You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.
You’re probably thinking, “what in the world does that mean?”
That, my friend, is a classic American proverb.
The meaning has nothing to do with taking a horse to get a drink of water but instead states the truth that there’s only so much that you can do to help someone. At some point, the person you’re trying to help will need to help themselves.
As a beginner English language learner, American proverbs might be a little bit beyond your reach, but if you’re ready for a fun language challenge, here it is!
What American Proverbs Can Offer an English Language Learner
Proverbs are short sayings that state a truth or offer a piece of advice.
The literal (word for word) translation of a proverb doesn’t usually match the figurative (not literal) meaning. For this reason, proverbs are often unique to a language.
All languages have their own proverbs.
Proverbs can enhance your English language learning in several ways.
Proverbs offer a glimpse into American culture
Once you’ve passed the beginner level, proverbs can provide a fun, funny and flamboyant (colorful, vibrant or lively) glimpse (a peak or look) into American culture. Many proverbs date back multiple generations (grandparents, great grandparents and beyond). Some American proverbs are even specific to certain regions.
Similar to slang, proverbs are part of a language that isn’t formally taught.
You’ll likely encounter proverbs in movies, television shows and American literature.
Proverbs can help you connect with native English speakers
You’ll definitely impress any native English speaker if you drop (state or say) an American proverb during a conversation! Because you likely won’t find these unique English phrases in a textbook or traditional dictionary, to learn these, you must become immersed in the language itself.
And, unless you’re studying English in the United States, you likely won’t have very many chances to pick up some American proverbs.
However, you do have another option: FluentU!
Unlike traditional language learning sites, FluentU uses a natural approach that helps you ease into the English language and culture over time. You’ll learn English as it’s spoken in real life.
FluentU has a variety of engaging content from popular talk shows, nature documentaries and funny commercials, as you can see here:
FluentU makes it really easy to watch English videos. There are captions that are interactive. That means you can tap on any word to see an image, definition and useful examples.
For example, when you tap on the word "searching," you'll see this:
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The best part is that FluentU keeps track of the vocabulary that you’re learning and gives you extra practice with difficult words. It even reminds you when it’s time to review! Every learner has a truly personalized experience, even if they’re learning with the same video.
You can start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, by downloading the app from the iTunes or Google Play stores.
Proverbs present a fun language challenge
Because proverbs aren’t usually translated literally, to understand many of them requires some intermediate to advanced English language skills. It’s important to continually challenge yourself as an English language learner, though, if you want to reach complete English fluency.
Proverbs are like puzzles.
Trying to figure out and understand the meaning of an American proverb is a great language exercise.
17 American Proverbs That Are as American as Apple Pie
1. You Can’t Make an Omelet Without Breaking a Few Eggs.
An omelet is a classic American breakfast dish that includes at least two eggs and add-ins like bell peppers, broccoli, onions, spinach and cheese. It’s completely impossible to make an omelet if you don’t break the eggs first. Breaking the eggs is the first step to your end goal of eating a delicious breakfast.
This American proverb simply states that if you don’t take the first step, it’s impossible to complete your goal. It also is usually used to mean that sometimes, negative or difficult things need to happen before you can achieve something important.
If your goal is to become fluent in English, you must start learning the basics—you must break the egg. And if you make a few mistakes along the way… that’s just a part of the learning process!
2. Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket.
As you know, eggs are delicate (easy to break). If you happen to trip and fall as you’re carrying a basket full of eggs, it’s likely that all of those eggs will break as they fly out of the basket and land on the hard ground.
This proverb suggests that you shouldn’t put everything you’ve got (all your time or all your money) into one thing because if that one thing doesn’t work out, you’ll be left with nothing but broken eggs.
You’ll likely hear this proverb when someone is overly excited about an investment opportunity that sounds too good to be true.
Maybe your friend just told you that he’s going to invest his life savings in a new company that’s designing the first flying car. He tells you that if he invests $10,000 right now that his $10,000 will turn into $100,000,000 as soon as the car is on the market.
You might say to him, “don’t put all your eggs in one basket!”
3. Don’t Count Your Chickens Until They Hatch.
Is it just me, or is anyone else in the mood for breakfast?
This proverb offers a great piece of advice. Until something actually happens, you shouldn’t assume that it will.
A farmer might have 12 chicken eggs, but until 12 chicks hatch out of those eggs, the farmer doesn’t actually know how many chicks will be born.
The take-away here is to not get ahead of your expectations, otherwise you’ll risk disappointment.
4. There’s More Than One Way to Skin a Cat.
The simple meaning of this proverb is that there’s often more than one way to do or accomplish something.
To use language learning as an example, there are clearly many different approaches and resources that are beneficial and effective for learning English. Since every language learner is different, there’s no real one-size-fits-all way to learn a language.
On your language learning journey, you’ve probably been told “this is the best way” or “this is the best resource,” but “the best” is really whatever personally works for you. You have to figure out the best way to skin the cat—figuratively, of course!
5. Strike While the Iron Is Hot.
Strike while the iron is hot is a call to act quickly when a good opportunity is presented to you. Sometimes in life, you have to be decisive (make a decision with confidence) and trust your instincts. If you think too much about something, the opportunity may just pass you by.
Take this scenario.
Your aunt planned a trip to New York City with her friend, but her friend had to cancel at the last minute. She calls you and asks if you’d like to go since she doesn’t want to go alone and has an extra ticket.
This is where you’d strike when the iron is hot! If you’re indecisive and take too long to respond, she’ll likely ask someone else to go and you’ll miss your chance to put your English skills to the test.
6. A Bird in the Hand Is Worth Two in the Bush.
The advice this proverb offers is that you should hold onto and be thankful for what you have instead of risking losing it in the pursuit of something that you don’t have.
