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Embarrassing Moments – Laughable Foreign Language Mistakes
One of the things that often prevents us from practicing a new language is the fear of making a mistake. It is an obvious wound in self-pride if someone laughs at you, or looks at you in perplexity because while trying to ask for directions, and you have the word for “left” confused with that of “shirt”. However, this pride can unfortunately cause you to stay at home and isolate yourself. If you can only dare to allow yourself to make mistakes, and risk being laughed at, you will learn much more than at home. OK, watching TV in a foreign language is a great way to learn, but don’t correct your grammar accent. In the spirit of trying to encourage you, I will leave you in a few of my “traumatic” experiences with mistakes in a foreign language. I hope you see that, at the very least, you’ll have tons of fun stories to tell for years to come.
London, England – I studied at the London School of Economics in 1990, and I consider myself quite intelligent. Since I am American, and I have spoken this language all my life, I assumed that American and English are exactly the same language, so I did not expect to encounter any language problems when I lived here. I was very humbled when my friends and I got lost one evening, trying to find the Gloucester Road. We met a policeman so I thought he would be a good person to ask.
“Excuse me sir, can you tell me which way we go to get to Gloucester Road?” I asked.
The policeman burst into hysterical laughter. It was very funny, because I thought all the policemen in London were very, very serious. This, however, was practically splitting his sides with 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 right at the right.
Paris, France. I was in a pharmacy and found a man frantically searching the shelves. He couldn’t find what he needed, so he approached 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 to understand why he could help her find the shower! I jumped in and helped the man get what he needed, and we had a good laugh in the process.
Strasbourg, and Louvieres, France – I have two French host families, and one summer, I visited them both, leaving from Strasbourg. I am always eager to pick up new slang, so I was delighted when my family in Strasbourg taught me the word “tarre”, which means, as they explained, “stupid”, or as I like to joke with the good friends, “you’re. retarded” as in “you’re a goofball!” We laughed with pleasure, and every time he said the word, everyone was very amused. So, I went to the wedding of one of my host sisters in Normandie. I was asked to get up on a chair and give a speech.
Naturally, 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 enormet!” I was pleased to tell them that I enjoyed their goofiness. Unfortunately, I learned that, just like in the United States, different regions have different definitions for the same word. In Normandie, calling someone “tarre” implies that you are the child of a parent who is medically retarded, and therefore have mental problems. Highly insulting. Fortunately, only one member of my host family took the offense to heart, and wasn’t too eager to talk to me for a while, but I’ll never forget, or abuse that word again!
Paris, France. When I was working in Paris, one of the Marketing Managers who worked in our New York office, visited our Paris center for a presentation to a group of Americans. The Manager was French, but had an excellent command of the English language. Well, mostly. I was invited to listen to his presentation, and became very excited about an idea that I wanted to emphasize. We wanted to emphasize its importance with the phrase, “the belly of the beast”. Instead, from his mouth came, “… and this idea arises from the intestines of the beast “There was not a dry eye at the table and it was impossible to stop laughing for at least five minutes. Then he had a rapt audience, hanging on every word, hoping he would make another mistake.
Here is what these experiences have taught me:
Laughter is universal. It can really be a bonding experience to make someone laugh.
Mistakes help you learn. I often remember words because I can think of one of my many funny stories and the person correcting my grammar or pronunciation. Therefore, the greater impact your mistake has, the more likely you will speak better next time!
Friends will forgive you. If you make a really dramatic mistake, and end up saying something insulting, your friends will understand, and forgive you.
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