in common. Both cultures see cats as weak, miserable, clumsy, pugnacious and snobbish. The cat’s physical weakness is described in the Vietnamese idiom “mèo cào không xẻ vách vôi” (a cat’s scratches do not pull down a wall) which corresponds to the English idiom “weak as a kitten”. What is more, cats have a clumsy nature. Vietnamse cats love to mess around with things like straw and turn out to be very nervous when a mouse escape from their hands. Likewise, in English, the cat’s jumpiness is revealed when it is in trouble: “like a cat on hot bricks” or “as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs”. Another bad characteristic that cats are given credit to is their snobbish behaviour, not to mention their pugnaciousness. If Vietnamese people use the idiom “mèo khen mèo dài đuôi” to mock at a boastful person, English people also have the expression “conceited as a barber's cat”or “looking like a cat that swallowed a canary”. It means that they show a self-satisfied behaviour out of their success or achievement.
Besides these common characteristics, there are many differences. Cats in Vietnamese idioms are useless, stingy, stealthy, cowardly, wicked, lazy and thoughtless. If Vietnamese people are asked to give cats a bad name, that would be laziness. In fact, cats are very lazy. They sleep by the fire all day long. Their worst habit is eating on the sly. That is why in Vietnamese there are some idioms that reflect that bad habit such as “mỡ để miệng mèo” or “chó treo mèo đậy”. However, those personalities do not exist in English idioms concerning cats. As a result of my investigation, English people relate cats with such characteristics as bad-tempered, overly cautious, destitute, corrupt and mean. What I find most interesting here is that although cats are often loved and pampered by their owners, they appear pitifully miserable in idioms. In Vietnamese idioms, cats are far more miserable than in English. They are held in contempt (“chó tha đi, mèo tha lại”, “có ăn nhạt mới thương tới mèo”,” hùm mất heo hơn mèo mất thịt”) and treated very badly (“đá mèo quèo chó”, “chửi chó mắng mèo”). Poverty-stricken guys are likened to “alley cats”with “cat-in-hell chance” – no chance of success. This is the only idiom in English that employs the image of cats as the symbol of unhappiness. In most other cases, cats are placed at a superior position.
Equivalent idioms that express similar ideas
“Chó gio mèo mù”, “chó khô mèo lạc” and “morals of an alley cat and scruples of a snake”. lèonhèo như mèo vật đống rơm, lôi thôi như mèo sổ chuột, mèo vật đụn rơm
and as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs, like a cat on hot bricks, Like a cat on a hot tin roof
mèo khen mèo dài đuôi and conceited as a barber's cat
As we can see above, the positive attitudes towards cats are outnumbered by the
negative ones. In other words, out of the prevailed loving feelings that human have for dogs,
only bad images and characters of cats are remembered and reflected in idioms.
The relationship betweencats and dogs
Although cats and dogs live under the same roof, they seldom get along well with each other. The dog will want to chase the cat once it sees the cat somewhere nearby. The cat is smaller and weaker, so it is the one who has to run away from the dog. In Vietnamese, people say “như chó với mèo” or "mèo một xó, chó một nơi", which is used to talk about people such as brother and sister or husband and wife who have so many conflicts that they always fight or quarrel any time of confrontation. English people also say the same about those people. The equivalent idiom is “fight like cats and dogs”, or “to live a cat and dog life”. Some other English idioms that also portray this relation are “dog my cats”(an expression of astonishment), “rain cats and dogs”(rain heavily), “keep no more cats than will catch mice”(don't surround yourself with people who will be dependent on you).
We all know that human beings have been keeping cats as an intimate companion for so long. Therefore, the closeness between the human and the cats is understandable. At first, it occurs that the negative connotations of cats in idioms are inexplicable. However, if we look at this fact from the angle of culture, we will find a satisfactory answer. It is common sense that “good fame sleeps, bad fame creeps” which means “tiếng lành đồn gần, tiếng dữ đồn xa” in Vietnamese.
Though dogs and cats are in constant conflict very often, both represent people of the same social status, that is, at the bottom of the society. Dogs and cats have never ever lived in peace, but at least they share something in common. They are destitute, contempted and they have to do evil things to make ends meet. Hence, people may assume that cats are as bad as dogs because they are seen to be together sometimes. In the psychology of both English and Vietnamese people, dogs are associated with lot of bad behaviours (“nhục như chó”, “ngu như chó”, “chó cắn áo rách”, “work like a dog”, “a dog’s life”, etc.). Also, the Vietnamese has a very meaningful idiom: “ngưu tầm ngưu, mã tầm mã”. According to this perception, if the dog has already got a bad name, then anyone who plays with the dog will be not any better. Consequently, on and on, time after time, not many good ideas could be granted to this animal. This explains why there are very few positive characteristics associated with cats in idioms.
