Speaking the language

OVERHEARD: LUNCHTIME. BAJA FRESH. The manager behind the counter is trying to get orders out to customers. "Number 83. Nachos Carnitas. 83," he said into the microphone.

A Very White Man approaches the counter. "No," he said to the Spanish-speaking manager. "83 is nachos."

"Yes," the manager replied. Nachos WITH MEAT. Carnitas."


This exchange reminded me of two times where trying to speak French didn't go as planned.

The first happened in 1985, right after I graduated high school. Our school organized a trip to Europe every three years, whereby kids from rural Central PA could broaden their horizons and learn more about Our World. I think they called it the Cultural European Tour.

And so it was we found ourselves on line at the Burger King on The Avenue des Champs-Élysées (because really, nothing embodies the true culture of Paris more than a fast food restaurant on one of the world's most famous boulevards). (And this is to say nothing of the fact that several days before, we ate at Pizza Hut in London. But don't worry, Mom, I still learned a LOT!)

The guy in front of me in line, who I'm sure has since become a Pillar of his Community but then was, well, a 17 year old boy, stepped up to place his order.

"Yeah, uh, gimme summa them-there, uh, PUM-FREEEETS," he said to the pretty girl taking the order, and grinned.

The girl blinked and deadpanned, "You mean French fries?" with a glint in her eye.

"Uh… yeah."

Fast-forward to 1993, and I find myself in Paris again, this time on our honeymoon. It was a lovely October day and we'd spent it walking around the arrondissements,  soaking in the true local flavor. We came upon a vending cart, and as it happened, I was thirsty.  Eager to try using my Francais faible, I approached the woman and said:

"Une Coke-Diète, s'il-vous plait," in what I was sure was a perfect accent, one that would not belie my American upbringing to even a native Francophone.

"Eighty francs," she replied, in textbook-perfect English, completely bursting my bubble.

# # #

Your turn. Please tell me about a time where you tried to use a foreign language but things didn't go as you thought they would. Merci beaucoup.

8 thoughts on “Speaking the language

  1. Exact same thing happened to me in Montreal every single time I tried to use my French!
    I was never fluent in French. Not even close. But it’s the only non-English language I’ve ever been able to speak conversationally. A weird thing happened to me in Korea last fall. Whenever someone spoke to me in Korean, I had to consciously keep myself from responding back in FRENCH!! WTH? It’s like my brain has a generic “Foreign langauage!!” response.

  2. Meg — Suz and I were in a taxi cab in Guadalajara, Mexico, about five years ago with two friends, Barbara and Mark. Barbara spoke (fairly) fluent Spanish, and wanted to ask the cabbie to take us to a restaurant because her husband (Mark) was very hungry.
    So Barbara said: “Mi esposo tengo hombre.”
    The cabbie kinda looked at her like she was crazy, since she had just said “My husband has a man.”
    What she meant to say was “mi esposo tengo HAMBRE” – my husband has hunger.

  3. Bets – interesting, that!
    I just remembered another one! Our friends from here were living in Frankfurt. He was out and about by himself and really didn’t know German. He asked a cabbie to take him to “Einbahnstrasse” thinking it was the name of his street – but that means “one way street.” Confusion ensued.

  4. When a shirt-tail relative of yours was stationed in Germany , he and some buddies were on their way to a bar in a vehicle, and saw a really pretty young woman. German for to travel is “Fahren” and to ask someone if they wanted to travel is “fahrt”. Said without the proper accent it sounds like “fart.” So they pulled up alogisde her an said “Fahrt?” to which she replied in perfect English, “No, did you?”

  5. Your mom just KILLED ME. : )
    I studied Japanese in college. About nine years after my last class I went to Japan, so I broke out the books to study. My vocabulary was terrible, but my grammar was revolting. HOWEVER I had sublime pronunciation (apparently), which probably stems from my habit of mimicry. Or something.
    Anyhoo, when I asked “how do I get to the subway?” or “what time is bathroom served?” the locals’ eyes would bug out. They’d exclaim “honto-o-o desu ka?!” (is it true or real?) then start jabbering at me at 100 miles an hour as if I understood. Bad plan.

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