Embracing embarrassing mistakes

“I made a new video – I look cool in it! Want to come up and check it out?”

Sounds like an innocent enough thing to say, right?

While talking to a German friend of mine (a girl, but seriously just a friend and one I’ve had for many years), I wanted to say this pretty simple phrase. Through very unwise use of the word “geil” (normally cool/awesome) and “kommen/bei mir” (normally come & my place), what I actually somehow said was that I was horny and I wanted her to come inside me. And that’s come with sexual intonations.

That has been my biggest D’oh! moment in the last few weeks, but it definitely wasn’t the first time. For example, when learning Spanish, I managed to tell the first Mexican I ever spoke to in Spanish that I like to shag/screw the bus every day. What can I say, it’s a weird fetish I have (apparently).

I’ve told people I’m a girl hundreds of times due to gender agreement hiccups, and in France I complimented a bunch of people I had just met as having a nice arse (merci beau-cu(l)). At least I never got pregnant in Spain, unlike some of my unfortunate male friends.

These kinds of mistakes are the horror stories you will have heard many times before about learning a language, and I’ve made way more than I could possibly think of examples to illustrate. And I’ve done them in person with natives. I always seem to unintentionally find a language’s hidden sexual innuendos and produce them quite innocently and cheerily and usually in the most cringe-worthy of situations.

What do you do if it happens?

So what happened after the said linguistic crimes? Was I added to the local police database as a bus sex offender? Did hundreds of people gather round, point their finger, and guffaw simultaneously at my stupidity? Did the shame of it all hit me so hard that I cried myself to sleep and packed my bags the next day to never try to speak the language again?

No. Nothing happened. My mistakes were pointed out to me, it was understood what I meant to say and the conversation went on. No parade or ceremony to commemorate how ridiculous I sounded. Sometimes we would both laugh it off for a few seconds. It’s not a big deal.

This is something that I wish people still too afraid to get out there and speak, and still hiding behind their books, would realise. If you make enough mistakes in a test then you fail. But people are not keeping count of the quantity and severity of your mistakes to fail you. You will make embarrassing mistakes in a conversation… and yet somehow life will go on. You make a mental note and try not to say it again – simple as that.

There seems to be this huge fear of failure from people only familiar with a language in an examination context. I’ve made enough mistakes in all my languages to probably fail every test in the world hundreds of times over. And yet I speak them fluently. The path to fluency must include a lot of mistakes. The only way to make no mistakes is to say nothing and you will never learn anything that way.

The way I see it, the more mistakes you make the more you are speaking and this is a good thing. You will be interacting with people and getting closer to speaking better as you are made aware of these mistakes. If your goal is to speak perfectly with 0 mistakes you will be very disappointed. This will never happen. Even natives make mistakes. Just accept it as a natural part of the path to speaking any language well.

The best attitude to take is to just accept that it’s going to happen and go with the flow. Embrace the mistakes!

The only embarrassing thing is your reaction, not the words

After that conversation with my German friend, both of us had a great laugh. I think it was very funny!

Looking at it that way meant that she could laugh too, and laugh with me. If you pause and get all red-faced and bring attention to yourself then this will make other people feel way more uncomfortable than the spoken mistake ever would.

I could have also reacted by stopping dead in my tracks, apologising for several minutes, reassuring her that I see her as an important friend I respect, beg for her forgiveness and then tone down my conversation to be “safe” for the rest of the evening, likely creating unnecessary tension. That would have created the embarrassing situation. Not a minor amusing blunder of words.

Embarrassment is always caused by reactions, not the content of the mistakes. Some people react differently, but you can control their reaction from your own reaction.

Even if you don’t make the very embarrassing mistakes I suggested here, and are making grammar mistakes for example, your confidence as you speak will make these grammar mistakes seem less intense. Someone extremely aware of how wrong they are speaking will make everyone else equally aware of this.

I get complimented all the time (with just one exception) when I take on any language about how well I’m speaking, even in the early stages. This isn’t because of an amazing ability to assimilate grammar and use precisely the right words. It’s because I’ve just become numb to making mistakes after making so many of them. I don’t care enough any more to become embarrassed. When the mistake is pointed out, I’ll make a mental note to not make it again and I’ll have learned. But I won’t make a big deal out of it and will continue speaking confidently as before.

