Language Flubs

Language Flubs

Language flubs/mishaps/mistakes/embarrassments/tragedies.

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.

Photo by Jakayla Toney on Unsplash


  1. Patty February 7, 2021

    Not so much a language mishap as a cultural one. As I was stateside for a while waiting to be sent for the first time I had met a woman from my host country. I would visit her every week to teach her English and she would teach me her language. One rainy day I arrived and knocked on the door. Her husband was home and opened the door in a “towel”. My head went down to the ground and i asked for his wife. He invited me in and I sat on the sofa waiting for my friend. During our lesson he walked by us several times in his “towel”. Later I was talking with my supervisor and she said “oh I bet that was his native outfit.” Men apparently where skirts in that country. I did not realize Southeast Asia had countries where men wore towels skirts. Patty

    1. Ashley Felder February 10, 2021

      Ha! Quite the introduction to your new home!

  2. Rebecca Zimmerman February 7, 2021

    My husband had to pull over to the side of the road for a child to use the bathroom. A curious onlooker walked by and my husband tried to say “she needs to pee.” What he actually said was “She enjoys pee!” 😆

    1. Ashley Felder February 10, 2021

      Haha, so close!

  3. Anna S February 8, 2021

    This was a good refreshing laugh and reminder it happens everywhere!! So easy to mix things up.. and usually great for a laugh with whoever gets to hear my mistakes. Pronouns sound pretty similar where I’m at currently – It can be pretty embarrassing to ask “Can you pray for me?” instead of, “may I pray for you?” … or , “How is my day?” when I really want to know about theirs… and that’s the mildest form of embarrassing. In the health care setting it can get pretty weird 😆 luckily the locals are so graceful and always up for some humor.

    1. Ashley Felder February 10, 2021

      The grace the locals have with our language is humbling! And a good reminder for when we go back to our passport country and meet those who don’t speak English…may grace abound!

  4. Patty February 10, 2021

    My first international mission trip overseas was to Romania. On Sunday morning , we arrived at our church and there was so many people there. Somehow i got separated from my translator and sat through the sermon not knowing what was being said, the pastor kept saying this one word over and over. it sounded like enema. i could not laugh so I thought only you Lord would give me a sermon on enemas. Afterward i asked my translator what it meant and she said heart. The Lord knows we need clean hearts so he cleans it out just like an enema. So i taught some of the other team members the word. At some of the children”s events they were asking the children if they wanted enemas – and all the children wanted a heart painted on their faces.

    1. Ashley Felder February 14, 2021

      That would be hard to keep a straight face after all that! 😀

  5. Rebekah February 12, 2021

    Once, when our house-help was taking out the rubbish, the rooster was really bothering her (wanting to get at the food scraps to eat them). My husband meant to say to her, “Just throw the bucket (ndoo) at him”. Instead he said, “Just throw marriage (ndoa) at him”! A lot of laughter resulted all round.
    Another funny one was at language school: it took me a while to remember which was which between ‘shoes’ (viatu) and ‘potatoes’ (viazi) … this caused many a confused look when asking for a helping of ‘shoes’ at dinner!

    1. Ashley Felder February 14, 2021

      Those close-sounding words will get ya every time! Throw in tones in some languages, and the complications grow. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  6. Erin H. February 12, 2021

    Haha! So many. But the worst was right after I had just returned from a visit to the States and had a package for another expat family. The husband came by to pick it up, and I brought it out to the street where three little neighbor girls were. After he left on his motor bike, the girls asked me if he was my friend, and I said yes – to which they giggled. (Looking back I should have recognized that straightaway, but…) I proceeded to tell them that he was married and had two cute little girls at home, all with a big smile on my face. Because the girls showed a lot of maturity and their jaws didn’t immediately drop open, it wasn’t until later that I realized they had added the word “male” in front of friend as a form of slang instead of using the proper word for a “boyfriend” or “significant other”. I had to go and basically make a neigborhood-wide announcement that I wasn’t dating a married man. (It’s funny now.)

    1. Erin H. February 12, 2021

      (sorry for the photo!!) I also make tech flubs. haha

    2. Ashley Felder February 14, 2021

      Haha that’s a good one!! Slang words are another level I don’t always take time to learn!

      And, the tech flub is at least a beautiful one. 🙂

  7. Kyla February 18, 2021

    I got such a good laugh at this today! I have a few good ones… The first time I tried to pray for someone in Swahili during a ministry time at church, I said “On the day you were born, God was tasting you (kuonja)” instead of “God was waiting for you (kuongoja)” … The person I was praying for opened their eyes and looked at me very quizically 😛

    Another time, I wanted to ask our neighbor boy if he wanted me to cut his hair – ‘nikunyoe’ – but I said, “Do you want me to marry you?” – ‘nikuoe’. Haha. He might’ve been a little too happy about that prospect.

    1. Ashley Felder February 22, 2021

      Kyla, those are classics!! Fun to laugh at the mistakes now. 😀

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