English: Becoming a Steak, Littering Mail and Other Foreign Language Confusion

Learning a new language is an amazing and very rewarding experience, at least when you do it of your own free will and not because you are forced by your parents or high school teachers. What used to be just strange sounds all of a sudden becomes words. Those words soon start to have meanings and a whole new universe of communication opens up to you. The first time you get to practice your new skills, either because you run into someone who is native in that language or because you travel to a country where it is spoken, you almost feel like you conquered another part of the world simply by being able to understand and make yourself understood.

That being said, those of you who speak at least one foreign language will also know that this reward only comes through discipline, continuous practice and, most likely, after quite a few confusing or even embarrassing moments. Before you become fluent or even before you are able to have a simple conversation, you must get it over that hurdle of fear that something incredibly stupid might come out of your mouth. No matter whether you are studying English, French, Italian, Hindi or Chinese, just accept that this will happen anyway – you will make a fool of yourself most likely not just once, but many times.

Today I laugh about those German tourists who place an order in a restaurant here by saying, “Can I become a steak, please?” The reason for this potentially embarassing mistake is easy to explain: the English word “get” is translated as “bekommen” in German – which of course sounds rather similar to the English “become”.

But I have to admit, I have committed my own share of language faux-pas which sometimes caused an outburst of laughter from the person I was talking to but on other occasions they led to more drastic reactions.

When I was studying French and was sent to Paris for a school exchange program I stayed with a lovely family who had a girl my age and a slightly older boy. It was summer and one steamy hot evening after dinner, I was chatting with the older son, practicing my French. I sighed and said, “Je suis chaude,” meaning to say that I felt quite warm in that weather. Unfortunately my words translated into something that indicated to this lovely man that I was quite sexually aroused by him. I can’t really blame him for trying to kiss me passionately shortly after, or hold it against him for leaving a fiery love letter in front of my bedroom door the next morning.

Under less misleading circumstances, love works as a wonderful incentive for learning a foreign language. Although I had been studying English in school for years, I became aware of how limited my vocabulary really was after I met my future Canadian husband. There were just so many expressions I had never heard of in school but desperately needed – not just in romantic moments but also during those heated arguments when every second counts to get your point across!

On the other hand, lacking words in a foreign language can also jeopardize romantic affairs, as this little story proves. My Italian friend’s uncle immigrated to Canada in a time when telephone conversations were a luxury people could only afford occasionally.
Having left his wife behind until he was settled here, he promised her to write frequently until he could come and get her. When he finally managed to call her many weeks after his arrival, he found her rather upset. She apparently hadn’t received a single letter from him although he claimed he had written her almost daily. A negligence of the Canadian postal system? Not quite! The mysterious mail disappearance was cleared up shortly after, when he attempted to post another letter and someone saw him dropping it into a box that said “litter” on the front. He had thought it said “letter.”

After my own move here – and even after mastering the art of arguing in English – I ran into so many situations where I wished I had paid just a little more attention to my teachers’ or my husband’s use of certain words. The examples are countless, yet none of them is as bad as the story I was told by a colleague of mine. A friend of hers wanted to check with her boss whether it was okay at her workplace if she got her bottom lip pierced. She went to him and told him about her plans to get this so called “labret piercing” done. She couldn’t quite understand why he seemed extremely puzzled by this question, although he said he had certainly nothing against it. Only later she realized that she had used the word “labia” instead – which, in case you do not know – refers to an entirely different, much less obvious part of the female body.

Situations like these make you think that you want to give up, hide in a mouse hole and never speak a sentence in that language again, while you are trying to fight the blush off your face. Yet I believe it is important to remember, that usually no one holds your mistakes against you as much as you do yourself. On the contrary, most people find it quite endearing and charming when you confuse two completely different words just because they sound similar or close to another word in your native language. I personally hate it when I say something wrong or when people notice that I’m not a native English speaker, but at the same time, I always found it very cute when my husband first started to learn German and repeatedly made funny mistakes while speaking with an adorable accent.

Of course once you start working with your newly achieved language skills, for example as a translator or journalist like me, you aren’t really allowed to make serious mistakes anymore. But at this point you actually may have started to think and even dream in this language, especially when you live in the country where it is spoken. At the same time you might run into situations where you realize that your native language doesn’t come to you so naturally anymore. Whenever I talk to my family and friends back in Germany, I feel for a little while like I have a knot in my tongue. Often I have to think hard to remember a particular word because I only use the English equivalent in my mind. Usually all comes back after a little while, but frankly, I’m a little bit worried that one day I may not even be able anymore to order a steak properly back home.

CNM