Corazon Miller is a NZ Herald reporter

Words can raise giggle or offence

Corazon Miller looks at how moments can get lost in translation in other languages.
Chinese was by far the most widely spoken language with 1.197 billion speakers in 330 countries. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Chinese was by far the most widely spoken language with 1.197 billion speakers in 330 countries. Photo / Brett Phibbs

There's a risk when speaking a foreign language that you might use the wrong word - you could make a fool of yourself, provide some light entertainment or worse come across as being rude and disrespectful.

I still remember the look of dismay on my French host family's face when I casually told them I'd been kidnapped five times in my life during dinner one night. The wrong use of a verb had somehow caused me to translate the word "robbed" into "stolen", which led to them figuring I was a "survivor".

Auckland University French professor Tracy Adams recounted a time when her own error in pronunciation led to her telling a French crowd she was "licking female baboons [babouines]", rather than "I'm licking my chops [babines]".

In reference to the case of the Italian forklift driver, Ms Adams said it was possible he'd been misunderstood, as it was easy to come across the wrong way when speaking a foreign language.

"They can come across as being blunt, or more passive than usual."

She explained in English politeness was often inferred tonally, whereas in language like French there were specific words used to be polite.

In a world with seven billion people and more than 7000 different languages such "lost in translation" moments are hardly rare.

According to language reference guide Ethnologue, Chinese was by far the most widely spoken language with 1.197 billion speakers in 33 countries, followed by Spanish with 399 million speakers in 31 countries. English was spoken in the highest number of countries, 101, but only came in third with 335 million speakers.

Even within languages there were numerous variations; Chinese had 13 regional varieties, Arabic 19 and Malay nine.

Massey University sociologist Paul Spoonley was puzzled given how well travelled many New Zealanders were, and how multi-cultural the nation was, that a relative few showed interest in learning any one of these many languages.

According to Statistics New Zealand's 2013 census, 3.09 million [73 per cent of the population] spoke English only, compared to 578,919 [13 per cent] who also spoke another language [not Maori or NZ Sign Language], 123,198 [3 per cent] spoke both Maori and English and no other language.

Dr Spoonley said Kiwis also didn't always appreciate how different and challenging "our" English could be, particularly its colloquial language.

"The whole vocabulary we use isn't shared, it's really confusing."

He used the example of the word "rubber", which in New Zealand is understood to be an eraser, whereas in the United States this referred to a condom. Another example was "cheerios" the little red sausage commonly featured as Kiwi party fare, but which in the United States was a breakfast cereal.

Even exchanges with our neighbours across the ditch could get lost in translation - take for instance the word "thong", which Kiwis would recognise as a skimpy undergarment, but which Australians saw as footwear.

When it comes to communicating between different languages it could get even more difficult. University of Otago senior lecturer in linguistics Dr Moyra Sweetnam Evans said there wasn't always an exact equivalent between languages.

There are varying rules around syntax [sentence structure], verbs, tenses and pronunciation, which could all pose challenges for those traversing the language gap.

In Filipino for example there are no two words for he or she, instead they use the same pronoun for both - siya. Similarly nouns like brother, sister, daughter, son don't always exist - instead a genderless word like sibling [kapatid] or child [anak] is often used along with another descriptive noun [babae = girl, lalaki = boy] to describe it as necessary.

In Romantic languages, like French and Spanish, nouns themselves have genders, which can be very confusing for language learners, especially when the rules around what's feminine or masculine are often fluid and at times bizarre. Many seemingly gender-specific items seemed to be classified contrarily. For example the feminine items bra and lipstick are deemed masculine nouns in Spanish and French.

Dr Evans said another tricky concept was what the French called faux-amis or false friends - words that looked the same, but had very different meanings.

Her daughter once innocently told the French the reason we didn't buy bread every day was because they were filled with préservatives [in French this actually means condoms].

She said while such a faux pas might give language teachers and natives a bit of a laugh, making mistakes was all part of the "joy of language learning".

Mother tongues

7000 Languages spoken worldwide.

Mandarin is the mother tongue of 850 million people.

101 Number of countries where English is spoken.

Double entendre

• In French, préservatives means condoms, not something you might smear on your toast.

• And in Spanish, bizzarro translates as brave or gallant, not bizarre.

• To learn more about world languages go here: https://www.ethnologue.com/.

- NZ Herald

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