Untours Cafe

Language Stories: Incidents of Humor While Attempting to Communicate in a Foreign Language


 The following exchanges happened between some folks who like to "chat" on the  Untours email system.


From Carol:

Reading some of fellow Untourist's posts about funny incidents in countries where you don't speak the language much, brought to mind our first experience in a foreign country – Germany.  Memorizing the crucial words before we left, we had thought "toileten" was the word if you needed to find a toilet.  Getting desperate one of our first days, we stopped at a store and I asked one of the clerks, who spoke no English, if they had a "toileten".  She took us to the toilet brush section.  Humm, what now?  I ended up pantomiming going to the toilet.  As I said, I was getting desperate!  She got the idea, took me to the employees restroom with both of us giggling the whole way – giggling is universal!  We quickly learned that “WC” is the word to use in Europe.


From Andrea:

I remember our first trip to Germany, going back many years - - - did not know there would be no soap in rooms.  We were in Hubby's hometown for the first time in nearly 40 years of his living in USA.  So needing to wash up, hubby still asleep (who was born and raised in Germany, therefore spoke German), I decided to handle this problem myself.  So downstairs I went in my bathrobe, and started to make gestures of face washing and was handed a tiny bar of soap.  Thereafter, every time we made a trip to Germany, brought my own soap.  Now it’s not a problem at all as all hotels, B&B's carry soap or body wash.


Quoting From: How to Say it in Italian: Advanced Guide (check out Miss Expatria and her posts on language: http://missexpatria.wordpress.com/the-language/)


When in doubt of a word, say it in English with a heavy Italian accent.  No kidding.  You can test this out by saying “computer.” Say it like you normally do, and watch them glaze over.  Say it, comb-poo-tair (not “pyou,” “poo”), and they’ll light up like a Christmas tree.


From Marilee Taussig:

Many years ago, my husband and I drove around the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico for a couple of weeks, with two friends.  Three of us dutifully worked on our Spanish beforehand, but one friend did not, to the point where he was unable to even read something from a dictionary with an understandable pronunciation.


All of us got sick with a terrible respiratory flu that trip, so our friend Cliff went to the pharmacy, and asked for Alka Seltzer Plus, over and over, in a horrible "Mexican" accent:


"Al-ka Selt-zer PLOOS? Al-ka-SELZ-er-ploos? AL-ka..." etc.


The mother and daughter at the pharmacy counter just looked at him quizzically.


His final effort was a take on the old Alka seltzer commercial, again in some sort of an accent, speaking very quickly, complete with dramatic hand gestures:  "Plope-plope-fiss-fiss?"


They didn't understand this, either, but it made them laugh like crazy, which made my friend laugh like crazy, which degenerated into a coughing fit – at which point they realized he had "la gripe," the flu and gave him some cold medicine.


My other favorite Spanish booboo happened to an old friend.  He was staying in Mexico for several months, and learning Spanish as he went.  He was having dinner at the home of the very conservative family of one of his friends.  He accidentally used a phrase that was an idiom for a male body part; unfortunately, the entire sentence still made sense, so it sounded like he was crude, rude and socially unacceptable.


His friend gently explained to him, in English, what he'd done wrong, at which point he apologized in Spanish and said "Estoy muy embarazada", which he thought meant "I'm very embarrassed" but actually means "I'm very pregnant."  He was instantly forgiven.


From Jane and Phil:

I'll admit I've made some really stupid language mistakes over the years.  Jane has already submitted her favorite -- the time in Quebec when I asked for a table for God (Dieu) instead of a table for two (deux).


My favorite was in the Prado Museum in Madrid.  There is a bar in the basement of the Prado near the restrooms.  While waiting for Jane, who was in line to use the ladies' restroom, I went to the bar and asked for "un servicios" (a bathroom) instead of "un cerveza" (a beer).


The bartender pointed to the restroom that I had just come out of, at which point I panicked and made the gesture of a person taking a drink.  Fortunately, he understood and got me a beer instead a drink from the toilet.  Then he walked down the bar a few seats where another man was sitting and said something.  I don't know what it was, but I know it wasn't a compliment, because it included a Spanish word I did understand -- "Gringo."


From Louise:

On my first trip to Italy in 1964 when I didn’t know a word of Italian, I was having dinner with newly acquainted friends and they kept urging me to eat more and more, way beyond my capacity.  I finally pulled out my little black dictionary and looked up the word for “full”.  Having already learned that “Io sono” meant I am, I stated “Io sono pieno.”  I am full.  A couple of years later when I finally got to return to Rome they asked me about my bambino.  I was puzzled until I found out that “sono pieno” was colloquial for “I am full with child.” and I had told everyone that I was pregnant.


From Jay:

I've been studying Italian for 10 years, and I feel like I can speak it fairly well, but for some reason, even though I know the difference, I have a problem with the word "caldo" which means hot.  It sounds like cold but means hot. You should see the looks you get when you ask a store clerk "Avete birra calda?" - "Do you have hot beer?"


