Us Brits aren’t particularly known for our language skills when abroad, frequently spotted waving our hands about, speaking LOUDLY and slllooowwwwllyy or simply ‘pretending’ that we understand the locals, with nods and “uh hmms”.
In fact, a recent survey found that 83% of us have visited countries where we don’t speak the language, yet half of us don’t even worry about language barriers as we believe that most people overseas speak English! This is despite the fact that 82% of the world’s population do not speak ANY English whatsoever!
Happily however, there are many people out there who DO make an effort with foreign languages – Unfortunately, these efforts do not always go to plan! I asked around a bunch of travellers for their stories of confusion and mis-interpretation when it came to communicating in a foreign language and here’s what they came back with…
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“The first time I went to Paris, my French was pretty basic. This became quite amusing when I was in Versailles and went to ask a security guard a question. I carefully formed my question in my head and asked it. She shrugged. I did the same mental prep but this time enunciated more carefully. Once again she had no clue what I was asking. I got ready a 3rd time and started speaking and that’s when I caught it. I was saying the 1st half of my sentence in French and then switched over to Spanish midway. I laughed out loud, and she looked a bit concerned. I finally got it all out in French, and both of us were extremely relieved!”
“My friend went into a grocery store in Mexico and asked them where there penises were (the Spanish word for penis is REALLY close to the word for brushes, (which is what she wanted).”
“I had a Brasilian ex one time who got really pissed at his boss and walked around telling everyone at work he wanted to “BLOW FRED”. I let him go on for about 20 minutes before I was like “what do you mean ‘blow’ fred”? He was like “you know, KABOOM…blow him.” I replied “Blow him UP?” then explained the difference between blowing a man and blowing a man up. Needless to say it was hysterical”.
“Once when i was in Mexico, I was trying to buy a ticket at a large train station with multiple ticket offices. The woman at the ticket counter told me she didn’t sell the type of train ticket I was after and I’d have to go to another ticket counter to make my purchase. However, every time I asked her where I could find the correct ticket booth, the woman would burst into hysterics, and wait for me to ask again, before laughing some more. Eventually I figured out I was asking where the “taco stand” (taqueria) was, rather than the “ticket booth” (taquilla).”
Nancy FamilyonBikes Sathre-Vogel:
“When I was in training for the Peace Corps, we all lived with families. One of my friends had a very difficult time with her host family. A VERY difficult time. She was counting the days til she could escape.
So one day she came home from training and walked into a house full of women – her host mother’s birthday party. Alice looked at the big beautiful cake and then smiled at her host mother and said, “Que linda la caca!
Slang for cake in Honduras is que-que (rhymes with hay-hay) but Alice was thinking of the English word cake and changed it around in her mind to caca which means shit. She felt really badly, but we all busted a gut”.
“I meant to say “seize the day” as in ‘carpe diem’ and translated it to an Argentinian guy as “coche’. Made a long-winded speech about it. After i was done, he politely explained to me that ‘coche’ does mean seize literally but the way Argentinians use it…. it means to have very lustful as-in-a-prostitute sex.”
“A roommate and I were at person’s house from Argentina. My friend was teasing me, and I replied that it was going to be his turn to wash the dishes when we got home. Our friend from Argentina almost fell of the couch from laughing. Apparently, the word I used for dishes means butt cheeks there.”
“I’ve been saving up bits for a post about the difference between US English and Irish English. Dashing out the door right now, but one minor thing that comes up is use of the word “bold”. In the US, perhaps due to our pioneer roots, bold is seen as a good thing: bravery, daring, and maybe a bit of heroism. In Ireland it’s a euphemism for naughty. For example, when discussing a foster doggy with a lady who works with a rescue group, she indicated he had pottied indoors. “Oh, he was bold this morning!”
Perhaps that’s how it was originally and Americans just claimed and repurposed – rebranded? – the word. Haven’t looked it up, but still cracks me up. “He was a bold and daring young man!” …really? Like, he watched T.V. after bedtime?”
“I have to say, I’ve made all sorts of trip ups when traveling through spanish-speaking countries while still picking up the language. In addition to my example above, there was also the time when I meant to say “it’s hot” (as in, it’s a hot day) and instead of saying “hace calor” I said “estoy caliente” which I thought meant “I’m feeling really warm”. It actually translates to “I’m horny”
Jennifer Doré Dallas:
“I once asked a bank teller lady if I could fuck my travel checks… mixed up the verbs…?”
Luckily, there IS a new product available that could prevent these kind of ‘mistakes’ – i-interpret4u is a service that connects travellers to live and (hopefully) highly experienced interpreters enabling you to communicate with locals in their own language, regardless of where you are in the world. You just call them up once you get through to your interpreter of choice just tell them what you want translated and off you go!
I’ve never tried this service but would be interested in hearing from people who have – is it as useful as it sounds? Or does it take some of the ‘fun’ out of travelling and its related language hiccups?….