Laugh Your Way through Miscommunication

Being in a place where you don’t speak the language well (or at all!) can be frustrating. Even if you are able to get by, the feeling of having less vocabulary than you’re used to—of having complicated thoughts in your head, but no real way to express them—can make you feel like a kid again. And following conversations around you can get exhausting.

Still, the only way to get comfortable with a language is practice, practice, practice! And trying out your new language skills will inevitably lead to mistakes. But, hey—translation problems often lead to funny stories that you can laugh about later. Once the embarrassment washes off, of course…

It happens to all of us. Seeing that my own family immigrated to Canada in the 1980s—and most of my relatives still reside overseas and speak little English—I have quite a few lost-in-translation stories of my own. Here are some of my favourites.


Just say “yes”?

German is my first language, but as I’ve lived around English speakers my whole life, it can get a little rusty.

I’ve developed this bad habit in German of agreeing to everything. It’s an impulse to make conversations go as smoothly as possible—I hate constantly interrupting people who are talking just to ask for clarification about minor words. Because I understand most of the words I hear, it often seems safe to just smile and say, “Okay!”

While this strategy is good in a pinch, sometimes it backfires.

For example, a few years ago I was strolling through a tiny German village with my great-uncle who was telling me all about the town’s landmarks in great detail. Then he turned to me and said a sentence (in German) that I understood almost all of: “Next time you visit, you can come see us in Friedhof!

Before I’d fully understood what I was agreeing to, I just said, “Sure!”

And then, two seconds too late, I remembered what Friedhof means: “Cemetery.”



In my country, it is a delicacy

My parents immigrated to Canada shortly before my older sister was born. So when she started kindergarten, she spoke almost no English.

In my sister’s kindergarten class one day, the kids were asked to name their favourite food. My sister’s was corn, so she answered with the German word for corn: “Mais.

Later, when my mother saw how the teacher had transcribed this answer for the class, she got a bit of a shock. Displayed amongst all the normal answers—hot dogs, peanut butter and jelly, pizza—there was my sister’s answer: “Mice.”


When manners backfire

When I was a teenager, I visited a relative in Munich who speaks almost no English. When I arrived, I needed to use the washroom—but the only way I could think to ask that question was the way a child might phrase it. I felt that might be a bit rude for a first meeting. So, after thinking about it for a minute, I literally translated “bathroom” and asked her where I could find the Badezimmer.

She looked a bit confused, but agreed and led me upstairs. I thought I’d succeeded until she opened the door to show me the bathtub.

I’d forgotten that bathtubs and toilets are in different rooms in Germany.

After that incident, I asked my father how to politely ask where the toilet is. He told me a good euphemism to use is, “Ich muss meine Hände waschen.” (“I need to wash my hands.”)

My German is a bit better now, but when I revisited this relative in Munich last month, I still remembered the bathtub incident from all those years ago and decided to use my father’s advice. So, when I got to her house after a four-hour train journey, I asked, “Könnte ich meine Hände waschen?” (“Could I wash my hands?”)

She said “of course!” and showed me to a door. I was pretty pleased with myself until I closed the door, turned around—and realized that this room had only a sink.


Turn the tables

Remember: Fluency is relative. If you’re getting exhausted keeping up in a new language, offer to “help” your hosts or new friends to “practice” some of your language from home. Give them some words and phrases to try—then get ready to laugh at them. The tables have turned!

One of my favourite things is teaching English-speaking friends how to tell a really bad joke in German, then convincing them to repeat it to as many native speakers as they can and see if they can get any laughs. (The laughs are usually not forthcoming—except from me!)

On the flipside, when I recently visited Germany, I taught my great-aunt many English words for different animals—which she inevitably found hysterical. “Hedgehog” was a particular hit. Imparting some new words to those around you can take the pressure off your language skills for a little while!


In sum…

When you’re learning a new language, mistakes are going to be made. Be patient with yourself and don’t be afraid of sounding silly. Communicating (and making mistakes) is the only way to learn. And, most often, people are very understanding—even if you’ve just agreed to come visit them in the cemetery. If nothing else, turning my language mishaps into funny stories means that I’ll never forget what Friedhof means again.



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