The relationship between cats and mice
As discussed earlier, cats and dogs seem to have an inherited hatred. likewise, cats are also in a death-feud with mice. The only difference between the two relationships is the reason that leads to the hatred. Dogs chase cats, but cats are after mice. If dogs hate cats out of different social styles and misunderstanding, a cat goes bounding up to a mouse out of its nature as a predator.
The cat is interested in anything that moves — butterflies, birds, grasshoppers, feathery toys waved on the end of a stick, and especially mice. Some common Vietnamese idioms that depict this relationship are “như mèo vờn chuột”, “chuột gặm chân mèo”, “chuột cắn dây buộc mèo”, “mèo con bắt chuột cống”, “mèo già lại thua gan chuột nhắt”. As for English, we have such idioms as “a cat in gloves catches no mice” (success will not happen to a person who is too cautious), “busier than a one-eyed cat watching two mouse holes” (very busy, almost frantic), “playing cat and mouse” (playing in a teasing way), “when the cat’s away, the mice will play” (without regular monitoring, people will misbehave).
To conclude, both English and Vietnamese have idioms with negative connotations of cats. This outnumbers the postive idioms. Although the two languages portray cats with many similar and different personalities, there is a staggering fact that the social status of cats in Vietnam and England is not the same. If in English, cats stand at a position of strength, in Vietnamese, cats represent people of a very low status who are granted no power or real value.
Pedagogical Implications for teaching English idioms
In such a small-scale study, the reseacher aims to suggest some useful pedagogical implications based on the contrastive analysis. More specifically, the researcher is going to discuss how to teach English idioms concerning cats to Vietnamese students with the most effeciency.
First thing first, English teachers should be aware of the similar and different connotations in the idioms related to cats. Then, they will know which idioms to teach and how to teach those expressions to students. Since there are nearly one hundred English idioms that involve the image of cats, the teachers should draw students’ attention to the most useful ones only. The “most useful” idioms are those that students are able to understand, remember and have various opportunities to use again in real life. For example, the teacher should teach such idioms as “rain like cats and dogs” or “fight like cats and dogs” because these idioms have their equivalents in Vietnamese, thus, easy for students to imagine and guess the meanings. Later on, the students will continue using the idioms in various contexts appropriately.
Second, the idioms are just a single aspect of the vocabulary knowledge. The students should not be required to learn too much about idiomatic expressions. They only need a sufficient amount of this knowledge in order to widen their vocabulary and enhance their productive skills. Never should the teachers require the students to be expert at this area. Therefore, it is advisable for the teacher to teach idioms as an integrated skill. In other words, the teacher should spend only a small portion which is about ten to fifteen minutes presenting one or two useful idioms to the students.
What matters next is how to teach those idioms in the most effective way. As mentioned earlier in the paper, English idioms are fixed expressions whose structures sometimes do not conform to the normal grammatical rules. It is not an easy task for learners to use idioms appropriately in communication. Therefore, there is a need to study some semantic features of English and Vietnamese idiomatic verb phrases with the hope of helping learners use this part of idioms more effectively and confidently. Hence, the teacher should not spend too much time and effert on the detailed explanation of the structures. Instead, the teacher should focus more on interpreting the meaning of the idioms to ensure that the students get the messages hidden in the idioms. The teacher can also encourages the students to work out the figurative meaning from its literal meaning. By this way, the students’ imagination and creativity can be boosted. Moreover, it is a must that the teacher should give more information about the origin of each idiom and compare or contrast English idioms with the first language equivalents, if possible. The comparison and contrast technique helps to make the lesson more interesting and motivating as it gives the students a chance to relate the new knowledge with what they have known from their own culture. Also, some examples should be given to provide the students with meaningful contexts.
Another implication is for teaching translation. If the students have acquired profound understanding of the English idioms, they can be kept away from word-by-word translation. For example, once a student has known the idiom “rain cats and dogs” clearly, he will know that this should be translated as “mưa như trút nước” instead of “mưa như chó với mèo” – a completely literal translation.
In conclusion, teaching and learning a language are teaching and learning a culture. By teaching idioms, English teachers can help their student open the door to the unique culture of the second language they are learning. Idioms are much more intersting than academic vocabulary in textbooks. Teaching idioms can motivate students in learning the language. Students can remember the structures and vocabularies carried in the idioms with ease. The bottom line is that the teacher should know how to select and teach useful idioms in the right way so that the students are able to use idioms properly both in classrooms and in real-life communication.
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