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Monday, June 27th, 2011

Embarrassing Multilingual Moments


The other day a builder was at our house to do something in the kitchen. He told me how he thought it was funny that just when he knocked on the door, a Lufthansa aircraft went overhead, because garble blah garble blah blah.


I tried not to do the completely blank stare, but I had not understood a single word of his explanation.


Now, about an hour later, I think he was trying some German and I felt a bit sorry because it failed utterly.


A Common Problem

I remember a similar episode, about 10 years ago in France: my German flatmate and I were in a bar with a French colleague, drinking, talking about languages. The colleague told us how impressed he was with our French and how bad his German was. The usual stuff.


But then he admitted that he had learned more than most of his peers. I don’t think he was proud of it or anything, he just wanted to share. And because we were supportive (of course we were! I’m pretty sure everyone who speaks more than a single language is pleased when meeting someone similar or aiming for it), he wanted to try some of his German on us.


Most expats know what happened next: our colleague said something supposedly German and we had no clue what he was trying to say, no matter how often he repeated it or tried to spell. The music and noise in the bar didn’t help. Eventually, he gave up and we were very glad about that.


I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for our colleague! I don’t know how good he thought his German was, but he must have thought we were either total losers or doing it on purpose!


We, on the other hand, felt really bad. There was our colleague, making an effort beyond the usual, and we were making him feel embarrassed. That really isn’t the message you want to send out when you’re an expat.


You would much rather encourage people! Or help them with their foreign languages. Being multilingual is a good thing, after all.


A couple of years later the colleague moved to Nepal, then to Germany, which makes me think we fortunately did not discourage him.


The upside: I have been in situations like this so many times that I am pretty sure I will never do it myself!


What was your most embarrassing multilingual moment?

© 2011 – 2013, Jan Petersen. All rights reserved.

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Jan, who is German, works mainly from home as a software engineer. His wife, who is Algerian, stays at home to look after their three girls aged 7, 4 and 1. They live in the U.K. and are raising their children multilingual in Arabic, French, German and English.

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