So stop worrying and make mistakes! You can decide what happens when a mistake is pointed out. You can feel inadequate when your mishap is pointed out and shy away, or you can thank the other person so that you encourage them to help you again in future. A warm smile on your face will solve most embarrassing situations. An awkward reaction will create them.


If you’ve made some embarrassing mistakes in your languages, feel free to share your story! Let’s laugh together and encourage others to get out of their shell and make similar mistakes! That is the best way to learn :)



I'll send you the first lesson right away.
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  • http://www.fluenteveryyear.com/ Randy (@Yearlyglot)

    Love this advice. So true.

    I recently saw a quote (you may have seen it too) about how a person's ability to learn is directly proportionate to their ability to deal with embarrassment… or something like that.

    Reminds me of a similar situation in Russian, where the verb to finish has been used so much as a way to refer to sexual orgasm, that a new word has started being used just to say “finish”! Needless to say, I told a lot of people I was “finishing” at work to be met with laughter before someone finally let me in on the joke.

    I think the topic of embarrassment, and the desire to avoid it, is not just a big deal in language learning, but for life in general. I find life so much easier to enjoy when I'm not worried about what other people think.

    Great post, as usual.

  • HP

    Hahaha! You have to be very careful speaking to girl plus using the German verb “kommen”. Using the wrong preposition “bei mir” instead of “zu mir” will lead to interesting results! ;-)

  • Sonso

    One time I heard a Mexican girl say to me “Ella quiere chupartela,” motioning to her hot friend.

    I was naturally flattered, but said “Bueno… ¿pero aquí?” They started laughing and I heard “¡No no no! Ella quiere chupar CHELA.”

    Oh… well that's fine too I guess…

  • Ajtacka

    I'm learning Czech, and my most memorable mistakes have been about cooking mice (instead of the mouse doing the cooking), offering my boyfriend cats for dinner, and asking for “contact cats” in an optometrist ('cat' is one letter different from 'lentil' and 'lens'). Each time, I blushed (I just can't help it!), apologised, laughed and moved on. Although cats have become a regular dinner at our house. :)

    Now, if I may go off-topic: My biggest stumbling block, and my biggest issue with your 'method' (which I otherwise agree with almost fully) is that when I speak to someone in Czech, the reply is utter nonsense. I'm slowly, slowly improving, but I still can't understand even a simple spoken sentence. And it all goes down hill from there – my brain shuts down completely, the other person gets stressed and one or both of us just give up. I can read fairly well, I can speak well, I can write even better, but I just can't *listen*. I've tried everything I can think of – repeatedly listening to the same thing, actively listening to conversations, reading a transcription while listening, and still I can't get any sense out of speech. It's a bit of conversation killer. How do you deal with that? Any advice? :)

    • http://focuslanguage.com/blog Jean-Paul Setlak

      Read a lot, listen to as many podcasts and texts as you can. You have to develop your ability to hear and the number of words you can recognize. I had the same problem with Mandarin until I started to inundate myself with recordings. The key is to make sure you have access to a written version of the text. So you can study it. This really shoots up comprehension. Just listening, if you don’t understand, doesn’t really do that much for you. I also use audacity (freeware) to slow down some of my texts 15%-20%. It’s amazing how much more you can hear if you juust slow it down a bit.

    • http://focuslanguage.com/blog Jean-Paul Setlak

      Read a lot, listen to as many podcasts and texts as you can. You have to develop your ability to hear and the number of words you can recognize. I had the same problem with Mandarin until I started to inundate myself with recordings. The key is to make sure you have access to a written version of the text. So you can study it. This really shoots up comprehension. Just listening, if you don’t understand, doesn’t really do that much for you. I also use audacity (freeware) to slow down some of my texts 15%-20%. It’s amazing how much more you can hear if you juust slow it down a bit.

  • http://carljoseph.com.au Carl Joseph

    I've just started learning Czech and listening to it is one of the hardest parts about it I think. Anthony Lauder has some great vids on learning how to listen to Czech. The first of this series is here … http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yM15HrJeRms

    How long have you been learning? Would like to chat (in Czech) sometime.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks Randy, glad you liked it! I agree with the quote.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    jajajajajaja :D
    Best language slip up ever! Thanks for sharing :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Anthony and I are friends – he actually contributed to the Language Hacking Guide :) I'm enjoying his videos!
    I'm sorry if it hasn't been clear but I decided not to continue my studies with Czech. I could speak a bit of it back in August but I decided that the work in maintaining a language (that I'm currently doing for EIGHT of them) wasn't something I wanted to add Czech to just now.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    “Testicles” always seem to be the most (seemingly) innocent words in a lot of languages…
    Thanks for sharing!

