Language Faux Pas: Part I

I am going to do few posts sharing some of the many embarrassing mistakes I have made when fumbling around learning a new language.  I love the excitement of being a raw novice, so these mistakes were always good fun for me.

Question to Readers:  Please share a language mistake you have made.

My German Embarrassment

One weekend, while studying German in Bavaria,  I  went for a hike in the mountains and happened upon  a small shop for hikers.  My German was  barely functional at that time, but I was fairly comfortable asking for food and drink.  So I decided to buy some milk.  But the milk was only sold in  sterile vacuum packets and I didn’t know how to say “packet” so I  figured  asking for a  cup of milk would do the trick.

Me: May I have a cup of milk.
Shopkeeper: We don’t have a cup of milk.
Me: But I see the milk there [pointing behind the  counter].
Shopkeeper: Oh, sure but that is not a cup of  milk.

So I figure the shop keeper is just being stubborn  and mean to the foreigner.  But when I went home I  looked up the word for cup and whoops, I was  wrong:

cup = “Tasse”
pocket = “Tasche”

So the conversation the shop keeper heard was:

Me: May I have a pocket full of milk.
Shopkeeper: We don’t have pockets of milk.
Me: But I see the milk there [pointing behind the  counter].
Shopkeeper: Oh, sure but that is not a pocket of  milk.


My Pakistan Embarrassment

When I was studied Urdu in Pakistan, our language institute was in a big house.  The institute had a cook that prepared both a morning snack and lunch for us.  In the evenings we would eat dinner with our home-stay families.  Like my German, my Urdu was also very bad when I first arrived in Pakistan.

One morning I walked into the kitchen to chat with the cook before class began.  That day I noticed that the cook didn’t have his shoes on and I decided to ask if shoes were OK to wear in the kitchen. Here is how our conversation went.

Me: Are we allowed shoes in the kitchen?
Cook:  Shoes aren’t allowed anywhere in the house.
Me: People have shoes in the classrooms and the living room.
Cook: They shouldn’t have shoes in the classroom, living room or anywhere.

Puzzled by the conversation, I asked a teacher about the conversation.  She had a big laugh at my faux pas.  You see, Urdu, unlike English, has aspirated forms of many consonants (J,G,T,D,R).  Thus not only do they have a regular J but they also have an aspirated J (Jh).   These aspirated consonants are difficult for foreigners to get right.  So my mistake was:

“Juta” = shoe (جوتے)

“Jhoot” = lie ( جھوٹ –as in, to tell a lie)

So the conversation the cook heard was:

Me: Are we allowed to tell lies in the kitchen?
Cook:  Telling lies isn’t allowed anywhere in the house.
Me: People tell lies in the classrooms and the living room.
Cook: They shouldn’t tell lies in the classrooms, living room or anywhere!


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

16 responses to “Language Faux Pas: Part I

  1. My example is pretty lame I guess, but I’ll share it anyways: I attended the US Military’s Defense Language Institute way back in the late 80s and part of my time in the US Army. This is the place that military people (Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force) went if their job title required them to be proficient in a foreign language. I graduated from the German language group (this was back when the East Germans were still “the enemy”) and I earned the nickname of “Herr Muede” which is like calling someone “Mr Tired” in German. I got this label from my penchant for napping in between classroom sessions (head down on desk while other people chatted) and my last name, Moody, sounds very similar. It was a friendly sort of jibe… I didn’t really mind it so much.

    This nickname followed me when I was eventually stationed in Germany. Occasionally, friends would make the “mistake” of calling me Herr Muede in the presence of actual Germans who would then give us weird looks…. Fortunately, being relatively shy, I did not get out and about much so the damage was limited 🙂


  2. Hahah. Those are brilliant 🙂

    I’ve had plenty. One of my most memorable ones was when I was about to leave Japan and was forced to give a speech in front of all my classmates, teachers, and everyone’s respective host families. In my speech, I meant to thank my family (“kazoku” – 家族) for everything that they did for me… whereas I accidentally thanked my pirates (“kaizoku” – 海賊) instead.


  3. @ Herr Müde (Sheldrake):
    That was funny! In my 8th grade German class we were all assigned new “German” names — mine was “Jürgen” which friends quickly changed to “Jürgen the Jerk”.

    @ Zackary
    I’ll bet you have tons of mistakes –> Your career is about learning languages and translating them !! I have a future Japanese mistake coming up which you will probably enjoy. I wonder if you had trouble with the honorifics in Japanese like I did. For instance, instead of using the humble form, I would use the honorific form when talking about my own family and so everyone thought I was talking about their family member. No one corrected me for 2 years!

    I would say (for example):
    私のお母さんは教師だった ==> My OKĀSAN (honorable-mother) was a teacher.

    But I should have said:
    私の母は教師だった ==> My HAHA (mother) was a teacher.

