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I've had this silly obsession for a while: I can't seem to find a proper phrase in English that is as expressive and 'colorful' as the idiom in my native language that describes learning a new skill by watching someone else doing it, without being actively/intentionally trained how to do it.

In my native language (Romanian) we have a fura meserie — it literally means 'to steal someone's trade'.

Is there an English equivalent? This question has been bugging me a bit more that it should.

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    There is "learning by example" but that usually means that one is taught by demonstration, rather than simply picking up a skill by watching how it's done. – Andrew Leach Nov 14 '17 at 13:30
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    "Monkey see, monkey do" CAN refer to bad behavior which is emulated, but I think it could be used idiomatically and less negatively. "Ed learned how to cut glass simply by watching Shirley doing it. Monkey see, monkey do!" Now Ed may not know as well as Shirley about the how's and why's and theories of glass cutting, but if he does it successfully, then it's a case of monkey see, monkey do. – rhetorician Nov 14 '17 at 14:10
  • For a well known phrase (which comes in many similar forms) that seeing isn't enough to learn, see I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand. But this doesn't seem to be what you want, as you want a phrase that people who watch are successful at learning. – AndyT Nov 14 '17 at 15:27
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    I think we call it 'Youtubing' now. I saved a couple of hundred pounds in garage fees not long ago, just by watching a two minute Youtube video. – Nigel J Nov 14 '17 at 21:31
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    Sometimes a skill can "rub off." This comes from creating a "rubbing." – George Cummins Nov 14 '17 at 22:08

14 Answers 14

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In the business context the phrase often used to convey this meaning is:

Work shadowing

the activity of spending time with someone who is doing a particular job so that you can learn how to do it: You need to get quality work experience or do some work shadowing. - Cambridge.

Where the word shadow expresses the idea that you follow the person you are learning from like a shadow to observe what they are doing.

Job shadowing and work shadowing are two phrases used interchangeably:

Job shadowing allows the observer to see and understand the nuances of a particular job. The job shadowing employee is able to observe how the employee does the job, the key deliverables expected from the job, and the employees with whom the job interacts.

-- from the article: Job Shadowing Is Effective On-the-Job Training at thebalance.com

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    "Sitting next to Nellie" is an informal term for this, but it does imply that the training is intentional. – Kate Bunting Nov 14 '17 at 15:58
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    This usage is so prevalent, I've heard it relaxed to simply "shadowing", like "Can I shadow you in the woodshop? I want to see [read: learn] how you make those straight cuts." It literally comes from the idea of standing in another's shadow while they're working, so you're not participating in any way, but learning all the tricks. – AdamO Nov 14 '17 at 18:52
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    Shadowing is probably the most 'active' term for this activity which could wrongly be interpreted as passive; it's a great answer. A shadower is very actively involved, but their action is in observation, rather than just being present and letting something 'sink in' like osmosis implies. The desktop support employee at NASA may learn some rocket science by osmosis by overhearing talk in the cafeteria or perusing diagrams that they retrieve from accidental deletion. But a welding apprentice will learn by shadowing and watching a master welder demonstrate a technique. – user3685427 Nov 15 '17 at 19:12
  • I don't think this matches the context. Your response is based on a professional learning environment, like an apprentice. While the original context of the question seems to be someone observing another, possibly without permission. Hence the "steal." I think an example would be if I wanted to start a coffee shop, then I went to a local shop and spied on them while making their own recipes. – JGallardo Jun 12 '18 at 22:04
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There is an English idiom, to learn by osmosis.

This is, as you describe, to pick something up simply by observation and practice in the presence of an expert.

The idiom is most frequently encountered when discussing the learning of a language. Simply being around native speakers results in learning by osmosis. Note that it does not imply that the learning is strictly accurate.