  • http://carljoseph.com.au Carl Joseph

    Haha. I was actually directing my question to “Ajtacka” but thanks for responding anyway! :)

    I realise you aren't talking Czech anymore, but the tips and things you write about are really helping me with my new language obsession. :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Whoops! You were indeed! I'm sure you'll get your response soon enough ;)
    Then I second your advice and advise Anthony's very helpful youtube channel to any Czech learners :D

  • Quokka

    Here's another post with an extremely worried/embarrassed face in it.
    Congrats, you're becoming faster one of us Germans than I thought. :-p

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Hopefully there's a way to look German without looking worried :P At least you don't think I look old this time!
    Very well said – too many people seem to think that there is a way around or through these issues by just reading about them and finding the magic bullet. The only way to get over shyness and embarrassment is to talk with people as often as possible. Advice online can help, but unimplemented they are useless!

    • Esperantisto

      Mi memoras ke kiam mi eklernis Esperanton, mi iam diris al iu eminentulo dum kongresa matenmangxo, “Mi ege sxatas mangxi kacon”.

      Kompreneble, mi intencis diri “mi ege sxatas mangxi kacxon” ;)

    • Esperantisto

      Mi memoras ke kiam mi eklernis Esperanton, mi iam diris al iu eminentulo dum kongresa matenmangxo, “Mi ege sxatas mangxi kacon”.

      Kompreneble, mi intencis diri “mi ege sxatas mangxi kacxon” ;)

  • Ajtacka

    I'm embarrased to say I've been learning about 3 years! I did actually come across Anthony Lauder's videos, but at a bad time and I just forgot about them. Thanks for bringing them to my attention again! I'd be good to chat – are you in Prague?

    • Iris Ka-Yan Bakalar

      I know I’m kinda replying 4 years late to your comment but I’m in Prague and trying to learn Czech if you wanna chat some time? Maybe find me on Facebook and drop me a PM (the name and profile pic on here is the same as I’m signed in via FB). I have the same problem you have – can’t listen to a thing to save my life. I recently found this British toddler’s cartoon Peppa Pig in Czech and they’re about 5-6 minutes long and the stories are super easy to understand (way easier for me than Bob and Bobek) so I find it not so hard to follow the Czech. I get maybe a handful of words out of the whole thing and the rest I understand by the pictures, usually AFTER the thing’s been said lol.

      I’ve always thought of Czech as hard and mentioning its infamous 7 cases has become a habit. Only came across Benny’s blog like yesterday and I dunno, it’s kinda giving me some hope because seriously, I HATE GRAMMAR. Quite frankly, my memory is actually pretty excellent, probably helps too because technically my mother tongue’s Chinese and I was originally raised to memorise a tonne of Chinese characters – so memorising case endings actually shouldn’t be difficult for me. But what I’ve found is, quite frankly, those grammar tables are just plain unhelpful. When you’re saying a sentence, you don’t have time to stop and wonder, “Is this masculine, feminine or neuter, and is it singular or plural, and should it be the accusative, dative… blah blah?” By the time you’ve sorted through that, you’ve got all your little endings muddled up anyway. And fact that Benny’s managed to learn languages without this intense focus on grammar is encouraging for me :) Of course grammar can’t be escaped but I’d really rather learn it as I speak and go by intuition, but my problem is while I can string up a sentence all right, I never understand the replies :( so I end up never speaking.

      And slightly off-topic but what ticks me off is when a Czech says how Czech’s really difficult because of the Ys and Is in their spelling… Yes, Czech’s hard, but spelling is most certainly *not* one of them. But try telling a Czech that – they actually get offended. And I’m like… have you tried spelling English or writing Chinese, if we’re gonna get into the debate of difficulty in the writing system?

  • http://carljoseph.com.au Carl Joseph

    Well that's 3 years longer than me! I'm in Australia (I'm an Aussie) but visiting CR in July for 3 weeks. Perhaps Benny can email you my email address? I think he might have access to them from here??

