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Jim Eagles: Breaking the language barrier

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If there's one foreign term we all seem to know it's faux pas - perhaps because it's a good term to apply to many efforts to communicate in a foreign language.

There has been a flood of responses to my request for examples of misunderstandings caused by attempts to get a message across the language barrier.

Some of the funniest - or the most embarrassing for those involved - are not printable in a family newspaper. But here's a selection of the stories received so far.

Jenny George's moment was while she was travelling by bus to an Austrian ski resort. "I sat next to an elderly gentleman and in an effort to be friendly wished him good morning in his language. This led him to believe I spoke fluent German and he unleashed a torrent of unfathomable words. I interrupted him and said I spoke 'nein deutsch' and that I was a 'Kiwi'. At this he grasped my arm, stroked it and muttered a long sentence, which many hours later back in my hotel I translated and realised he had just asked me why I considered myself 'a prickly brown fruit'."

Chris Brown's faux pas was actually a great communication success. "Taking photographs in the Alhambra Palace, Grenada, I had a shot of the Lion Court lined up in my viewfinder when a couple of ladies trundled in front of me and settled down to admire the view.

I did my best to be polite. 'Entschuldigen sie bitte gnadige frauen.' 'Excusez moi s'il vous plait mesdames.' 'Excusa por favor senora.' 'Scuzi! Prego!' In frustration I muttered 'ohforcrissakemissusshiftyerarse' whereupon they sprang out of my way with many apologies."

Jude Wood sent half a dozen examples of the difficulty of using schoolgirl French. Among them was asking the waiter in a cafe, "Avez-vous des preservatifs dans la nourriture?" or "Do you have condoms in your food?" when the aim was to find out whether it contained preservative. Whereupon the waiter bent over double and ran out to the kitchen without answering.

"Actually," Wood claims, "it was not me who said this, it was an American friend, which would figure."

Another was announcing, "Je viens de prendre un sommelier dans mon lit" or "I have just put a wine steward in my bed" instead of reporting the installation of a new sommier, the hard, bottom piece of the bed, under the mattress.

Noel Speirs hit the language gap while trying to order two glasses of wine in a small bar Paris. "Having been advised to order a red wine by saying vin ordinaire, and de blanc for white wine I asked for one glass of each. This brought a response from the barman that I could not understand so I repeated the order and held up two fingers, which seemed to puzzle him even further. After further confusion he solved the problem by meeting us halfway and served two glasses of rose."

Speirs also had a problem getting paper at a public toilet in Malaysia. "My friend, who waited outside, put me right saying that I needed to give the attendant 10c and I would receive a little packet of toilet paper. Next day, next town, next toilet, armed with this advice I insisted on paying the 10c to the attendant after a discussion I could not comprehend, completed my ablutions and opened the packet to find I had purchased a packet of tampons."

Graham Bowmaker wondered why Parisians gave him strange looks when he asked for directions to the nearest station. "The looks of bemusement were explained when I realised that I was asking 'Where is the nearest war'?"

Similarly, he was puzzled at the level of amusement generated when he told people in Germany that New Zealand was a country with 3 million people and 60 million sheep "until I found out that what I had said was that 'New Zealand is populated by 3 million people and 60 million shepherds'!"

Brett Knowles' favourite faux pas happened while he was living in Indonesia and a giant moth with a 30-cm wing span flew into the room. "I wanted to say 'look at the beautiful moth' but only knew the Indonesian word for 'butterfly'. So I said 'look at the beautiful night butterfly' which was greeted with a roar of laughter. 'Night butterfly' was idiomatic for 'prostitute'."

While visiting New Zealand Annemarie Apers' mother startled a group of widows on a bus trip. "Trying to explain that she was a widow too she told them: 'My husband has passed out'."

Apers caused some consternation herself when she arrived at the airport in France and "a staunch-looking airport official asked me, 'Avez vous papiers d'itentite?' or 'Do you have your identification papers?' I thought he had asked if I had any antiques and told him - in French - 'No, none at all.' It took a while before the language problem was solved."

Anne Rimmer was working at a Canadian fisheries research station on the St Lawrence River when she went searching for a tide table.

"At each shop our carefully rehearsed request for 'Un table des marees' produced only bemused looks. Finally we reached the hardware store where the shop assistant sent for the manager. We repeated our request and he replied, 'I am sorry, we do not have that kind of folding table'. We never got our tide table."

Susan Nemec was learning Spanish in Chile when she got into a confusing conversation with a young man on a bus. Trying to explain that she wanted to go to Atacama, the desert in the north, she said something like, "Quiero ir atucama", which unfortunately means "I want to go to your bed". The misunderstanding was eventually sorted out but, Nemec, adds, "For a fortysomething I was quite flattered when he gave me his address before he got off the bus. Maybe he hoped I would change my mind about visiting the Atacama."

Lynne Melton was well into a language course in Germany when, spying one of her teachers at a concert, she decided to put her lessons into practice.

"I confidently told Herr Doktor Schneider he was 'very smartly dressed' compared to how he usually dressed around the university. I wondered why he suddenly turned aside and fumbled with his shirt and trousers, then looked at me in confusion, and moved away. It was not until the next day that I realised that I had told him he was 'very definitely undressed' (it was a case of one single consonant being wrong). German classes were an ordeal for me for the rest of the term."

Bruce Hall's faux pas happened while he was working for a forestry consultant in the Borneo jungle and decided to give his local workers "what you might call a motivational speech. They couldn't speak English so I stumbled along in Bahasa Malay telling them that I'd read many stories about the wonderful men of Borneo and how hard-headed and strong they were. 'Hard headed' in Malay is 'kras kepala'. However, I said 'kra kepala' which is 'monkey head'. They looked stony-faced and insulted and rightly so. I eventually realised my mistake and apologised for being a stupid 'orang puteh' or 'white man'. They were great people and we all eventually had a good laugh about it though it was quite tense at the time."

* We'll run more language faux pas next week. The best five stories will earn the authors the Lonely Planet phrase books of their choice.

- NZ Herald

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