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    Isn't "learn by osmosis" a metaphor? – godskook Nov 14 '17 at 16:50
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    I've usually seen that term used to reference learning the material contained in a textbook by falling asleep with your head on the book... – Tristan Nov 14 '17 at 18:15
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    Learning by osmosis is specifically passive learning. If you a med student in the operating room observing a surgeon, you are not learning by osmosis. – AdamO Nov 14 '17 at 18:50
  • Learning a language this way is actually effective to some extent. I learned enough of a language by osmosis that I decided to start studying the language intentionally, and my passive knowledge is helping significantly. I find it generally easier to correct minor vocabulary and grammar errors (that I picked up passively) than to learn new vocabulary and grammatical structures ab initio. – Robert Columbia Nov 15 '17 at 12:54
  • We might have to season that description (to pick something up simply by observation and practice) with more: "learning by osmosis" implies a very passive mode of learning (indeed, unintentionally or without effort, as the OP originally requested) and not so much that of a person intentionally observing and practicing a skill they see. – rschwieb Nov 15 '17 at 15:04
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Monkey see, monkey do is colorful whose main meaning is the imitation of another person's actions simply by observation and copying but with no understanding.

Copying the behaviour of another without reason or understanding.

(Collins)

Since it is used for rote imitation, bypassing the understanding process, it is often applied to children or, in a pejorative way, to adults.

So, it is not a compliment. Although it can be used humorously to apply to a given situation.

"Monkey see, monkey do" is a traditional phrase used for commenting on someone's (often a child's) tendency to imitate whatever he or she sees someone else doing. Eric Partridge, "A Dictionary of Catch Phrases American and British," calls it a Canadian and U.S. catchphrase originating about 1925, "by c. 1950, also English, but . . . [used] rather to describe the learning of a a [sic] process, which, although performed thereafter with reasonable competence, is never actually understood."

(The Phrase Finder)

But it can also mean, more generally, to learn something by observation, as in:

Over twenty years ago, a team of scientists, led by Giacomo Rizzolatti at the University of Parma, discovered special brain cells, called mirror neurons, in monkeys. These cells appeared to be activated both when the monkey did something itself and when the monkey simply watched another monkey do the same thing.

For the construction of the sentence, see Why Do We Say "Monkey See, Monkey Do"? at Behind the Dictionary.

Again, the phrase is usually pejorative, but it can be applied humorously.

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    This phrase doesn't quite fit the meaning OP asked for; it refers to learning behavior by example, rather than a skill. – Justin Lardinois Nov 14 '17 at 19:45
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    If it were applied to a skill, I would interpret it to mean that the "learner" has a cargo-cult understanding of the procedure, following a set of actions without knowing why or even if they will produce the desired result. – stannius Nov 14 '17 at 21:21
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    This definitely takes special care to use without it sounding like a pejorative. – J... Nov 15 '17 at 19:48
  • @JustinLardinois : the biggest problem is not behavior vs skill, but that it's not really learning. "monkey see, monkey do" infers blindly copying what the other person does, without any understanding (like a cargo cult). Learning would imply understanding it. – vsz Nov 16 '17 at 7:30
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    In my experience there is often negative connotation to the phrase "Monkey see, Monkey do". It can imply a simplicity related to the task, the people learning the task, or both. – mccainz Nov 16 '17 at 13:03
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There is a phrase

watch and learn

which is commonly said to the observer by the doer before they commence work.

It can also be used as a taunt when showing off to someone who has been unsuccessfully trying to do something.

  • There is an anecdote about surgeons only being involved in a procedure three times: one to watch and learn; once to practice; and once to teach. – Henry Nov 17 '17 at 9:24
  • This is oversimplified and ignores the context of "stealing." – JGallardo Jun 12 '18 at 22:05
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There's no idiom for that. In that case, we usually use a phrasal verb:

pick something ↔ up

to learn something by watching or listening to other people

  1. I picked up a few words of Greek when I was there last year.
  2. Mary watched the other dancers to see if she could pick up any tips.

Definition and examples from Longman Dictionary

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learn by imitation

I found this way of expressing the idea in the Wikipedia article on mirror neurons.