  • http://twitter.com/tarasbmal Taras

    Hi Randy,
    I totaly understood your russian example. The interesting fact is the verb “кончать” (finish) has been used in sexual meaning just for 15-20 years. So you just didn't sound modern in your situation :)

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/FluentCzech FluentCzech

    Hi Ajtacka, this is Anthony Lauder. I wouldn't be embarrassed at all about three years. It isn't a long time. Plenty of people have been here in Prague for more than a decade and can hardly say much at all. The big secret is to keep at it even when you get discouraged. Many people give up very soon. The fact you have kept at it for three years is something to be proud of rather than embarrassed by.

  • camorose

    When discussing organic food choices with a group of French people, I said that I prefer to buy food fresh, without preservatives. Since so many French words are close to English, I said “sans preservatifs.”
    A preservatif is a condom in France. Excellent. After turning red, I was able to laugh it off and I'll never make that mistake again!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Spanish seems to be causing most people problems here. Such a colourful language :P But yeah, some of those could be Freudian slips ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    That's the best way to look at it :D Hilarious example, thanks :)

  • http://joelrunyon.com/two3 Joel Blog Of Impossible Things


    You're GOING to screw up when learning a new language. It's just going to happen. If you don't, you're not going to learn…period.

  • http://livingintransit.com Jen

    Hey Benny! You're hilarious! I've recently started teaching myself Thai for a trip to Thailand this fall/winter and I'm so looking forward to all the language faux pas I know I'll be making. It'll be fun. It's definitely been fun spitting Thai to people who have no idea what I'm saying, but the words I have spoken aloud and employ are the ones I remember best. You're definitely on to something here.

    You reminded me of a few stories I heard recently. A person very close to me was telling me about her mistakes, like when she asked for a Brazilian on her feet instead of a French mani-pedi, or like when she told the receptionist at a doctor's office that the doctor wanted her in for “blood job” (which sounds like something entirely different with a heavy Spanish accent. mmhmm!). My travel companion was just telling me yesterday how he was wishing someone at work a “happy anus” instead of “happy birthday” in Spanish..oops! They've both learned the proper terms for these things since… =)

    I'll definitely be following your blog. Lots of great and useful reads. Thanks!

  • ps

    The father of my friend once made a very funny mistake. At that time, there were Spanish exchange students here in Berlin. My friend, her exchange partner and her father went to a Lebanese restaurant. My friend's father knows a little Spanish and as he passed the Arab bread to the exchange student he asked her: “Te gusta el pene?”

    Needless to say, she just looked at him somewhat shocked until my friend started laughing really hard… Finally she explained that her father meant “pan”.

  • http://sites.google.com/site/czechdirectory/ Rebecca

    I know someone with the exact same problem, but her solution is that she needs to see the person when she's talking or she can't understand at all. So maybe learn to lip-read in Czech and you'll be fine?
    It sounds like a lot but most of us lip read a lot and don't even realize it.

  • http://twitter.com/monkus Collin Ivy

    I personally made a similar mistake, but in my native tongue no less. I am American, and while traveling in the south of England I met up with some great guys who let me crash at their place and drink with them. Well, I was asked what type of woman I like and I innocently answered, “I like a girl with a lot of spunk.” I had no idea that “spunk” had sexual/bodily fluid connotations. I will never forget the wide eyes and dropped jaws that were looking back at me from across the table. I knew instantly I had said something that I did not understand.

  • fmaggi

    This is a great great post! We'd love to share it on our blog — But in the meantime, post your embarrassing stories to our contest (2 days left!) and you might even win (if you get as many voters to vote for you as the 100 blog thing (congrats!)
    Look forward to following you —

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks for the comment Jen! Glad to have you here :)
    Great to see you get the point of the post! You have to embrace the mistakes coming your way as part of the language learning path!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    hahaha another excellent example of a fun mistake :P

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Yeah, I was told I had a lot of spunk by Americans. Always sounds ridiculously weird…
    You can see that I have made my own mistakes with American English!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Haha, yeah feel free to share the start of the post on your blog. I'm not embarrassed about it ;)

  • abt1990

    One of my teachers had the one with the condom, too, while a trip in Italy. She wanted to drink milk without ,,preservatorio” in it. :D

    I can still remember my first Spanish class in high school when we were asked to say Spanish words, names etc. we already know from soap operas, books or other places. I was really keen on repeating something I had heard in a South American telenovela, something I thought to be a male name. I didn't know what was the problem, tho, because the teacher seemed to ignore what I was saying… It turned out it was because “what you're saying is the slang for female genitalia.” Since then I try to use words wisely.

