I wonder if there are some other ways to express the fact that I have been learning something for a certain period of time but still haven't mastered the ABCs of it? The following is what I am not quite sure about:

  • I am a green hand at fixing cars.

  • I haven't even touched the door to fixing cars.

  • Fixing cars is just like learning Chinese to me.

Can I say the above? Any other better expressions? Thank you. :)

  • 4
    It's not really an answer to this question, but the word sophomore ("wise idiot") was invented to describe exactly this state: you've been studying for a while but you still know virtually nothing.
    – MT_Head
    Aug 9, 2013 at 1:32
  • 1
    The more you know, the more you know you don't know.
    – The Photon
    Aug 9, 2013 at 2:35
  • It's more often used with a different meaning, but "I know enough to know what I don't know" could be adapted to "I know just enough to know what I don't know" (i.e. - precious little, as yet! :) Aug 9, 2013 at 2:53
  • I've just remembered this expression which describes your progress in learning new skills: a steep learning curve "I'm still only half way up the learning curve."
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 10, 2013 at 8:52

7 Answers 7


I haven't even touched the door to fixing cars.

I've never heard of the expression "to touch the door" although I can guess its meaning because of the context. You could say, "I haven't even started fixing doors." Otherwise, these terms will be more familiar with AmEng speakers—

A rookie (AmEng) "I'm a rookie when it comes to fixing cars."

A novice "I've only just started learning the basics of car mechanics. You could say I'm a novice."

Fixing cars is just like learning Chinese to me.

Not an idiomatic expression, but it's fine if you want to say that learning something is virtually impossible. However, I don't think that's your intention, you have started learning something but you're at the very beginning. Hence, I would suggest the following;

To learn the ropes "I'm far from being a car mechanic, I've only begun learning the ropes."

To get the hang "Learning how to fix cars takes time. I've only started to get the hang of it"

To master "It will be some time before I master the art of car mechanics"

Instead of

I am a green hand at fixing cars

(Which is sort of OK, in the sense that we understand what you're saying.) It's better just to say green.

To be green lacking training; not trained; inexperienced. "I'm still green when it comes to fixing cars"

  • Can I also say" I have been learning something- some skills or knowledge for a time. I have been spending a lot of efforts. But for some reason(maybe I am not clever enough to make rapid progress or maybe it is extremely difficult or maybe no one in a higher level has given me any instructions). So sometimes I feel I am only scratching the surface of the subject or I am still in a state of superficial understanding of the subject or I haven't even learned the essence of the subject ?" Thank you. Aug 9, 2013 at 13:16
  • That's a lot of statements you're asking if they are correct or not. The most evident error I can spot is "I have been spending a lot of efforts" Effort is uncountable and should (with exceptions) be kept to the singular so, I have spent a lot of effort. The rest is fine, and "I'm only scratching the surface..." is very good!!
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 9, 2013 at 16:23

(questionable) I am a green hand at fixing cars.

In American usage, this is more likely worded as "I'm a greenhorn at fixing cars."

(grammatically acceptable) Fixing cars is just like learning Chinese to me.

This is grammatically correct and easily understood. But it implies you don't expect to ever learn how to fix cars. A more common idiom is "Fixing cars is all Greek to me."

(wrong) I haven't even touched the door to fixing cars.

This is not at all idiomatic in English. The meaning is clear, but it means you have not spent any time learning about fixing cars, not that you have been learning but still have much more learning to do.

A common way to say what you describe is simply, "I'm just starting to learn about fixing cars."


"I'm still learning to fix cars."

While masters are masters because they don't stop learning, I think this idiom conveys that you know something, but you are not an expert, and you are continuing to improve.


You are on the road to being a mechanic.

If you want to emphasize the very early stage of your development, you could say

I am just starting down the road to being a mechanic.


If you have been learning something but you don't know the basics ("ABCs"), then you haven't in fact been learning those basics. Perhaps you have been learning something else, but then what? By definition, there is nothing lower than the rudiments of the subject matter, so if you have been absorbing anything of the matter, it must be the more advanced material, which is hardly plausible.

Your eyes scan the paragraphs and pages of printed learning material, but nothing sticks. You're not getting it. You haven't even begun to scratch the surface of the subject matter. You find it literally impenetrable.

Weeks turn to months, and all you are gaining is increased conviction in the suspicion that you might be a permanent neophyte in this subject: one who has put in time, but remains essentially the same as a newbie.


Here are a couple more:

I am a rank amateur at car mechanics.


I have a brown thumb with car repairs.


"I've just scratched the surface."

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