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One colorful expression that is sometimes used in the sense of "learning by direct observation" is learning at the feet of the master—although the original image that the idiom invokes is of students gathered around a teacher for pedagogical instruction.

Here are a few instances where the expression seems to refer to prolonged direct observation rather than to completion of a formal curriculum of study or instruction. From Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America, Proceedings of the National Convention, volume 29 (1978) [combined snippets]:

So this might be a good time for me to introduce you to our National Counsel, Mike Brodie. I know a number of you have met him, either through arbitration or in the NLRB process, but for those of you who don't know, Mike was an associate of our first counsel, M.H. Goldstein, and as I like to say, he learned at the feet of the master.

From John Helyar, The Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball (2011):

Pitcher John O'Donoghue had once agreed to contract terms by phone with A's G[enerl] M[anager] Eddie Lopat. The actual contract didn't arrive until spring training, and the salary figures in it were considerably less than discussed.

"But you agreed to a different figure on the phone," O'Donoghue said.

"Prove it," Lopat sneered.

Of course, Lopat had learned at the feet of the master George Weiss, GM of the Yankees' dynasty teams of the 1950s. More precisely, he'd been kicked by the feet of the master. As a Yankee pitcher, Lopat went 15–10 one year and got no raise because, according to Weiss, "You didn't pitch against contending clubs."

And from K.L. Montgomery, Fat Girl (2017):

"Some guys at school have been picking on me," he reveals. "Just calling me skinny and weak and stuff. Because gym class," he says, rolling his eyes, a maneuver he no doubt learned at the feet of the master.

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I believe the whole phrase in Romanian is" meseria se fură, nu se învață". The closest I can think of is "job shadowing". Observe what other do without being noticed and pretend that you are not interested. Maybe a better term would be "Other Worker Spying" (OWS)? (because Americans love acronyms,ha,ha ;-)

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Emulating .. when copying behaviour of respectable, acceptable or the gainful kind.

Aping ... when copying behaviour without attention to pros and cons.

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    Answers will be voted up or down and may be accepted by the OP, so you need to give just one answer here and it is usual to cite a reference to support your answer. – Nigel J Nov 15 '17 at 1:17
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As a musician we often refer to someone learning a tune "by ear" as opposed to someone who reads sheet music. In this case the observation is auditory, not visual (although I admit we sometimes watch the fingers.)

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To copycat. After observing the masonry worker for an hour, John decided to copycat him and cancel the work order. (thereby saving money)

Second example, used as an adjective: The police doubt the most recent murders were from the original serial killer. Instead, they fear there is a copycat killer on the loose.

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    Copycat isn't commonly a verb. It is certainly an adjective: but are you implying that the second killer leanred by watching the first at work? – TimLymington Nov 14 '17 at 23:00
  • @TimLymington I've heard it used as a verb fairly often, so maybe it's region-dependant. – Darren Ringer Nov 16 '17 at 23:09
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Generally, when someone is called a Quick Learner, it is implicit that the person learns by observation.

For people who learn quickly by working overtime (i.e. because of their efforts and not talent), they are called hardworking, dedicated etc.

  • Whether someone is a quick learner, a hard worker, or dedicated seem like three orthogonal concepts. I've also seen people who learn quickly by methods other than observation (and those who learn by observation, but slowly). – Darren Ringer Nov 16 '17 at 23:07
  • There is no context about the speed of learning implied by the original question – JGallardo Jun 12 '18 at 22:06
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There is a phrase which I believe originated in the military (during medical training) and which I encountered in professional school, which was "See one, do one, teach one." It means that you see a procedure done one time, then the next time you do that procedure yourself, and then the third time you can teach someone else how to do it. It's a frightening/nerve-wracking concept (for the patient as well as the trainee!) and was often used somewhat tongue-in-cheek when I heard it.

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"Cargo cult" if you want something colorful. Based on the true story of South Pacific residents not understanding how the US WWII logistics supply chain worked, and performed superficial imitations of military operations, it can apply to cut n paste software developers.

Cargo cult programming

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