    (Anyways, sorry if there are mistakes – English is only my second language. Trying to be better, tho. :D )

  • CaoraRua

    I love the Irish verb 'buail' because it means both 'meet' and 'beat' depending on the preposition, so once I unambiguously said that I wanted to “beat up my friend”.

  • linguaholic

    Another popular one is the false friend “klaarkomen” (Dutch)/”klarkommen” (German). The German one means “to get along”, the Dutch means “to come” (in the sexual sense). A friend of mine (no, it wasn't me, really!) once told a group of people how well she “got along” with her brother…

    As for your original mistake: saying “geil” at the right moments in the right tone is something only natives or people who have lived in the country for a looooong time master. I advise everybody to avoid “geil” and just say “cool” instead. ;)

  • http://twitter.com/adrenalsenorita Andrea La Rose

    I've got several of these:
    I was eating dinner with my friends in Italy. I reached to take some more cheese and to be polite asked, “Vuoi una piazza di formaggio?” I knew it was wrong, but that's what came out of my mouth: Would you like a plaza of cheese? We spent the next minute making crazy gestures and sounds representing the world's largest wheel of cheese crashing down on the table.

    A different group of Italian friends came to visit me in the US. Same situation — we sat at breakfast, when one of them picked up the carton of milk, poured herself some, then said, “Andrea, would you like something to milk?” The rest of us immediately burst out laughing and starting making milking gestures. This happened about 15 years ago and we still joke about it every time we see each other.

    I had my come-uppance with the same group of friends a few months ago, when my partner and I visited them. My partner used to be vegetarian, but now eats poultry and fish. Our Italian friends were trying to remember what she did and didn't eat. Trying to contribute to the conversation, I said, “Lei non mangia porca.” Intense laughter ensues. They explained the word I really needed was maiale (pork), that “porco” is pig, and “porca” is whore. I said, “Okay, but it's still true that she doesn't eat whores.” The best part was several days later when one of the friends was explaining to his mother and aunt — prime examples of the magical-tiny-Italian-grandma-in-the-kitchen — and they smiled and nodded enthusiastically saying in Italian, “Oh yes, that's a very embarrassing thing to say!” Totally adorable.

    My partner, who is now valiantly learning German here in northern Bavaria (Franken!), has made a few now-storied faux pas:
    We went into a store to look at beds and she asked, “Wir sind die Matrazen?” (We are the mattresses?)
    She had an allergic reaction, went to the pharmacy, and said, “Ich habe Kranzen an mein Hals.” (I have wreaths on my neck) That got a look from the pharmacist.
    Because she has simply pushed herself to speak whenever possible she has these great mistake stories, she constantly gets compliments from the German teachers at our school about how quickly she has learned (we work at an international school), and she has learned quickly. The course work she is doing helps, of course, but the real work is simply using the language.

    Digging your site…

  • Katka

    Did you find, while in Czech Republic, that the Czechs were easy going about mistakes? I've found they're correction isn't always so fun-loving. For example, I said, “Potřebuješ víc” and one's response in English was “why don't you cut your tongue off trying to say that!” Of course, I didn't respond the way your lesson here says to. I walked away and stopped speaking Czech in front of him the rest of the night. I spoke it to others when he wasn't around, but not to him. I get a lot of these types comments from Czech people, they are VERY particular about pronounciation. It's very disheartening and I find each time it happens, I'm more inhibited to keep speaking to them. I find the only time I'm willing to try is either when I'm drinking or speaking to someone who doesn't speak English. I enjoyed your advice and will try to take it to heart. I just wondered if you thought the reactions of Czechs to mistakes was comparative to others. Of course, I'm talking about Czechs here in America who all speak English so you may have experienced something different being actually in Czech Republic.

  • Carl Joseph

    Hi Katka,

    I'm in the Czech Republic now and am definitely have some trouble with this. One problem for me is that I haven't practiced nearly enough active listening to understand any response given back to me!

    But to your point … so far I've experienced a few different reactions to my limited Czech.

    1. The hotel receptionists who speak darned good English always smile and compliment me on learning Czech (especially since to them it's the hardest language in the world!)

    2. The cab driver and I had a stilted conversation about Australia, our lovely beaches and the unfortunate sharks! He constantly corrected my pronunciation and declensions. I understood not one single reason behind any of his corrections but in order to keep things moving, I just repeated what he said and kept talking away.

