They’re bound to happen when living amidst another culture. But we have to keep sticking our necks out there and trying, right? We learn from our mistakes, and usually have a good laugh at them later.
I was in language school a few years ago. You know we made some great, funny mistakes while spending 6-8 hours in Chinese every day! My most memorable moment was during tutor time. I was studying flash cards and trying to converse with my sweet, patient tutor while my classmate was studying tones behind me (Chinese has 5 of them.) I attempted to say, “He really likes tones,” because he was repeating them with his tutor rather loudly. My tutor started giggling immediately. After a quick check with a dictionary, I realized I had changed one little vowel and said, “He really likes to hang himself.” WHOOPS!
I asked some friends to share their best stories of language blunders. These are great!!
While eating out one evening, I dropped my chopsticks on the floor. In China, it’s perfectly fine to yell out to the waiter/waitress what you need. I attempted to yell across the room, “I need some new chopsticks!” Instead, it came out, “I need a new wife!”
Our class had invited our Chinese teacher to lunch. Even though she didn’t believe, we still wanted to pray before the meal. Apparently, I was hungry and my stomach took over my words, because instead of saying, “Father, thank you that today is Friday…” I said, “Father, thank you that today is hungry.”
In my first semester of language school, I was overly excited to use what little vocabulary I had learned. Too bad “butt” and “rib” sound a lot alike. I tried to compliment my hostess by saying, “This rib is SO good!” But, alas, one slip of a vowel botched the whole compliment.
When studying new vocabulary, I used flashcards with the Chinese characters on one side and the phonetic spelling and translation on the other side. I would often spread the cards out between my tutor and myself and try to identify any I already knew . A couple weeks into studying, my tutor and I were doing this exercise and I excitedly pointed to “bathroom” and announced that I knew that one… but then when I pronounced it as I thought it should be said, my tutor cracked up at me. Déjà vu from several times my first year when I asked the location of the bathroom and got either snickers or blank, uncomfortable stares. When she stopped laughing, my tutor informed me that the word I was pointing to did mean bathroom, but I was pronouncing the word for feminine hygiene products.
Early on in studying, my tutor was teaching me a grammatical concept where you can repeat a word twice to communicate that it was little or cute (like adding “y” to duck or pig to get the cute “ducky” or “piggy”). I always liked to try out new things I was learning, so I grabbed a rubber chicken that was sitting nearby (don’t we all have those sitting nearby?! HA!) and tried it out. But it turns out that the word for chicken and a man’s reproductive organ are the same (context is HUGE in Chinese), so when I took it out of context, instead of getting little chicken, I got the cutesy word for a little boy’s part. Eek!
I went to a local pharmacy to pick up some meds. After attempting to describe what I wanted, I heard the worker say “Shí fēnzhōng” (“ten minutes”). So, I walked out, lingered around, bought some fruit, and returned in ten minutes. When I asked for my meds, she said it again! “Ten minutes.” I thought, c’mon lady, I just gave you ten minutes! Then I listened a little closer and heard “Shēnfèn zhèng” (“ID card”). I wonder what she thought when I left for those ten minutes?!
While in Mexico, I lived with a great host family. It was raining really hard one day, so I tried to ask them where I could buy an umbrella. They kept giving me puzzled looks and asking me why. Well, it’s raining! I finally figured out I was mistakenly asking where to buy a windshield.
What language mishaps do you have to share? We’d love to laugh with you now that it’s all over!
This post originally appeared here.