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Nose Papers, Christmas Blankets and Why Small Mistakes Make a Big Difference Posted by on Mar 7, 2016 in Archived Posts

Itchy Feet: Charming Inaccuracies

My wife has started to say “tissues” now, and it breaks my heart.

I always loved “nose papers,” even if she didn’t. From her perspective, I’m allowing her to speak the language incorrectly because it amuses me. I understand that. I get the same feeling when I say coperta instead of tovaglia in Italian, basically mixing up “blanket” and “tablecloth,” which her family finds completely hilarious. “Ha ha!” they’ll say, “hey Malachi, hand me the Christmas Blanket for the table! Ha ha!”

But the reason I’m saddened by my wife’s steady improvement in the English language is that I love the new perspective that a foreign speaker brings. As a native speaker, I don’t often get to confront words and phrases that I know instinctively. But speaking with someone with a good, not great, grasp of the language, they often make these little, funny, completely understandable mistakes, and I suddenly see the language from a new vantage point. It’s like when you invite a new friend over to your house for the first time, and all of a sudden you see the place through their eyes, for better or worse. You get a fresh perspective on everything, from your habits of cleanliness to the “art” you have hanging on the walls.

So yes, it’s a little selfish. But I also believe that as with larger, more obvious mistakes, making those little, funny mistakes helps you become a better speaker in the long run. The reason why is simple: there’s no better corrective than embarrassment.

Imagine you’re in a marketplace, speaking a foreign language to a shopkeeper, and you’re trying to buy some soap. Unbeknownst to you, you’ve mixed up the word for “soap” with the word for “eggs.” The poor guy clearly doesn’t understand you, as he’s mostly selling toilet brushes and paper towels, and can’t imagine why you’ve come to him for eggs. So you start miming what you mean, repeating the word “eggs” over and over as you pretend to lather your armpits. Then – you see a lightbulb go off in the guy’s head. “Ohhhhh,” he says, grinning. “You meant soap,” saying a word that sounds, to you, remarkably similar to the word for “eggs.” He laughs, then laughs some more, then calls his friend over, points to you, mimes lathering himself in eggs, and they both laugh at your expense. You’re now laughing along with them, but man, do you feel stupid.

You’ll never make THAT mistake again.

That’s a common scenario for anyone who’s traveled with a foreign language – that sort of mistranslation happens all the time. But the fact that it’s embarrassing seals the deal; it’ll be burned into your memory until the end of time.

And that’s exactly why making these smaller, funnier mistakes are not just okay, but important – dare I say crucial – to the language learning process. You’re learning from your errors, and you’re also entertaining everyone else along the way. It’s win-win!

What about you? What embarrassing mistranslations have you made in your language learning journey?

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


Comments:

  1. Liza:

    I remember a cashier asked if I had my membership card with me. I said, “not with you.” She looked surprised. Oh…I realized my mistake. “Not with me, with me,” I repeated. She just laughed and handed me my purchase. I was embarrassed. But the words are so similar!

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Liza Hah! That’s awesome. What language?

  2. Jai Vee:

    Love these mistakes. Yes..They laugh..but I learn.. Danke..!!

  3. Catherine:

    My worst nightmare was in the ‘Macelleria’ (butcher shop). I had only been living in Italy about 2 months at this point…
    The shop was filled with all the little old local ladies shopping for their evening dinner. I wanted rabbit. Coniglio. I asked for coglione. Um, yeah. All eyes on me. Red faced, I shout out “coniglio” what feels like 100 times, just so that every one (including me) is clear, that I meant rabbit not, er, that other thing.
    I am sure I was the talk of the town for weeks after that. I still slow down and mentally recite “coniglio” at least 10 times in my head before actually saying it.

  4. Francesco:

    I am an italian guy, and back in the day when I was learning Spanish I went to Spain for a holiday.

    So this one day I had a horrible stomach ache (in Italian “stomaco imbarazzato”) and went to the pharmacy to get some over-the-counter remedy. Totally unexperienced in medical terminology and not fluent in Spanish, I went out on a limb and said “Jo soy embarazado”! while rubbing my belly.

    Can you imagine my embarassment when they told me that I had just declared to the whole paharmacy that “I’m pregnant!” in Spanish!? 😀 😀 😀

  5. Laura:

    I know someone who was in France and wanted to buy some jam. Knowing that in English jam is a preserve and making the link to a word she’d heard before, she asked for le preservatif. It took a bit of googling before she realised she’d asked for a condom…

  6. Helen:

    Hi,
    With me it’s still genders. I have a very patient French hubby who has been trying for years to help me stop mixing up a frying pan, a wood burner or stove and a hair all because of the masculine and feminine genders + the same pronunciation of all three in French! This is only one example… and why can’t all these languages with genders agree on what is a boy, what is a girl and what is neuter? :/ 🙂

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Helen Or just…NOT DO IT? What in the world do we need gendered nouns for? What good has it ever done ANYONE?!?

