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Lost In Translation

 I speak several languages haltingly. But learning a language means making mistakes so it is good to have a sense of humor. 

Languages can be confusing. From my Italian friends, I got in the habit of saying ‘Chin-chin’ like ‘Cheers’ or ‘A votre sante’ (to your health) when drinking. So when I went to a Tokyo party, I lifted my glass at the table and said ‘Chin-chin’. Everybody started laughing. In Japanese it means a man’s staff (organ? sword? )

At another party, as someone was trying to get me to eat, I said ‘Atashi wa oppai desu.’ Everybody laughed. What I should have said was ‘Atashi wa ippai desu’ (I am full). What I had actually said was ‘I am big-breasted’. 

Another time, instead of inviting a guest to please sit down (suwari nasai) I’ve asked him to please touch me (sawari nasai). He tried.

A shop clerk turned white when I told her I wanted to buy a ‘seifu’ (condom) instead of a ‘saifu’ wallet. 

I also speak broken French.

In a Paris store, I was trying to ask in French where I could find some hair accessories. The clerk said ‘We do not have those.‘ I pointed to my hair. “Mademoiselle” she said icily “you want hair (cheveux) accessories, not horse (chevaux) accessories” 

In France they have the most delicious cream puffs, called ‘choux creme’. However,in NY, when I asked a cabbie where I could buy some, he drove me to a shoe store. He thought I wanted shoe cream. I don’t think English was his first language either. Or French.

My friend is teaching me many English slang expressions so I think my language ability is improving. He is bilingual. He speaks both American and British English. 

For example, he taught me that p****d in British means drunk but in American it means angry. He also told me that ‘loo’ means toilet in British, also ‘WC’ which means ‘water closet’. But for some reason, you can’t mix the two and say ‘water loo’.

My friend says that Americans are shy to say ‘toilet’ so they call it anything else they can: restroom, bathroom, ladies’/gentlemen’s room or even powder room.

A good way to remember vocabulary is by association. For example for powder room, I imagine a cowboy movie. A woman goes into a back room in a saloon to load her little purse pistol with gun powder. Then if she catches her boyfriend cheating on her (my friend explained this doesn’t mean cheat at playing cards ) she can shoot him.

I find you can learn a lot more valuable language points from friends than from books, don’t you think?

xiaomei xiaomei 26-30, F 21 Responses Apr 14, 2009

Your Response


I agree that you can learn a language from freinds . I became fluent in American sign language from freinds who are deaf while I was attending college . I would love to learn at least one dialect of a Asian language . It would be a great avhevment .

Hi CrackedMoonstone. My mother tongue is Mandarin but my father tongue is another dialect so I argue with myself in 2 languages. <br />
What's yours?

Bonjour Notdarcy. C'est ca exactement: There is no end to learning a language because languages are always growing and changing. Isn't that wonderful? But the point is to strive to be a good communicator, not to be perfectly fluent. If I worried about being perfect, I might never open my mouth. That, fortunately, has never been a problem.

I agree about learning from friends. Wow, so what IS your mother tongue?

Bonjour xiaomei! Ca va bien,merci.<br />
You can find the occasional curmudgeon elsewhere,but Paris is most problematic for non-native speakers. Waiters and shop assistants are often the worst! (Though there are glorious exceptions)<br />
I would suggest in circumstances where an English speaker might use the tongue-in-cheek "A closed mouth gathers no foot",i.e. it is better to remain silent than say something foolish,embarrassing or indiscreet. <br />
But I stand to be corrected by a native speaker. <br />
That's the thing about language learning - it's never finished...

GoldenArrow: Aiiyyaaa! Maybe it's true. I'm like a walking French farce and I'm not even fluent yet. I get myself misunderstood on a regular basis--and quite often sexually. But it's a good way to learn a language because when you make such big mistakes like the ones above, you always remember the right way to say it after that. <br><br />
Someday I will tell you about the time I misunderstood a Japanese explanation about an assignment. I thought I was going to a photo shoot to model gowns made of beautiful French lace. When I got to the studio, I found it was for Playboy magazine, with me wearing a French maid's uniform: a bit of lace and satin about the size of a postage stamp.<br><br />
Yes, please learn Chinese. Japanese might be too dangerous.