    3. I've had some waiters completely ignore me until I either pointed at something or succumbed to English. Maybe they're sick of the tourists learning 2 or 3 phrases and not trying anymore.

    4. Now for the most awkward … I had one person (who I have been conversing via email with) meet me with a “translator friend.” She speaks practically no English. Her friend speaks ok English, and I speak darned awful Czech and understand even less.

    After trying to speak to me at natural pace I asked if she could talk a little slower (please). She said that sentence slower and then proceeded to talk at full pace again. One more time of me saying that I didn't understand and she gave up. The rest of the conversation was and awkward performance of the two of us talking directly through her friend.

    This may not have been pure rudeness but perhaps a disappointing realisation of how my spoken Czech is worse than my written Czech. But the lack of willingness to help really threw me off.

    As for my embarrassing mistake … It's been hot in Prague lately so I'm constantly reminding myself to NOT say “Jsem teplý.” This translates as “I am warm” but means “I am gay.” I'm actually thinking of using it in a conversation to see if it can help “break the ice.”

    So has anyone intentionally made an “embarrassing mistake”?

  • Amjs

    “All mistakes are sexual.” :-)

    That is something my French friend told me about learning the language. It is a silly phrase but for me it cuts down on the embarrassment and helps me acknowledge and move on.

  • Amjs

    “All mistakes are sexual.” :-)

    That is something my French friend told me about learning the language. It is a silly phrase but for me it cuts down on the embarrassment and helps me acknowledge and move on.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Why would you care what a Pakistani guy cares about your Greek? Even a native you doesn’t give you useful feedback other than insults is nothing but an asshole

  • AlmaLatina

    somehow I manage to always get the danish words ‘kufferten’ and
    ‘kartoffel’ mixed up (don’t ask me how, they’re not THAT similar I
    know!). Needless to say, I got some confused looks when I was trying to
    explain to someone how there wasn’t going to be enough room in my potato
    to pack all my clothes…. ;-)

  • Sarah Warren

    Not my stories, but particularly given your current mission to learn Japanese, I thought you might enjoy them.

    Friend of mine studied Japanese at uni. He had a fund of stories about potential mishaps and actual mishaps. One was that there was a phrase – I forget if it was offering someone one’s seat, but essentially it involved accidentally asking strangers on the train to feel you up.

    Another was that he got the word for fiancé wrong, and the Japanese being too polite to correct him, it wasn’t until halfway through the year that his host mother finally felt able to tell him that he’d been referring to his sister’s vegetable for the last 6 months.

    He also had a friend who, while working with JET, gave a presentation to a bunch of Japanese school kids: only she somehow managed to misread how to pronounce a particular kanji, and so instead of telling them how it was good that they could meet and learn from one another, and that people in Britain and people in Japan were all just people, she told them they were all just carrots.

    And my particular favourite – though I may be biased as it’s the one my Japanese was good enough to understand IN Japanese – was the friend who offered her seat to an elderly woman on the train. The woman declined: Genki desu! The friend tried again to insist, and said: Denki desu yo!

    The joys of being a linguist and accidentally propositioning someone or telling them you’re electricity – fun times!

  • Jackson Rosembach

    Once I said “nudelyweds” instead of newlyweds.
    It is still hard for me to laugh when I make mistakes. I have to reprogram my mind…

  • Neil Gratton

    Nice post.

    My worst one, I didn’t even realise what I’d said until afterwards. I was out in Madrid, on my way back to my hotel, way back in 1996 I guess. Three young Spanish ladies (Students, I guess) invited me clubbing with them. I was feeling far too hot, and said to them “estoy caliente”. They did look rather worried – somehow I didn’t realise until I was back in my hotel a few hours later that I’d told them I was horny. Of course, I should have said “tengo calor”. A mistake I haven’t repeated.

  • bionara

    I had one of these in China actually…so surreal that it sounds completely fabricated! I assure you that it did happen though!!

    I went to a fruit shop at about 2am to pick up a load of snacks and stuff for my buddies. I’d had a few beers by this point, and it was fairly clear from my zig-zag walking path. Anyway, I wanted a bag to put all of my stuff in and confidently (but politely!) shouted to the guys behind the counter “qing gei wo yi ge daozi”. They looked puzzled; I looked puzzled back. I said it again, and then once more. They paused, reached under the desk, and revealed a bloody great hunting knife! I was horror-struck! I thought I’d offended them and that was it: my time on this earth, and indeed this fruit shop had come to an abrupt end. Then they handed the bloody unsheathed knife over to me, with a puzzled look on their face. Flustered, I gestured that I didn’t want the knife and to give me a bag instead.