      I have strong feelings on the subject. X)

  7. Nia:

    The Korean for Chopsticks is remarkably similar to their slang for cock… that was an interesting first date haha. He knew what I meant tg, but I was realllllly red in the face.

  8. Pauline:

    I thought I was doing really well with my Spanish. I explained to the waitress that my husband did not eat meat but did eat fish. The word I used for fish was “piscina” The actual word is “pescado”. I had said my husband eats swimming pools. The waitress still laughs when I go to the restaurant.

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Pauline It never gets old for the locals, does it? -_-

  9. Cliona:

    Not one of my own but from a children’s story book that made me fall in love with languages ( and the idea of going to a boarding school like The Chalet School, which unfortunately never happened!) was when someone went to get their hair done and asked for it to be rinsed with heiliges Wasser rather than heisses Wasser…holy, not hot!
    It may be a bit mean of me but I really enjoy the laughs I get correcting school French copies. One poor child trying to write a letter to a fictitious penpal for an exam, invited the friend and then tried to say she would welcome her with open arms. But mixed up the word for arms and legs…!

    • Helen:

      @Cliona Ha,ha! My favourite mistake from my older students at the Lycée where I taught English was ‘I fell in the apples’ (je suis tombé dans les pommes = I passed out). It always made me smile and I was so glad they were trying to find suitable expressions. 🙂

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Cliona Haha! Oh man. That’s not a good mistake to make

  10. Elizabeth:

    When I was an exchange student in NJ, USA, I took the school bus every day. Once I was late and missed the bus. I had to stay Home because my “parents” had left to work. I had to explana what happened and said “I had lost the bus”. I was corrected in such a funny way that I never made the mistake again.

  11. Ewout:

    I hate it when people think it is adorable to have people continue to make big mistakes in the language of the country they moved to. It is of uttermost importance for immigrants to learn a language well, so well that the will not stay behind in development and personal growth. What I see here in the Netherlands with import brides that they keep on talking a basic english to the husbands and hardly can make themselves understood, causing most of hthem not being very happy.
    Don’t get me wrong, it is adorable to hear people make mistakes while learning a language, when not living in the country that language originates from, and I can be very proud of people trying to speak our difficult language, being tourist or Holland fan. Biggest cultural and race related problems however do occur here due to lack of knowledge of language (and culture) and the impossibility to express yourselve in that language.

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Ewout Yeah, I can completely understand that. However I do think that for every one person that thinks your mistakes are adorable and refuse to correct you, there are five that will do correct you, especially if you ask them.

  12. kelly:

    I told my Russian speaking housemates I was hungry but what I said was I’m light blue, whichin Russian is apparently a way of saying I’m gay. My housemates wwre rolling on the floor laughing at my mistake. I had no idea why and kept insisting I was ‘hungry’.

  13. Rebecca:

    I needed some shampoo when visiting Paris, and I tried to say “soap for my hair” (cheveux) but instead said “soap for my horses” (chevaux). Turns out the french word for shampoo is “shampoo.” On the same trip, I had chapped lips in Vienna, and it took several mime attempts before the clerk said “Ah, lippen balmen.” Sometimes stereotypes are true.

  14. Eugene:

    Hopefully I never ordered any dumplings in English. I am always reading that word twice, because “l” so easily slips away…

  15. Rosemary:

    I lived in Germany with my American Army husband who spoke impeccable German, and I took a quick class in German the second month I was there. (40 hours of class). Hopped on the military bus, all by myself, confident that I had this! Even though I knew the answer, I thought I would practice a little (show off???) So I asked the driver if he was going to the military hospital. He smiled and said yes, and off we went. That evening, proudly, I told my husband what I had said to the driver. He then informed me, chuckling, that I had asked the driver if he drove naked to the hospital! I had messed up the pronunciation of “naked” and “to.” Sounded the same to me! Fortunately, the driver was from Turkey, or maybe too polite to laugh, and none of the Americans on the bus said anything. I never forgot to add that sound in the throat that goes with “nach.”
    Your discussion of this issue reminds me that Americans, in general, don’t directly correct, unless asked to. However, I have noticed that, often, they do correct indirectly. Often they repeat what was just said, but make the corrections. If the mistake was pronunciation, the word is used again; if grammar, the sentence is often said in the affirmative form and then the voice raised at the end as if it is a question.
    Example: I going to mall at afternoon. Correction: Oh, you are going to the mall in the afternoon?
    Thank you for this blog, especially the comic strips!

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Rosemary I drive naked everywhere I go, so this would have made perfect sense to me 🙂

      Glad you like the comics! Lots more at http://www.itchyfeetcomic.com.

    • Carli:

      @Rosemary Hmm… i don’t know about creating colour pencil urchin scetlpurus but i definitely have a liking for having all the colour pencils in my classroom sharpened to a point … feels and looks so good! 🙂


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