    I didn’t know that OKĀSAN was only used to address your own mother or discuss someone else’s mom. Heck, what did they expect of a poor foreigner (外人) — even the damn character (漢字) is the same (母)!

    And to add insult to injury, it took me time to realize that in some settings using the wrong word for “my” made me sound effeminate. So in the above:
    私の母 (watashi no haha) — my mother [sounds effeminate]
    while 僕の母 (boku no haha) — my mother [sounds masculine]
    then I applied overkill with:
    俺の母 (ore no haha) — my mother [sounds like I am pretending to be a samurai or yakuza if used in the wrong setting]
    Geeze, you couldn’t win. But after 5 years, I slowly ironed out those mistakes — I was a slow learner!

  4. johnl

    When I first came to Japan, I couldn’t speak any Japanese. I visited a place in Shizuoka that was famous for ‘kusa mochi’ (kusa = ‘grass’ but in this case, a green herbal substance (yomoogi (?) = mugwort or something) ) meaning rice cakes (mochi) flavored with some green herbal substance. I brought a box of the cakes to my office in Tokyo. I said ‘ I brought some ‘KUSO mochi’ (kuso = SHIT) and my co-workers burst out laughing! All the more entertaining because ‘kusa mochi’ (like many such treats) are filled with a sticky brown goo made of beans!

  5. @ JohnL Fantastic !!

  6. Ed

    Made me laugh out loud… really. Any chance any of the pics are you? Maybe the first or last? :-}

  7. Ed

    PS… I spoke French with my mother when I was a young boy. She was French so it was expected. At Loyola I took 4 years of Latin and now have been studying Sanskrit for about 10 years, but Latin and Sanskrit are not really conversational languages as you know.

  8. @ Ed
    Actually, my son asked me if the first photo was of me. It kind of looked like me when I was young. But nope, I just borrowed a good lookin’ guy’s photo from the web. 🙂

  9. crl

    My Italian teacher uses an illustrated packet to teach the vocabulary associated with clothing. Unfortunately, the only packet she could find has a drawing of a flasher on one of the pages, and his trenchcoat is used as an example of the word for pocket, la tasca. Unfortunately, for years, she neglected to go over these packets in class, and was very confused as to why her students were obsessed with le tasche (plural of la tasca.) Then, looking through these packets, she realized that all of her students had thought tasce were flashers.

    (Also, I have a new post on my blog…for once, and the asperger’s post you requested is a work in progress.)

  10. @ crl
    That is a good example of how language can change drastically from its original meaning. (I read your “Atheist Burn Out” post, and looking forward to the Asperger post)

  11. aly

    Great stories! I worked at a shelter for victims of domestic violence in Juarez, Mexico. I didn’t speak or understand Spanish before I went there, but they were pretty desperate for staff. It was very common for people to show up off the street asking us for food. One day, a lady came to the door and asked for ‘quesadillas’, so I said, yes, sure, and went to make her a couple quesadillas. When I got back, she looked at me funny. Turns out, she had asked me if she could have ‘quince dias’ (15 days) at the shelter! As I recall, she ate the quesadillas. That was a very entertaining joke in the house for a while!

  12. Yoooooo Aly
    Thank you kindly. Your story cracked me up: Quesdadillas ≠ Quince Dias !
    Still laughing. Did she get the 15 days?
    Hang in there for tomorrow’s grand finale about my son’s faux pas.
    Growing into the universality of misunderstanding is so humanistically therapeutic.

  13. navaburo

    Once, while staying with a French-speaking family, I was asked if I wanted some tea. I wanted to respond that I did not want any because I had burnt my pallet. I was (and still am) terrible with spontaneously getting the grammatical gender correct, so I used the feminine article ‘la’ instead of the masculine ‘le’. So while I intended to say:

    Non merci, j’ai brulé mon palet.
    “No thank you, I burnt my pallet.”

    I said:

    No merci, j’ai brulé ma palais.
    “No thank you, I burnt my palace.”

    Result? Everyone laughing hysterically. Apparently “my palace” is slang for “my vagina”.

    Thanks y’all for sharing!

  14. @navaburo
    That was a great story, thanks. You should read my third part of this story to get similar sexual mistakes — one is by my son. Few folks actually read it and I liked it the best.
    May I ask, how you found this blog?

  15. I know I’m late to the party here, but I had to share: When I lived in France, I had a Portuguese friend who lost his comb on the Paris Metro (The French word for comb is unpeigne, by the way) . Now, not knowing the French word, he did the next best thing and “synthesized” one of his own from his native knowledge of Portuguese, and a few years of Spanish. Nilo was a gregarious fellow, and immediately started asking strangers in the Metro, “Excuse me–have you seen my penis? It’s about six inches long, and it’s red, and made out of plastic! It must have fallen out of my pants pocket.”

  16. @bjanecarp
    There is never “late-to-the-party” on Triangulations. That was a funny story. Thanx!

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