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9 Horrific Language Learning Mistakes You’ll Be Thankful You Didn’t Make

language fail

Image first on Telegraph

Do you know what the number one enemy is for language learners?

… Fear.

It’s pretty easy to understand why, too.

We are programmed to avoid risk, and looking stupid in front of strangers or possibly offending someone are two very potential outcomes when talking with others in a foreign language.

As a language learner, you must learn to ignore this natural risk-0meter, and take more social risks.

The sooner you get comfortable with the fact that you will make all kinds of mortifying mistakes that will simply be laughed off or completely ignored, the sooner you’ll start talking more…

…And the faster you’ll start to improve in your speaking as a result.

Today is your day to become fearless. (And hopefully have a good laugh as well!).

How to Be a Fearless Language Learner

Today’s post is a kind of simulation.

Below is a list of 9 real-life horror stories from language learners.

Here’s what to do:

  1. I want you to read each story, imagining it just happened to you. Feel the embarrassment. Feel your face turn red. Make it real…
  2. Then, remind yourself this happened to someone else.
  3. Was it a terrible mistake? Yes.
  4. Did anything bad actually come from it? No.
  5. Finally, choose the one you think is the worst — the one you would never want to happen to you.
  6. Remember it, and tell yourself the next time you feel your fear  holding you back, “Well, I most likely won’t make a mistake as bad as ___… And even if I do, it doesn’t really matter anyway!”

Be Afraid… Be Very Afraid… and Then Stop Being So Scared

(The below stories are real as far as I know. A lot of them are also not suitable for young or sensitive audiences… It turns out that being incredibly vulgar in many languages is usually nothing more than a simple vowel change.)

1. How not to ask for a strawberry sundae in Chinese.

I was trying to order a strawberry sundae at KFC in China (cao-mei shendai). I couldn’t remember the word for sundae, (shen-dai) so I would just say strawberry (cao-mei). Of course I forgot the second part (-mei) so just kept repeating ‘cao’ which naturally is also the way (other than in tone) to say ‘f***!’ I did not find out why she had such an unhappy expression until much later in my Chinese learning. (There was much laughing by the staff).

2. Beware of translating idioms word-for-word

Once I wanted to say “I’m a chicken” as in “I’m afraid/cowardly” to do something. So I got my little dictionary and found the words and said “Wo shi Ji” (I am chicken). I was proud of myself not thinking that an English idiom likely would not translate directly. Long story short it turns out I called myself a female prostitute.

3. Are all American students this foul-mouthed?

There was a girl in my Chinese class last semester. So this girl reads a sentence that says 姑妈 (gu ma, one of the words for aunt in Chinese) but instead of saying “gu”, she says 肏 (cao).. meaning “f*** your mother”. My Chinese teacher just covered her mouth and got really red, and I ended up having to explain to the class why my Chinese teacher was so embarrassed and was acting like a deer in headlights.

4. When reading, just get a dictionary…

I was an au pair for a German family. I was reading a book and came across a word that I didn’t know. Rather than look it up, I asked the grandmother what Möse meant. It means c**t. Oops.

5. Be careful what you’re shopping for

My friend once asked for “dos bolas de coca”, or two balls of cocaine, instead of coconut (ice cream). Same friend once asked the Chinese vegetable vendor for “opio” (opium) instead of “apio” (celery). Good times in Madrid.

6. How to convince an entire beer garden you might be crazy

At a beer garden in Andechs, Bavaria I tried to order some potato salad (Kartoffelsalat) but said Kunststoff instead, which means plastic. The lady asked me to repeat my order three times while pointing at numerous different foods around here and I just said ‘Kunstoffe’ even louder each time. Definitely embarrassing.

7. Beware of phrases enthusiastic nationals teach you at bars…

This reminds of the time I was in Manila. I had JUST gotten into the country and was at a bar, drinking. I could say Como Stakar and Mabuhai and that was it. I think I asked the girls I was sitting with to tell me how to say “I love the Philippines” or something banal like that. They told me it was “Mali bhoog,” I believe. Turns out it means, “I am horny.” So I am standing in this bar shouting this phrase, thinking I’m being a friendly, multi-cultured American. Such a facepalm. Anyway, I asked a Filipina I knew (at a much later date) what this phrase meant. Oh, man…

8. When trying to be helpful, you might just sound like a soul-less bastard


A colleague and I were having a meeting in German, and he was asked about the pregnant secretary who was on sick leave now. Having to break bad news, he wanted to say “unfortunately, she had a miscarriage”, but what he said was “leider hatte sie eine Mißgeburt” which is literally “unfortunately, she had borne a baby with deformities” but coming off as “she gave birth to a monstrosity”.

The German word is only used as an insult nowadays, like ‘retard’ in English. The proper term would have been ‘Fehlgeburt’.

Cue shocked silence by all the meeting participants for some time, everybody looking to the floor.

9. Sometimes, it just comes out wrong

When meeting a group of some of my new Japanese teachers in Japan, I wanted to say I was nervous, which goes “Kincho desu”. Instead, I said “Chinko desu”, which means “I’m a penis”.

These stories were some of the most ‘popular’ from this post on reddit if you’d like to browse around some other horror stories.

I hope this post has shown you that:

  1. Everyone is going to make mistakes. It’s part of the game!
  2. Even if you make the worst kinds of mistakes, the person you’re speaking to will recognize it as a mistake — most likely laughing it off or ignoring it all together.

So relax, and don’t worry about it. Go stand up to your fears and embrace the mistakes you’ll make.

Just don’t do anything permanent, like get a tattoo, without double checking first…

Have any horror stories of your own? Share them in the comments below!