Monday, January 09, 2012

Those awkward times when you only half understand a language ...

A great post at Cailin Travels about awkward travel moments reminded me of quite a few tricky moments I've had while travelling, and perhaps because I talk a lot they all seemed to revolve around language (and even accent) misunderstandings.

So, as I sit here blushing over some of them, let me demonstrate why knowing a bit of a language can be a dangerous thing (as can not listening carefully to someone with a tricky accent) ... I hope you'll indulge me by sharing your own experiences in the comments afterwards.
  1. Imagine this: your lovely Japanese friends take you to an expensive restaurant in an Osaka hotel overlooking the Marine Day fireworks. In the middle of a multi-person discussion, the topic of mad cow disease arises and you talk about whether or not this would stop you from ordering meat. I say it doesn't really bother me (because, as I've mentioned before, I'm semi-vegetarian and was brought up not eating red meat). The "because" bit doesn't come across and unbeknownst to me, my host orders me a big juicy steak because somehow I've said it doesn't bother me. Yes, very awkward. I ate parts of it and tried to hide a fair bit in leftover salad on the plate. And I learnt to be more careful about seemingly random conversations.

    Fireworks in Osaka, shortly before severe meat ordering mix up
  2. Beware the Swabian dialect in Germany. It's hard enough (for me) that when Germans tell the time, the phrase that literally translates to "half ten" means half past nine, not half past ten. But in the south-west of Germany, they have another phrase which translates as "three quarters ten" and even now as I go to type this I have to go away and check that this actually means 9.45. I was once an entire hour late to meet a friend in Germany because I got mixed up over this one. And the friend was not exactly impressed. You know, those Germans don't like being late ...

  3. Sometimes it is not the language that's the problem, but the accent. For a short time in Slovakia I had a colleague who was, yes, a native English speaker, but he had an incredibly strong accent. To be honest, I had trouble understanding him, and I'd heard that students had complained about this and he had been told to speak more clearly. We caught the bus together one day - in my defence, it was a very noisy bus - and we had a chat. Kind of. He talked, I asked him to repeat himself a few times, got too embarrassed to ask again and just kept nodding, smiling and saying "that's good" at what I hoped were the right moments. Eventually he stopped and looked at me very weirdly. Obviously my reaction had been wrong! It turned out he was explaining to me that he had just been fired. Oops.
Streets in Slovakia, close to scene of embarrassment ...
So, dear reader, your turn to spill - if you've had an awkward moment while travelling (or an awkward three hundred, like me), do share one of your best in the comments.


  1. I'll put you out of your misery. While in Goettingen, university city of science and discovery, I found one statue of the guy who discovered the chemical composition of urine. I thought this very amusing and so decided to tell my German friend from Koeln. I had forgotten the guy's name so refered to him at the "Pipi-Mann". Cue look of horror on her face. I had just called him a willy. :)

  2. Ha ha, thank you Kate, this is a gem!! And I feel instantly much better :-) I wonder if your Koeln friend has been repeating this story over the years?!

  3. In the Azores islands (in the middle of the Atlantic)the people speak Portuguese, but with such a strange accent, that I, although Portuguese had a hard time knowing what they were talking about and kept on asking them to repeat. My husband who was born there, but raised in Mozambique, so doesn´t have the accent, was also at a loss, so I didn´t feel that bad.

    Also in Brasil, where Portuguese is spoken, they sometimes have different meanings for the same word. Once we were in a queue in Rio and I was saying to my cousin(a Brazilian)that the "queue" (bicha) was huge. He gave me a strange look, but knowing about the differences explained that "bicha" means "gay"!

  4. Oh Sami - a "huge gay" - I'm glad your cousin knew about the differences, or who knows what he would have thought!

    It is always amazing to me how much accents and dialects can vary - and often even within the same country - I guess it's amazing to me because in Australia the English doesn't vary much at all between the regions.

  5. I lived in Japan for almost 5 years and I'm trying to decide which funny language story to post here! One of my jobs was teaching English to groups of adults in the evening. One class was on swear words which are important to learn so you can avoid them. The Japanese don't have swear words in their language as such. Only insults. After explaining 'bitch', one student asked what the male equivalent would be. When I said it was 'bastard', he lit up and said, "Oh, is that like Ghost Bastards?!"

    1. Who you gonna call ... ghost bastards! LOVE it, Cindy.


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