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Embarrassing Moments – Laughable Foreign Language Mistakes
One of the things that often prevents us from learning a new language is the fear of making mistakes. If someone laughs or looks at you with confusion, it’s obvious self-pride because you’re confusing the word “left” with the word “shirt” when trying to ask for directions. But this pride can unfortunately cause you to stay at home and isolate yourself. If you dare to allow yourself to make mistakes and risk being laughed at, you will learn more than you would at home. Well, watching TV in a foreign language is a great way to learn it, but grammar can’t fix your accent. In the spirit of trying to encourage you, I will share with you some of my “traumatic” experiences with foreign language mistakes. Hopefully, at the very least, you’ll find that you’ll have tons of funny stories to tell for years to come.
London, England – I studied at the London School of Economics in 1990 and I considered myself quite intelligent. Since I’m American and have spoken it my whole life, I assumed that American and English were the same language, so I didn’t expect to encounter any language problems while living there. I was humbled when my friends and I got lost trying to find Gloucester Road one evening. We ran into a policeman so I thought he would be a good person to ask.
“Excuse me sir, could you tell me which way we can go to get to Gloucester Road?” I asked.
The police burst into hysterical laughter. It was very funny because I thought all London police were very, very serious. This almost separated his sides from laughter. I didn’t get the joke until he corrected my pronunciation: “‘Glow-chester’ Road? There’s no such place. But if you mean ‘Gloster’ Road, it’s just down and to the right.”
Paris, France. I was at the pharmacy and found a man frantically searching the shelves. He couldn’t find what he needed, so he went to the pharmacist, and I heard him say in broken French, “Ah, pour ma femme. Ou est les douches?” I understood that he wanted a feminine product for his wife, but he left the pharmacist scratching his head trying to figure out why she could help him find douches! I went in and helped the man get what he needed and we had a good laugh in the process.
Strasbourg and Louviers, France – I have two French host families and visited both of them one summer, starting in Strasbourg. I’m always keen to pick up new slang, so I was delighted when my Strasbourg family taught me the word ‘tarre’, which they explained means ‘silly’ or, as I like to joke with good friends, ‘you’re retarded’, ‘you you’re a fool!” We laughed for joy, and every time I said that, everyone was very amused. So I went to the wedding of one of my host sisters in Normandy. They asked me to get up on a chair and give a speech.
Of course, I wanted to share how much I loved everyone there and make them laugh, so I announced, “Les Francais, vous etes tous tarres, et je vous aime enorment!” I’m happy to say that I love their silliness. Unfortunately, I learned that, like in the US, different regions have different definitions for the same word. In Normandy, calling someone a “tarre” means that you are the child of medically deficient parents and therefore have mental problems. Very offensive. Fortunately, only one member of my host family took offense and refused to speak to me for a while, but I will never forget or abuse that word again!
Paris, France. When I was working in Paris, one of the Marketing Managers from our New York office came to our Paris center for a presentation to a group of Americans. The manager was French but spoke English perfectly. Well, mostly. I was invited to listen to his presentation and he was very excited about a point he wanted to make. He wanted to emphasize the importance of this with the expression “belly of the beast”. Instead, he blurted out, “…and it came from this idea intestines There wasn’t a dry eye at the table and the laughter couldn’t be stopped for at least five minutes. Then there was the audience, listening intently to his every word, hoping he would make the next mistake.
Here’s what these experiences have taught me:
Laughter is universal. Making someone laugh can actually be a bonding experience.
Mistakes help you learn. I often remember words because I can remember one of my many funny stories and the person who corrected my grammar or pronunciation. So the bigger the impact of your mistake, the more likely you are to speak better next time!
Friends will forgive you. If you make a really dramatic mistake and end up saying something offensive, your friends will understand and forgive you.
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