Embarassing moments learning a foreign language

By | January 7, 2014

When learning a foreign language, there are always times when we make mistakes, and many of those times we end up saying or doing something embarrassing, or even funny.

For example, there have been times when I tell my wife something in Japanese and she says “What?” (”何?”) and then I repeat it, and she says “What?” again and that cycle goes on for some time until I realize what I was saying didn’t make any sense. If what I said was close enough to the correct phrase then sometimes my intention can be conveyed anyway, but sometimes the mistake is so drastic its possible to interpret.

Of course if you are talking to a stranger, or someone you just met, you’re likely to be that much more nervous, and that much more embarrassed when you say something off-kilter. I think having the confidence to openly express yourself in a foreign language (without being haughty) and the ability to nonchalantly brush off any embarrassing moments are critical to becoming truly fluent in a foreign language.

The most memorable of these embarrassing events was actually with a study friend who was learning the language along with me. Japanese was pretty new to both of us, and we were still learning the basics. We hadn’t even read through a proper textbook yet, let alone a class.

I had picked up a book from a bookstore somewhere and we were reading through some passage in the back of the book. From what I remember it didn’t have a title, but we were able to read the first few characters which were read old style from top to bottom, right to left. They went something like this:

For those of you who have know some Japanese, you can already see where this is going. For the rest, I’ll let the suspense hang for another moment.

We interpreted this as some sort of story, and from the first two characters “あい” it seemed to be about “love”(愛). Then, we saw a “うえ” which means “up” or “above” (上). So something was apparently “above love”? Next we thought the “お” represented the object particle, meaning some verb was acting on this “above love”…

Needless to say, not too long after that we realized stupidly that this was just the beginning of the Japanese hiragana alphabet (あいうえお きけくけこ …). I can still remember our embarrassment, which was strangely not reduced much by the fact that both us hadn’t seen this for what it was immediately.

That’s a language-learning story I’m not likely to ever forget.

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2 thoughts on “Embarassing moments learning a foreign language

  1. Leonard

    Well it is much forgivable mistake than the one I know from Tim Ferriss. When he first went to Japan for a homestay as a 10th grader, he told his homestay mom politely “Please wake me up at 10 a.m,” or so he thought he did. He meant to say “ashita jyuujini okoshite kudasai” but he actually said “ashita jyuujini oKAshite kudasi” which made him say “Please rape me at 10 a.m. tomorrow.” This is by far the funniest one I remember regarding Japanese haha


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