Sometimes we take for granted what we have, and also don’t realize what we have until it’s gone. This proverb claims that the most valuable thing you have is what you actually have!
7. Never Trouble Trouble ’til Trouble Troubles You.
Say that 10 times fast!
This proverbs means that you shouldn’t make things more difficult for yourself than they need to be.
If you’re a beginner English learner, you’ll only be creating more trouble for yourself if you try and use resources that are meant for advanced learners.
You’ve probably noticed that the word “trouble” is repeated four times in this proverb.
In English, a lot of words can be used as different parts of speech.
Trouble is a verb in the first and fourth usages of the word, while it’s a noun in the second and third usage in this proverb.
8. Paddle Your Own Canoe.
To paddle your own canoe means that you’re independent and don’t need anyone else’s help.
This proverb can state a truth about a person.
Alex has always paddled his own canoe.
Or, this proverb can offer advice.
If you want to succeed in life, you need to learn to paddle your own canoe.
As you continue to study and practice English, eventually you’ll be able to paddle your own canoe. One day, you’ll be fluent and won’t need the help of language learning classes, lessons, teachers or practice material!
9. Bitter Pills May Have Blessed Effects.
The meaning behind this American proverb is that the remedy or solution to a problem might not be pleasant, but the end result can be wonderful.
For example, studying English for several hours every day might not always be enjoyable—unless, of course, you’re learning English with FluentU!—but all that “bitter” effort will be rewarded when you’re able to communicate in English with confidence.
10. Don’t Make a Mountain out of a Molehill.
You know that feeling when you’ve spilled your coffee, and suddenly you’re in the worst mood?
Or, when your morning yoga class gets canceled and now your entire day is ruined?
Or, how about when your boyfriend is 10 minutes late to pick you up for your date, and you tell him you don’t want to go out with him anymore.
Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill means that you shouldn’t take something small and make it into a big deal, and especially not a way bigger deal than it needs to be.
If you accidentally used the wrong verb conjugation when you responded to your English teacher’s question, don’t make a mountain out of a molehill. We all make mistakes, even native speakers! Instead of beating yourself up and making your mistake a big deal, simply recognize your error, correct it and move on.
11. It’s Darkest Before the Dawn.
This encouraging proverb suggests that a situation tends to feel the worst right before it gets better. This philosophical proverb is a good reminder that darkness is always followed by light.
At some point during your language learning journey, you’ll likely encounter a phase, hopefully, a very short one, where you feel like you’ve hit a wall, you’re frustrated, you don’t feel like your progressing or you feel like you just want to give up.
This is the darkest moment!
But, if you stick with it and keep practicing and putting in the effort, the dawn will eventually come!
12. Every Gray Cloud Has a Silver Lining.
This beautiful proverb reminds us that despite a situation or event being bad or difficult, there’s likely something good that’ll come out of it.
For example, Frida Kahlo was in a terrible bus accident that forced her to stay in bed for months during her recovery when she was young. It was during this time that she began to paint and developed her unique and world-famous style. It was the bus accident that ultimately put her on the path to becoming a famous artist.
That’s the silver lining!
13. People Who Live in Glass Houses Shouldn’t Throw Stones.
People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones reminds us that we shouldn’t criticize others for things that we ourselves do. This proverb advises against being a hypocrite.
For example, this proverb would apply to a classmate who’s being mean to someone because they didn’t know what a certain word meant in English, even though this classmate often makes a lot of mistakes in English.
14. There Are Plenty More Fish in the Sea.
This proverb is mainly used to offer condolences (sympathy) to someone who has just broken up with their significant other. This proverb suggests that the heartbroken person shouldn’t worry too much because there are plenty of other potential partners out there.
This proverb might be incorporated into a conversation like this:
Your friend: Shelly just broke up with me. I’m going to be alone forever!
You: I’m so sorry she broke up with you. But, you shouldn’t worry too much. There are plenty more fish in the sea.
15. Take It with a Grain of Salt.
To take it with a grain of salt means that you shouldn’t take something someone says or does too seriously.
This proverb can be used when someone is telling you something that probably isn’t entirely true. In this case, you’d take what they say with a grain of salt.
We all know someone who always exaggerates or doesn’t tell the entire truth. These are the types of people that we usually take what they say with a grain of salt. These are also the types of people that we tell others to take with a grain of salt.
16. The Early Bird Gets the Worm.
The early bird gets the worm suggests that to be successful, you need to start early or before anyone else.
This proverb advises us to get up early, seize the day and take advantage of opportunities. Success is often not rewarded to those who are lazy!
Often the most successful people are those who do something before anyone else does. Really successful people also tend to wake up really early!
Success takes hard work and time, and the earlier you wake up, the more time you have to work—or study and practice your English.
17. From Little Acorns Mighty Oaks Do Grow.
This American proverb reminds us that great people and accomplishments often come from modest (simple) beginnings. This proverb can certainly be applied to your English language learning journey!
You might have started with little to no understanding of the English language, but from these humble beginnings, you have grown into a strong English speaker!
Like a tree that needs sunlight and water to grow, in order to grow as an English learner, you’ll need to support your growth with regular studying and practicing.
American proverbs are commonly used in casual English conversations.
The same way that it’s useful to learn some English slang or informal English for conversation purposes, learning and understanding proverbs will help you connect with native English speakers and American culture on a deeper level.
And to be honest, sometimes there’s nothing more fitting or appropriate to say to a person or in a specific situation that an American proverb!
Archita Mittra is a freelance writer, journalist, editor and educator. Feel free to check out her blog or contact her for freelancing/educational inquiries.
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