Pop Culture

Immigrants and travelers share their funniest language mistakes and it's a riot

Learning the nuances of another language takes time, patience and a great sense of humor.

globe overlaid with screenshots of two tweets

Language barriers can be frustrating, but also so, so funny.

There are currently close to 7,000 languages being spoken around the world, which is a mind-blowing number since Americans are lucky if they speak two languages fluently. What that means, though, is that no matter where you're from, if you're going to go live in another country or visit for an extended period of time, you'll need to learn a new language.

However, it's not even that simple since even within the same language there can be huge dialect and colloquial differences. Meanings of words can be completely different from place to place, even when the language is technically the same. (Try using the term "fanny pack" in some English-speaking countries and you'll see some heads turn.)

Since we have not yet figured out the universal language thing, all of these linguistic differences make for some humbling and hilarious mix-ups as people try to communicate with and understand one another across language barriers.

This delightful little story from @ivadixit on X is a perfect example:

"I'm just remembering that my second year in America, someone asked me to 'validate their parking,' which was my first time hearing the phrase, and after blinking stupidly in silence for a full five seconds I said, 'Well parking is really hard but I'm sure you did it really well.'"

That tweet prompted a flood of responses of similar stories:

"In my first year in US, I was working in a research lab as an RA and our professor had arranged lunch for everyone. He said 'Lunch is on the house tomorrow.' Confused, I asked him for his home address."

"In college, my fellow student worker Maureen used the phrase, 'I'm sorry, I'm "on the rag" right now' to explain why she was out of sorts. I explained its actual meaning to her, and she was embarrased. She thought it meant 'out of sorts' and had been using it liberally."

"In Australia we often have a meal where people are invited to bring some food to share. It's often referred to as 'bring a plate.' A friend from Scotland literally brought and empty plate and was very confused, thinking we didn't have enough dinnerware."

Swipe through for more:

The sharing of these tweets prompted even more people to share their stories on Instagram, and they did not disappoint.

"For years, I used the expression 'up yours' as a congratulatory phrase, and nobody corrected me. Be nice to your foreigners. Correct them when they are wrong." – ombrettadidio

"I was going to college in the US when I saw a sign 'beware of the pedestrians' and I asked the people I was with what kind of animal a pedestrian is." – msgies

"A little kid dressed as a dinosaur roared at me in Peru and I said 'tengo mierda' (I have shit) instead of 'tengo miedo' (I'm scared). Whoops." – thebirdfromblighty

"Ooh I have a fun one. I studied abroad in France. Turns out 'preservatif/preservative' in French does not mean preservatives like you find in foods, it means condoms. Have never been met with such confused silence in my life." – kirstenpastel1

"I went to Spain with my husband and kept saying 'escuchame!' Thinking I was saying “excuse me” And he would die laughing every time. He finally told me I was saying 'LISTEN TO ME!' To everyone." – jenessa_sturgell

"I am Canadian. My husband is Australian. Family friend flew over from Australia and offered to nurse a Canadian woman’s baby on the plane. The Canadian very firmly told her 'no thanks.' She didn’t understand why the woman was so offended. In Australia when they say nurse a baby, it means to hold. In Canada when we say nurse a baby, it means to breastfeed. We still laugh about it." – jillybeans80

"I was in Ecuador on a missionary trip with my church, I over dressed one day and was burning up but had nowhere to put my jacket and sweater. I asked over and over at every store I walked by, every street vendor, anywhere for a bag, but I called it 'bolsa.' (I’m Puerto Rican, that's how we say it). No one hooked me up, most times people walked away with a face of disgust. Again and again I kept asking for a big bag, because I only had a tiny bag at the time. The local pastor that we met heard me at one point and ran to me, told me to keep quiet and then asked me what I needed… my response, a bolsa… a bag. Apparently you have to ask for a 'funda,' in that country I was pretty much asking for a sack of men's balls. Literal balls. So I walked around saying, 'Do you have balls? My balls are too small and I need big balls.' Good times. – 0rense

"When I first moved to the Netherlands, I had a Dutch bf who spoke English very well, but some things got lost in translation. I didn’t speak Dutch at the time, and one day he said his hairdresser friend was quitting her job to become an undertaker. I was shocked and asked why she chose such a drastic career change, and he said, she wants to work for herself and loves making people look beautiful. I thought ok good for her I guess, and we never spoke about it again. It wasn’t until years later (long after we’d broken up) and I’d become fluent in Dutch when I realized, oh…the Dutch word for 'entrepreneur' literally translates into “undertaker” (ondernemer). She didn’t want to embalm dead bodies, she wanted to open her own hair salon." – maggstaa26

"When I moved to the UK, whenever I got hungry I told people I was 'ravishing' instead of 'ravenous.' I guess they assumed I just had excellent self esteem. 😂" – devananatura

"A French-Canadian friend of ours told a great stories from when he was learning English. My favourites were his use of ‘skinny pig’ instead of ‘guinea pig’ and ‘spacegoat’ instead of ‘scapegoat’—both used in business meetings, btw. 😂" – fuzzballphotography

"Was ordering dinner in Danish in Denmark, the word for chicken is 'kylling,' but as an American I pronounced it as 'killing' which translates into 'kitten' - so the waitress at the restaurant was a bit horrified at my request for BBQ baby cat. 😂" – howdyeliza

Language barriers can cause confusion and frustration, but also a whole lot of hilarity. These examples are a good reminder to always stay humble and keep your sense of humor when learning a new language, but also to help out those who are learning the nuances of a new language because they definitely aren't easy to master.


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