Margaret wrote a great piece called “Dumb Stuff the Gringa Says” in which she catalogs some of her most embarrassing (or funny) linguistic faux pax. She then invites her readers, and she has quite a few, to comment with their most embarrassing (or funny) linguistic moments in a second language. I thought it was a great idea– in fact, I think it should be a group post and will link to anyone who writes their own and tells me about it (Emily, Kyle, Joanna, Sara, Abby, Tyffanie, Heather, Andre, and anyone else who has a story, I am talking to you!).
Before I relate my favorite story, however, I want to emphases something that Margaret eloquently said. A sense of humor is a must when working, living or speaking in a foreign language. No matter how good your scores in school were, once you are speaking 24/7, you will make mistakes some of them real errors and some of them caused by double meanings (often sexual at least in Spanish) and cultural jokes. You can get upset and stop talking or you can learn to laugh at yourself. In fact, I have found that telling stories of my own mistakes 1) makes me more endearing and 2) quietly gives permission for others to try out English and make their own mistakes with me.
My best “opps! I said what” story is from high school. I was 16 and the other exchange student in my class was 18. We are young American girls living in Rancagua and we thought we were invincible. We also, correctly, thought that Chile was sexist.
We had decided to go to the Underground, a discotech that we frequented on weekends. Usually we went with groups of boys and girls from our class. This time, however, there were no boys in attendance. As we got dressed at her house, he host Mama found out it was just a group of girls. She was noticeably concerned and at length tried to explain to us that if we went to the club without boys to protect us, anything could happen. We shrugged her off and said we would be fine. She explained that we could be robbed or raped. My friend, the more outgoing of the two of us, explained that we could defend ourselves.
So far, so good.
Only, she didn’t know the word “puño” (fist). Since she wore a ring the shape of a frog on her finger, she decided to make a fist and explain that if someone tried to rape her, she would hit them with her “sapo” (toad). Being supportive (and also not knowing the word for fist), I agreed that this is what we would do and that her host Mama had nothing to worry about.
Her host Mama was horrified.
So we explained again, more emphatically. With the zest of teenagers, we explained and explained, repeated and repeated. Finally, her host Mama burst out laughing. She went to get a host brother to explain what we had said. This would have worked, only he turned red, laughed nervously and left. Ditto with host Papa.
No one told us what we had said, but they let us go to the Discotech.
At the discotech, we told our friends who laughed and laughed. They laughed so hard, they couldn’t explain to us. I don’t remember when someone finally explained or who it was… however, I do know that neither of us (but particularly the ring wearer) never lived it down. Turns out, sapo does mean toad– but in Chilean slang it also refers to female genitalia. Clearly, if someone were raping us, this is not what we should be using as a weapon to fight back!
Okay— there. Embarrassing and also out on the internet. Now you share yours!