embarrassWhen we are practising a new language, probably the worst fear we have is of making a mistake that makes us feel foolish, or worse. But it will happen at some point, to all of us, in one form or another, and we do survive them. Eventually, we can even laugh at them ourselves.

These mistakes can come in different forms, as well. Not all are just us simply mispronouncing a word.

In Malachi Rempen’s comic “Itchy Feet“, one joke shows our hero asking a theatre attendant for his “sheep” that he left. He finds what he is looking for, and only then does his friend, who has been giggling the whole time, tell him that “Schaf” is not the German word for “scarf”.

Using the wrong word is probably the second most common mistake, after mispronunciation. It is very easy to mix up words and meanings when you are still learning basic vocabulary.

Sometimes the mistakes are born out of our fear of making mistakes. While staying at a hotel in Italy, I practised many times how to ask for the key to my room. I repeated to myself “Posso avere la mia chiave, per favore?”, working hard to say it smoothly. When the time came, I went to the desk and asked the male clerk. It wasn’t perfect, but he understood easily enough, and replied with “Che numero?” (“What number?”).

I was so relieved that he understood and that I had understood his response that I then told him the wrong number, only realizing my mistake after I had started to walk away. When I had to go back and ask again, with the proper number, my small high from getting the first phrase correct was completely destroyed.

Embarrassment can also come from getting the language correct. My Italian friends introduced me to a young woman named “Tiziana”. Now, in English, the first syllable of that name is a vulgar reference to a woman’s breasts, and there was no way I was going to call a woman that. It was just wrong in my American head, so I deliberately mispronounced her name, twice, hoping they would accept it. They didn’t, and corrected me both times. Finally, I realized that it was only me who would hear it in an offensive way, so I pronounced it correctly. I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of teasing she would get if she visited the US.

A similar situation occurred a few years later, when I was spending time in Italy with my new Italian girlfriend. Even though she spoke English very well, some Italian words carried over, as when she would refer to my clothes. In particular, she would call my underwear “slip”, which is the proper Italian word, but in English, “slip” is an undergarment worn only by women. Sadly, I was too ashamed at that mental imagery to correct her, so I had to live with it, and hope she never talked about my underwear to an English speaker (something I was pretty sure wouldn’t happen).

Finally, we can be caught by not understanding the meaning of a specific word in another language. While travelling around in Urbino, my girlfriend pointed to an entrance with a sign above it. “Sometime, we are going to eat here” she told me. I looked at the sign bearing the name, which was in English, then asked her “Do you know what that word means?”. She said she didn’t, so I told her to look it up when we got back to our apartment.

She did just that, opening her Italian-English dictionary as soon as returned, and found out what “bosom” of “The Bosom Pub” meant. I swear, she blushed before telling me, in a low voice, “Nevermind”.

If you aren’t too embarrassed to admit them, share some of your own blush worthy language moments.

  • PeterRettig

    I loved your post, Erik. I am sure I’ve made a fair amount of embarrassing mistakes, but fortunately: “Dunkel versinkt in die Vergangenheit, was einst so helle Gegenwart gewesen”.
    I remember, however, my sister telling her French speaking husband once to his great amusement: “Ça, m’est toute à fait saucisse” as a direct translation of the German “Das is mir völlig Wurst!” (That is sausage to me), meaning “I couldn’t care less”. Translating idioms directly has obviously its dangers….
    Years ago, as a young greenhorn traveling through the South, I responded to a shopkeeper’s friendly goodbye of “Come back and see us again” with a “Thank you, but I’m just passing through”. Still embarrassed about that!