    Eventually I got the fruit (and a bag! and no knife!), then went back to my friend and explained the story. He found it hilarious, and pointed out that I should’ve said “daizi” – bag and not “daozi” – you guessed it, “Knife”!


  • 白奎 Pasquale

    I’m Italian, and having already lived in other three countries for twenty years, I have now quite a few embarrassing situations.

    Let’s start with my German friend coming to Italy, and asking his neighbour to lend him a saw. Not knowing the term “lend” he used “give”. “Mi dai una sega, per favore?” Which in Italian sounds like “can you wank me, please?”.

    When in England, I was working in a restaurant and somebody asked my how many teapots I had, and I said “two” and raised my two fingers, but instead of having the palm of my hand facing him, it was facing me, which in England is a very insulting term…

    I once entered a household appliances shop and said I wanted to “buy a cook” instead of “a cooker”. Did I want to return to slavery?

    I had been leaving in Spain for a few weeks and everybody was constantly repeating a word in any possible imaginable occasion. So I just asks my colleagues: “¿qué es in coño?” Laughter arose high and loud, because I asked “what is a vagina?” coño being a very vulgar term, yet so often used…

    When in Mexico, in a business meeting, I said “quiero coger ese fichero” which in Castilian Spanish means that I want to get that file (from my PC). In Mexico “coger” is used for sexual intercourse and “fichera” is a prostitute… Luckily I used the machine form, not the feminine, but laughter was inevitable.

    Cognates between Spanish and Italian make my life quite difficult.

    I once went back to Italy for a short holiday, and a friend of mine, curious about my daily life, asked my were I would eat normally every day. I answered in Italian “nella cantina” which is not the canteen, but the cellar… Cognates confuse me a lot…

    Once I was talking with an Italian potential client, and I kept making silly mistakes, like confusing merci/mercanzie or destino/destinazione. The fact is that I knew these were mistakes, because the client, in order to clarify to himself what I was talking about kept correcting me.
    After I while I felt I had to apologise for my rusty Italian, and he replied no apology was needed, actually he started praising my so good knowledge of Italian and even wanted to know at which university I studied Italian. A very disappointing “oohh” came out when I told in a very low key, deeply ashamed tone that I actually was Italian…

    Another client asked me in a meeting with lots of extremely high profile directors a question I cannot remember now. Only my answer will forever make me feel unworthy of being Italian. I said we had to ask the user for his opinion. In Spanish the verb to use is “usar” in Italian is “usare” BUT “user” is “usuario” in Spanish and unlucky and understandably for me is “utente” in Italian. I forgot about this difference and said we’d have to ask the “usuario” for his opinion. A very worried expression appeared on everybody’s face and I could not continue my explanation, I could not understand why such a reasonable proposal let everybody worry so much. They seemed almost scared… Finally one kind soul that knew about my rusty Italian, corrected me and I immediately realised “usuario” does not exist at all in Italian but sounds so much similar to “usuraio” which actually means “xxxxxx”.

    After 10 years of living in Spain, countless are the very embarrassing times when travelling to South America and having to ask the waiter if that dish is meat, fish or vegetables. Most people think I just learned Spanish and switch immediately to English.

    In China I chose a name which is “BaiKui/白奎” which sounds very similar to Pasqui, that is how friends and family call me. Kui is the name of a star, so to me BaiKui means “white star”, I like my Chinese name.
    Often when I am introduced, people look baffled when I tell them my Chinese name, and I always thought that my pronunciation was awkward and difficult to understand.
    And it is. Actually most of the times I pronounce it as “BaiGui/白鬼” which means “white devil”… and until no so long a go it was used a derogatory term for Caucasians. So it turns out I’m actually insulting myself in the very name I chose to represent myself :(
    After I realised that, I spent two weeks constantly repeating my name with my Chinese colleague. I still haven’t got it right, but I have found a workaround. I first give them my card, and then I tell my name while at the same time pointing the card. No baffled expressions anymore.
    I also though of changing my Chinese name, but this is admitting defeat in learning a language. One day I’m sure I will be pronounce it perfectly and beautifully.