There's a proverb in my language which goes like --he/she spent just one night with the hen and ended up clucking the following morning. This saying can be used either positively or negatively.

I'm looking for a proverb or idiom about learning a new language very quickly.

  • Language savant, polyglot savant. – Blessed Geek Dec 22 '14 at 17:51
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    We Brits are an island race, so relatively speaking we don't get exposed to such situations very often. And "The Brits Abroad" are notorious for assuming foreigners can understand English if it's only spoken loudly enough, so they rarely bother much with the local language. Speaking a foreign language isn't exactly central to our culture, so I doubt there's a standard idiom/saying for it. – FumbleFingers Dec 22 '14 at 17:59
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    Do these answers work (quick learner question)? – Minnow Dec 22 '14 at 18:15
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    If the context already deals with learning languages, I think your own proverb would be perfectly understandable: “He's really quick with languages—give him five minutes in the henhouse and he'll come out clucking!” gets the meaning across just fine. However, it would get the meaning out just fine in non-language contexts too, where you're talking about picking up some skill or other very quickly. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 22 '14 at 18:28
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    I have heard the phrase language sponge used by linguists to describe other linguists (like the late Ken Hale, for instance), who could seemingly soak up a language very rapidly. Even unusual languages (in Hale's case, especially -- he spoke Navajo and Walbiri fluently, for instance). – John Lawler Dec 22 '14 at 19:00

The English phrase "quick study" is not limited to linguistic prowess, but it certainly applies.


One who is able to memorize something easily and quickly,

or is able to understand and deal with something easily and successfully.

"Janice is such a quick study that we can call her to solve any problem in the company."

Sponge is a recent colloquial synonym, and is listed as a synonym for "quick study". Although that definition is not listed in any of the dictionaries I currently use, I have used the term in that fashion myself:

Joey is a sponge for baseball statistics; you'll be hard pressed to stump him.

It would be more recognizable in the simile

She has a mind like a sponge!

I like the word picture of "spending the night with the chickens!" If we can't find a preexisting proverb or idiom, I'd like to generate one today:

He soaks up language like a sponge!

  • If anyone has documentation for that colloquial use of sponge, I am a grateful guy. – ScotM Dec 22 '14 at 20:59
  • @ ScotM I like the Algerian proverb too. It emphasises how the environment is crucial in helping learn/acquire a new language. – user15851 Dec 23 '14 at 5:53
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    In the first 25 years of my life I studied five languages academically and only became fluent in one: English, my native language. In just 15 years after that I learned to speak 4 other languages, by living with the people who spoke those languages. Are you more interested in a word for that process/dynamic than the prowess of the learner? – ScotM Dec 23 '14 at 6:00
  • @ ScotM Rather a proverb or an idiom. – user15851 Dec 23 '14 at 6:09

Specifically for languages, an idiom one might use is to say the person had an ear for languages, which implies being a quick study at the spoken form of any language.


The language we learn first, best and most quickly is often referred to as our

mother tongue:


The language which a person has grown up speaking from early childhood:

"English is my mother tongue, but I have wrapped my heart in a few other languages too."

It's not a preexisting proverb, but building on that word picture of mother tongue, we could imply linguistic dexterity with a question:

Did his mother give him that tongue too?


How/When did his mother give him that tongue?


Whose mother gave him that tongue?

  • @ ScotM Hmmm interesting. – user15851 Dec 23 '14 at 6:57

He took to Swahili like a duck to water.

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    For Swahili, a flamingo may be more appropriate than a duck :) – ScotM Dec 23 '14 at 15:05

He is linguistically gifted.

She has an aptitude for languages.

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