From Terry Baraldi:

How about telling one's Italian host that their meal was "morto bella"?  Or complimenting a kindness with the phrase "molto genitalia?"


From Ken:

Well, I have to contribute some "mother-in-law" language humor.  During the time Jan and I lived in Luxembourg some years back, her mother came to visit, and we took several car trips to show her parts of Europe.  One day, while traveling one of the German autobahns, mother-in-law Dorothy commented that the town "Ausfahrt" must be awful large, because she saw that name at every exit (ausfahrt). 


From Michaela:

We had just finished a 2 week Untour in Locarno and were finishing with a week on the Bodensee in Lindau.  My husband, who only knows Spanish, not French, does not like duvets.  Upon seeing a housekeeper in the hall, and before I could stop him, he asked if she would take the bidet off the bed and exchange it for a blanket.  Needless to say, this is one of my favorite stories.


From Leslie:

There are as many way to make your self understood as there are people.  The main thing is to be sure and recognize in some way that there is a person there waiting to help you.  Bon jour will do it.  The French do not take it very well, if you do not say hello in some form.  I can't blame them it seems rude doesn't it not to recognize a person.


I use a lot of sign language along with a few French words that I pick up along the way.  One day I wanted to buy a rotisserie duck.  For the life me I couldn't remember the word for duck.  So, I pointed to the fowls on the spits and flapped my arms and went “quack quack.”  We all laughed but I got my duck.


From Pete:

Mine happened at the end of our two week stay in Paris.  Every morning I had been going to the same bakery and getting a couple of pastries to start our morning.  Each time I tried my best to ask for “two” in French.  On the last morning the clerk listened to me and then said in perfect English “would you like two of these this morning ?”  She had been having fun with me for two weeks – how she knew this was our last morning I have no idea – but we both laughed a lot that morning.


From Bob:


In a small German speaking town, I decided I’d like to buy a cow bell —a real one, not the gaudy ones commonly sold to tourists. I knew the word for “bell” in German was “glocken”, so I went up a clerk and said “moo glocken”. She directed me to the dairy counter. Trying the same approach on a different clerk, I was directed to the cheese counter. I gave up. Later in a larger town where English was spoken, I learned that real cow bells were large, heavy and quite expensive. I settled for a small brass goat bell.
From Jerry:
Had the good fortune to work with some French colleagues for many years which happily meant numerous trips to Paris. In one of the earlier trips I remember telling my friend Michel Rocher that I had finished a task by saying, Je suis fini! (I am finished), after which he laughed with a broad grin. I asked him what was so funny. He responded, pointing his finger to his temple as it it were a gun, "You just said you were dead."

The correct phrase is J'ai fini! (I have finished), using avoir instead of être. Similar in English but very different in French.

Another encounter that I remember well occurred just in Sweden. I had taken the ferry from Helsinger (Elsinore), Denmark to Halsingborg, Sweden and after disembarking the ferry I drove down the dock and made a right turn to go out to the main highway (E4) and saw a lorry coming right at me from the other direction. I had momentarily forgotten that at that time Sweden was on the British driving system (they switched two years later). I hurriedly switched to the other lane, avoiding the truck. It rattled me enough that I stopped at a café to get some coffee to steel me for the overnight drive to Stockholm to pick up a friend at the airport. Once fortified, I cautiously headed north. About a half-mile later I encountered a hitchhiker, a student somewhat younger than me at the time and I stopped. He didn't speak English and I didn't speak Swedish but we found some French in common. He said he was headed to the airport in Stockholm, to which I replied, "OK. Get in. You're driving."

We arrived at the airport around 8 a.m. I gladly bought him breakfast, dropped him at his terminal and picked up my friend coming from Oslo, to whom I said, this time in English, "You're driving."
From Laura:
Two incidents:

I was in Villefranche, trying to ask the homeopathic pharmacist for a cold remedy. He finally said, in perfect English, "Would you be more comfortable speaking in English?"

Second: As an Untourist in Tuscany, I developed an intestinal problem. It took a long time to get my point across to the pharmacist. Evidently "Bismuth" isn't universally recognized. He eventually understood and sold me a potion. I still needed it a week later and when I went back he refused to sell it to me, telling me I needed to see a doctor. After I explained I was leaving the next day he relented and sold me another bottle.



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We were in Innsbruck.  My husband started to run a high fever.  I went to a Pharmacy and told them in German "My Man is hot!"  Praying that they would not think my husband was amorous, I started waving my hand in front of my face.  Finally, the clerk took me to the "fever" area.  Of course, then I had to find my hotel again which is another story.

On an aside, after the maid gave us many changes of sheets, she sent a "guy" who told us he had "pills" to fix my husband.  We HAD to leave the next day, so we accepted the pills.  (This would never happen now- but this was the 70s). My husband took the pills- and while we traveled to Vienna - he suddenly recovered.  By the time he arrived he felt fine.  We, of course, never had any idea what the pills were.  Would we do that today?  NO!!!!!!!!!




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