It’s taken me a long time as a language learner to come to terms with proverbs. I always resisted them for various reasons. They’re a pain to learn, they can sound silly and unnatural, and it’s often hard to imagine a scenario in which you’d actually use them. However, they’re actually a really important part of every language, and as an English speaker I find I’m often unaware of just how many I use every day.
Knowing these sayings, and being able to produce them spontaneously at the right moment, is an important component of fluency. They’re the colour and spirit of a language, and help you to get deeper into the mentality of it. Here is a list of ten great proverbs in different languages, that perhaps one day will come in handy for you!
1. Greek – Όποιος γίνεται πρόβατο τον τρώει ο λύκος
Ópios yínetai próvato ton tróei o líkos
Literal meaning: Whoever becomes a sheep is eaten by the wolf.
Follow the wrong people, and you will fail with them.
2. German – In der Kürze liegt die Würze
Literal meaning: In shortness is spice.
The shorter a joke, the funnier it is.
3. Yiddish – ווען די באבע וואלט געהאט רעדער, וואלט זי געווען א טראלייבוס
Ven di bobe volt gehat reder, volt zi geven a troleybus
Literal meaning: If grandma had wheels, she’d be a trolleybus.
Stop focusing on ‘what ifs’, and concentrate on what you’ve got.
4. Russian – Любовь зла, полюбишь и козла
Lyubóv zla, polyúbish i kozlá
Literal meaning: Love is evil, you will even fall in love with a goat.
Love can blind you, and make you see someone for better than they really are.
5. Spanish – Los trapos sucios se lavan en casa
Literal meaning: Dirty clothes are washed at home.
Personal family problems should be sorted out in private, not in the view of everyone else.
6. Dutch – Hoge bomen vangen veel wind
Literal meaning: High trees catch a lot of wind
Those that are successful always attract criticism.
7. Catalan – De mica en mica s’omple la pica i de gota en gota s’omple la bota
Literal meaning: Little by little you fill the sink and drop by drop you fill the barrel.
Be patient in your achievements, lots of little bits are better than just one lot.
8. Italian – Al contadino non far sapere quanto è buono il cacio con le pere
Literal meaning: Don’t let the peasant know how good the cheese with pears is.
Know your place, don’t long for things you can’t afford.
9. Afrikaans – Al dra ‘n bobbejaan ‘n goue ring, bly hy nog ‘n lelike ding
Literal meaning: Even if a baboon wears a gold ring, he’s still an ugly thing.
Don’t be taken in by superficial changes in appearance – a leopard doesn’t change his spots.
10. French – Qui vole un oeuf, vole un boeuf
Literal meaning: Whoever steals an egg steals an ox.
Once a thief, always a thief, no matter how big or small the crime.