Learning a foreign language can be a fun-bumpy road
When you’re learning a foreign language, you sometimes make mistakes. Not just small mistakes in grammar or spelling, but BIG mistakes. Real bloopers!
Perhaps you say something in Portuguese, Spanish, or in some other language you’re studying. Your listeners turn red, shift uncomfortably, or burst into laughter. Or maybe they’re insulted or offended. You’re totally confused. “What’s going on?”, “What did I say?”. Well, one thing is certain: You didn’t say what you thought you said!
Errors like these can be funny or embarrassing. But, don’t worry. They happen to the best of us.
It could be a question of “false friends,” which are similar words in different languages that have very different meanings. Or it could be a word that has a dual meaning, with one of those meanings a bit off-color. The problem could be differences in pronunciation. Or you could be using the wrong word altogether, something that sounded like the word you wanted, but was definitely not it.
We can laugh with the false friends
False friends can be a particular problem. “I have a story that happened a while ago in a French-speaking country where I went to the pharmacy and said I had a cold”, said Isabel Sofia dos Reis-Flood, who has helped others learn Portuguese and French at SPEAK Lisbon. The Portuguese word for having a cold is “constipado”. Isabel Sofia, who is Portuguese, adapted the word to French, assuming that the meaning would be the same. “You cannot imagine my face when I discovered that “constipé” in French was far away from “constipado” in Portuguese”, she said. In case you’re wondering, “constipé” means “constipated.”
“My favorite, and one I’ve encountered very often, involves the word “embarrassed” in English”, said Mirna Vela, a Croatian who was a participant in Spanish, at SPEAK Madrid. And she should know: she has also earned a certificate in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL). “In English, it means “uneasy” or “uncomfortable”,” she explained. “When English speakers want to use it in Spanish, they say “embarazado” or “embarazada”, which in Spanish means “pregnant”. It is quite amusing to hear men say they are pregnant!”
Words with two meanings
Pierre Masci, is a Frenchman who helped others learn English and French, and studied Portuguese, at SPEAK Lisbon. He said that he’s made or witnessed many linguistic gaffes, but one that stuck in his mind involved a French word with two meanings. A female friend from Italy was with a group of male French friends, and she said to one of them, “Pourquoi tu me baises pas?”. According to Pierre, she meant to say, “Why don’t you kiss me?”. French people generally kiss each other on the cheeks to say “Hi”, but on that particular morning, this Frenchmen hadn´t greeted her in the usual manner. The pitfall, in this case, was the verb “baiser.”
Pierre explained that it does mean “to kiss”, but this meaning isn´t used very often, as it’s a bit antiquated. However, this verb also means “to f—”, and this is the more common meaning nowadays. “So she actually told him in front of everyone, “Why don’t you f— me?” instead of “Why don’t you kiss me?”. Everybody laughed. It was a very funny moment.”
Lea Keller, a German who helped others learn Italian at SPEAK Madrid, offered a story about another word with two meanings. “Hah, yes, there was a funny story from a friend. She started learning Spanish, and met some Spanish guys at a SPEAK language exchange event. She wanted to suggest that one of them sit down with her at the beach, so she said “Nos acostamos en la playa?”. But that really means “Should we have sex on the beach?”. Everybody was laughing, and she didn’t know why, as “acostarse” does mean “to sit down”. But in this case, it meant something else.”
It’s a matter of pronunciation
Sometimes it’s a matter of pronunciation.
Penelope Lecuna, is a Spaniard who has helped others learn English, and was a participant in Italian, at SPEAK Madrid. She lived in London, where she worked in a home for abused children. Penelope said: “We took them ‘fishing’ once. Actually, we were crabbing by the shore. I found the activity quite boring, and I didn’t feel the kids were very amused. Suddenly, just to share a bit of enthusiasm, I shouted, “Let’s go crapping!””
Once, the problem was due to differences in pronunciation between Spanish and Portuguese. Gabriel Rodrigues, from Venezuela, has helped others learn Spanish, and studied Portuguese and English, at SPEAK Coimbra. A few years ago, he was studying in Leiria for his bachelor’s degree. Because in Spanish-speaking countries the pronunciation is not differentiated between “s”, “z” and “c”, but in Portugal it is, Grabriel found himself in a funny situation.
Using the wrong word
Finally, it can be a matter of simply using the wrong word or phrase. Christine Eamer, is a Canadian who has helped others learn German, and was a participant in Arabic, at SPEAK Berlin. She recounts one such experience at a SPEAK language exchange. “I was meeting someone for the first time and we were chatting a bit in French. As we moved from topic to topic, I asked him if he liked something specific, and he answered enthusiastically, “Je t’aime” (I love you). A couple of French speakers at our table found this quite amusing, and my new friend quickly realized his mistake. It was a nice moment, though. It’s never a bad time to hear that you’re loved!”
Sadia Manzoor, who is from Pakistan and has attended a couple of SPEAK events in Madrid, can speak Spanish very well. But that wasn’t always the case. When she first arrived there to study for her doctorate in chemistry, she had a few missteps. “The very first day I went to the cafeteria of my university department, I asked them if the milk in the coffee was cow’s milk. But, instead of “vaca” (cow), I said “caballo” (horse).” she recounted. “Everyone was shocked. A fellow next to me thought that we used horse milk back in Pakistan.”
Another time, she went to a supermarket to buy eggs. “I thought “hens” in Spanish was “pollos”. I saw “huevos de gallinas”, and didn’t stop in that section, as I was looking for “huevos de pollo”. After going around the supermarket several times, I asked the guy in charge of the section, and he started laughing. I still remember his face. To be honest, I still don’t remember why he laughed that hard.”
That wasn’t the end of it. In the cafeteria of her university residence hall, “I once went to the counter to pay, and I had a slip of the tongue,” Sadia continued. “Instead of asking “Te pago aqui?” (Do I pay you here?), I asked “Te pego aqui?” (Do I hit you here?). The man behind the counter gave me a strange look, but he knew that I had recently arrived in Spain and didn’t know Spanish, so I was saved.”
Make mistakes when learning a foreign is a natural part of the process
In spite of the momentary unease you may experience in situations like these, and the hilarity or puzzlement experienced by others, there is no reason to feel embarrassed. Making mistakes is a natural part of the learning process. We all have our stories to tell about awkward moments, incidents that made us laugh or blush. But, as Silvia Batorii, a Romanian who was a participant in Spanish at SPEAK Madrid, noted, “Learning a new language definitely is a sum of such stories.”
There’s one thing you can be sure of: your buddies and fellow participants at SPEAK will understand. As you could see from the anecdotes above, many of them have experienced similar situations. And in the relaxed atmosphere of SPEAK language groups, you don’t have to feel self-conscious. Say what you want. Make your mistakes. Let it all hang out. After all, you’re among friends.