We've all been there. You're struggling to keep up in a new language and don't say exactly what you thought you said. Here are a few embarrassing language mistakes made by our staff, students and community that prove you're not alone.
That's not on the menu
While living abroad in Spain, I was out one day having lunch with a bunch of students from Minnesota. One of the girls tried to order a chicken salad. The problem was, instead of a “ensalada de pollo” she asked for an “ensalada de polla.” “Pollo” is chicken. But “polla,” slang, is cock. “Waiter, could I please have a cock salad?” The waiter about died laughing.
(Peter Borden, SEO Consultant)
Welcome to the family
I moved to Paris and didn't know anyone. When I moved in with my host family, I tried to go out of my way to be a friendly American even though my French was weak. Wanting to let them know I was excited about meeting them, I graciously said “je suis très excité à faire ta connaissance.”
They didn't correct me so I continued saying this phrase to everyone I met for six weeks, until a new friend let me know I'd been saying “I am really horny to meet you.” It turned out to be a great blessing – I was fearless about speaking. I had already basically offended and embarrassed myself to everyone I knew in my new home. And they were still my friends. After that, I couldn't do any worse and had no qualms just trying to speak all the time and not worry about mistakes.
(James Rohrbach, CEO of Fluent City)
**Not that kind of hookah bar **
When I was studying in Italy we were trying to find the hookah joint and stopped in a bar to ask. We sent one of the guys in our group who had limited Italian. The English didn't quite translate to the Italian bar owner and he told our friend to come back later if he wanted “hookers.”
(Meghan O'Connell, French student)
An unforgettable presentation
While on an expat assignment in Brazil, I asked all my staff to speak with me in Portuguese so I could learn the language. I was making steady progress toward fluency and in preparation for my first public presentation amongst all my employees, I asked my parents who were coming to visit me to bring a bag of 100 Grand chocolates. I was going to give them out at the end of my presentation with a challenge to all employees to bring in an additional $100K in new business.
Well, my dad couldn't find 100 Grand bars so he brought me PayDays. I was annoyed but tried to work them into my speech in Portuguese. I gave my presentation and at the end, started passing out the candy by telling the employees how valued they were and for their value, they received a PayDay or a paycheck. I then went on to say that every Friday, their American counterparts got their PayDay and that everyone just loves payday. In fact, I love payday too!
The crowd roared with delight and I thought, “I'm killing it! I'm really getting my message across.” Yet, at the end of my presentation, one of my managers came running up to me and said, “Suz, I have to tell you that in Portuguese, “payday” (spelled correctly as 'pedei' but pronounced as 'payday') means “I farted.” You just told everyone you love to fart!”
I may not have gotten my message across but I can guarantee you that no one forgot that presentation. And, needless to say, I added a new word to my vocabulary that day!
(Suzanne Garber, Gauze.net)
Giving the in-laws TMI
I am British and engaged to a German. One time we visited his family in Germany.
My mother in law asked if I had eaten. I didn't know the word for 'Peanut' in German, but I knew the word for 'Nut' is 'Nuss', so without thinking I told my mother in law that I just ate some 'Peanuss'… Only after I said it did I realise that it sounds like Penis, which happens to be the exact same word in German.
I got off a plane in Xi’an, China and went to get a taxi. I had only been living in China for about a year and my Mandarin wasn’t great at all. In China, before you board a plane your lighter is taken at the gate check. So I had no lighter and needed one.
The Chinese for lighter is, “Dǎhuǒjī 打火机”. But I said this wrong. Too wrong. The driver wasn’t too happy when I asked him to give me a “dǎ fēi jī 打飞机”. Dǎ fēi jī means “masturbate.” Luckily he was able to laugh it off!
(Brendan Gibson, newlifeesl.com)
My husband is an Italian citizen, so we frequently visit Italy and his relatives there. His father had always referred to the butt-end of a bread loaf as the “culo.” One night at a restaurant that my husband and I frequent in Italy, the owner handed us bread. Jokingly mixing English with the Italian term that his father had always used, my husband commented to me, “I'll take the culo.” I looked at the owner and excitedly responded in Italian, “Sempre il culo!”–my intent was to express that my husband always takes the butt-end of the bread. Unfortunately, I'd blurted it at the precise moment that the din of the restaurant lulled, because the patrons (all Italian) at the other tables in this lovely restaurant all laughed. English translation: I'd just said, “Always the ass!” and the whole of the restaurant had heard me. Oops!
(Jill Meniketti, Author of Welcome to the Groove House)
Behind closed doors
I was at an Indian-Japanese wedding where the Japanese wife tried to give a speech in Hindi. She promised to be a garam (hot) patni (wife) instead of a dharam (dutiful) one! Needless to say, neither the husband nor the audience minded.
(Kaamna Bhojwani-Dhawan, Momaboard.com)
Lies about my mother
Me llamo Cat Gaa, and I'm an American who has been living in Spain for nearly eight years. Despite having a good grasp of the language, I found myself a bit flustered at a military wedding with my partner's coworkers a few years ago. Having only good intentions, the other guests began to ask about my family back home in Chicago. I mentioned that my mother was obsessed with “caballo,” wanting to say that she loved riding horses. Forks hit plates. Jaws dropped. My partner couldn't keep a straight face.
I had just said that my mother was a junkie. It turns out the word for horse is the same as the word for a sort of illegal substance!
(Cat Gaa, sunshineandsiestas.com)
A review of the food
When I went on an exchange program to Italy at age 17, I stayed with a family who ran a pensione in the mountains north of Turin. They cooked every meal from scratch and I gained quite a bit of weight eating all that gorgeous pasta and cheese and meats and all the other yummy things I could get my hands on. On my first day there, they welcomed me with a beautiful tray of cured meats, and a bowl of tortellini in brodo – a comfort food I still dream about today.
As I dug into the dishes, my host mother asked me “Ti piace?” Thinking this meant, “Is this typical?” I thought she was asking me whether it was like anything I had back home. I shook my head “No,” emphatically, trying to illustrate by my enthusiasm just how different it was from anything I had ever had before. She shook her head and muttered something to her sons.
Of course, she was actually asking me, “Do you like it?” so my determined “No!” was obviously the absolutely wrong answer if I ever wanted to eat this deliciousness again. Thankfully, after thumbing through my Italian dictionary, I was able to correct my mistake and we had a big laugh. It was clear by my increased girth over the course of my summer there that I was a big fan of her cooking, so there were no hard feelings. She kept feeding me, and I kept eating. And eating.
(Paige Conner Totaro, alloverthemap.net)
Have your own embarrassing story to share? Comment and let us know. You may be featured in our next embarrassing language mistakes post!