Bonjour Notdarcy. Comment cava ?(no cedille on this keyboard) Thank you for that observation about Parisiennes. It is heartening to know that they are all in /from one place and that French speakers in general are as charming as their language. There is a distinctive Paris l'argot (slang), is there not?<br />
<br />
Can you help me with this? In what situation would you use this ex<x>pression?<br />
"Dans une bouche ferme les mouches n'entrant pas" (In a closed mouth, the flies do not enter) . Thank you!~Mei

You are so cool XM. I"m such a fan and so impressed by your abilities with language.<br />
It seems that you have a habit of slipping into accidental sexualities!! You're like a walking french farce film!!<br />
I love these stories, I'd like to hear any more from you.<br />
I found Japanese easier to speak for the very basic stuff than Chinese, but maybe Chinese doesn't get so hard? I hope so... it's one of my goals to be able to be conversational in another language, and I've picked Chinese cos it's so widely spoken, but i've found it pretty hard (though very enjoyable).<br />
Thanks again.<br />
XOX<br />

Not all Francophones have such froideur towards non-native speakers. Not even all French people. <br />
Parisians are a separate species!

Thank you, Naomi. I'm glad you enjoy my stories. I love to write. My writing skills are probably stronger than my speaking skills because in writing, one has time to choose words carefully. <br><br />
When I was modeling from around 15 years old, English was the common language among all the girls who were from all over. So I came to speak a rather simple, neutral English. <br><br />
Now I would like to learn more idioms and slang from all the various native-English countries. More confusion coming up!

Your language ability in English is very impressive! And these are some funny stories :D thanks for sharing

Thank you, BertieWooster. You are kind to say so.

Your wit, Mademoiselle, is akin to fencing: guarded but potentially deadly.<br><br />
Your effort at communicating in half a dozen languages while maintaining a sense of humour is highly commendable. Bravo.

Thank you Wanya. I guess with a 2000-year history of foreigners coming to China, we have kind of a worldly sense of humor that everyone can relate to.<br />
<br />
That's very good advice about speaking to the French. They are very protective and proud of their language, aren't they? I wonder if this is true only of people from France or is it also that way with people from Quebec and other French-speaking countries?

LOL That was good :)

Please, you go first. You've had so many more than me. :)

Why don't you tell us some of your embarrassing experiences with English?

You mean Yoda the Jedi master in Star Wars? Too funny! It's true! He speaks English with Japanese grammar. Maybe he's really Japanese?

Hilarious.<br />
I speak very basic shopping Chinese and dojo Japanese and can't write characters in either language. But I think Chinese is easier for English-speakers because the syntax or word order is basically the same. Japanese syntax, however, sounds like Yoda:<br />
<br />
English: I am a student<br />
Chinese: Wo (I) shi (am) xuesheng (student)<br />
Japanese: Watakushi wa gakkusei desu (I student am)<br />
<br />
Also, Japanese has different levels of formality and they always seem to use the most formal, polite, convoluted form when speaking to foreigners. My Japanese is real simple so when someone whips out a long flowery question, I'm like, WTF?

Hi Dewduster: In China, only about 50% of the people speak what I speak- Mandarin or Putonghua. The others speak Wu (Shanghainese), Guandong hua or Yue (Cantonese), Hakka, Tibetan, Uyghur, Portuguese and other 'Mingzu' or ethnic languages. Most people can speak at least one other dialect. Lots of people can also speak English. Everybody at my college did.<br><br />
English was the main language I studied in school. Most everything else I picked up from traveling and working in different places, so if you have to know a language to survive, you have the motivation to learn it. In America, everybody speaks English so maybe there's not much motivation to learn another language unless you plan to work overseas.<br><br />
It's not so difficult for Chinese to understand written Japanese because they use Kanji (characters) like our Hanzi so if I don't understand something, they trace the character in the palm of their hand so I can see it. The hard part is to know how to pronounce it. The meaning in Chinese and Japanese is the same but the pronunciation is different.<br><br />
Anyway, for me, the main point is not to speak perfectly but to be able to communicate with people.

I hope ever one has some humor as you at least try to learn another’s language. We in the US are the worst I suspect because of our size. I grew up in Kansas and never thought I would have a need to learn another language. <br />
<br />
My sons went to school in El Paso, Texas so they have some knowledge of Spanish.<br />
<br />
China is huge. Does the average Chinese person learn another language? <br />
<br />
I now wish I could learn your language so I could try to write to you. That would be funny!...DD