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linguistics

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.

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.

Education

Fascinating video explains why 'R' is sometimes considered a vowel in the English language

"'R' is an incredibly weird letter with so many different sounds and functions."

Video explains why "R" is sometimes considered a vowel.

If you went to elementary school in the United States, then you learned that vowels are "A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y." All other letters of the alphabet are consonants and make a hard or soft sound depending on their placement around the vowel.

But apparently, our elementary school teachers may have missed a sometime-y vowel…and nobody puts "R" in the corner.

That was a terrible "Dirty Dancing" reference, but nonetheless, here we are looking at the English language with a collective "What the heck?" At no point in my native English-speaking life did I ever realize "R" could sometimes possess the characteristics of a vowel. But PBS said so, and they brought us "Sesame Street," so I'm inclined to believe them.

Erica Brozovsky, Ph.D. breaks down what makes a vowel and explores how the letter "R" in the English language fits that description in the PBS series "Otherwords."


"Linguists define vowels not so much as letters but sounds," Dr. Brozovsky explains. "To qualify as a vowel, a sound must meet a few general criteria." The criteria include that your voice box must vibrate when you make the sound, it should function as the peak of a syllable and you must have an unobstructed vocal tract when you say it. That basically just means you can't use your lips or tongue to make the sound, or it would be considered a consonant.

Now, I know what you're doing. You're making the "R" sound thinking, "My teeth are touching my lips to make that sound." But before you write off Dr. Brozovsky, you should check out the video, because using "R" as a vowel seems to be a regional thing that people from certain parts of Boston and New York have mastered, likely without even knowing. But she can explain it much better than I can, so check out the video below.


For many of us, the idea of interrupting someone when they're talking is almost always a no-no. Conversation means taking turns—listening while another person talks, taking some time to think about what they've said, and then responding accordingly. Interjecting before a person is finished speaking is seeing as "cutting them off" and perceived as rude.

While this perception may be part of the historically dominant Northern European culture in the U.S., it's not a universal thing. In fact, the opposite is true within many cultural groups.

TikToker Sari (@gaydhdgoddess) explained how conversing works in Northeastern Jewish culture, and how her being "an interrupty person" isn't actually a sign of rudeness, but rather a sign of active engagement in the conversation. This concept is called "cooperative overlapping," and while it may appear to be "interrupting" to an outside observer, it's a standard conversation style for people accustomed to it.


"You're overlapping just like at the end of what someone's saying, you're not trying to cut them off because you don't care what they have to say. You just, you already got the gist, so you're building up on it. So to us, good conversation, there are not any pauses. If there's a pause, I think somebody doesn't want to be speaking to me anymore, unless they're visibly thinking or chewing or something."

She explained that the reason some people find Jewish Northeasterners "grating" (think Bernies Sanders, she said) is because their conversation style is different. That doesn't mean it's bad or wrong—it's just different.

The term "cooperative overlapping" comes from sociolinguist Deborah Tannen, who described how it works in her book "Conversational Style: Analyzing Talk Among Friends." In a later essay, Tannen described how people with different conversation styles might interpret interruptions and pauses in speech:

"A speaker who stops talking because another has begun is unlikely to think, 'I guess we have different attitudes toward cooperative overlap.' Instead, such a speaker will probably think, 'You are not interested in hearing what I have to say,' or even 'You are a boor who only wants to hear yourself talk.' And the cooperative overlapper is probably concluding, 'You are unfriendly and are making me do all the conversational work here'... '"

In other words, these conversational differences can lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings if we don't recognize and understand what's happening and why.

A few caveats are in order, of course. Not all Jewish people participate in cooperative overlapping as a rule, and there are several cultures outside of the Jewish Northeast who do. People from various Eastern European, Indian, and African-American cultures, as well as different geographical regions (generally New York/Northeast), have shared that such interaction is common and viewed as active engagement. It can also be common among people with ADHD or other neurodivergences.

As Anil Dash wrote on Twitter, "Ahhhh omg it feels so validating to hear this has a name! I really struggle with talking over people (I understand many experience this very negatively) but it's an incredibly difficult pattern to change because it's literally how I grew up communicating enthusiasm & support. Not talking 'with' someone is like leaving them alone, similar to refusing to look at them when talking."

The difference between cooperative overlapping and actually rudely interrupting may be subtle, especially for those who aren't used to it. Those of us from cultures that take distinct turns talking and allow pauses between turns may find cooperative overlapping overwhelming, and the seemingly chaotic conversation style can feel offputting.

But that discomfort goes both ways. People from overlapping cultures can interpret pauses as coldness or indifference.

Of course, there are personality differences that come into play with all of this as well. Some people within a cultural group may find that the dominant conversational style within that group doesn't work well for them individually. And it's also important to acknowledge that there's a difference between cooperative overlapping in a conversation within a friend group and someone actually trying to dominate the conversation within a different power dynamic. The word "cooperative" is key here. If it becomes competitive, that's a whole other thing.

The bottom line is communication varies a lot between cultural groups and it's good to understand those variations. What's normal or acceptable in one might feel uncomfortable to another, but that doesn't make it wrong. Learning about these differences and adjusting our expectations accordingly can go a long way toward more enjoyable conversations for all.

A man raped me seven years ago.

I was left traumatized and suicidal and with a complex linguistic decision: What should I call myself?

For a long time, I avoided using the terms rape "victim" or "survivor." I simply said, "I was raped" or "a man raped me." But the experience of being raped forced its way into my identity, not just my history.


It comes with the territory of writing publicly about my rape, of speaking openly about it. I am a woman; I am a writer; I am a rape ________.

Victim? Survivor?

I started where I always start: Google.

I typed "rape victim vs. survivor" into the search bar. After reading just a few articles, it became clear that the correct term — or at least the most search engine optimized term — for myself was "survivor."

Survivor is empowering and strong. It rolls off the tongue in a way that "victim" does not. My jaw relaxed, though I had not realized I was clenching it. I knew what to say. I had the words.

I didn't think to question those articles then, and in the years since, I've heard this particular message of empowerment repeated over and over again. It's a mantra of sorts: "We are not victims; we are survivors."

I've watched many who've experienced sexual violence articulate these words: many of the hundreds of women who spoke out against Larry Nassar; leaders in the #MeToo movement; sign-bearers at protests and at the Women's March.

Scrolling through news stories and watching YouTube videos on autoplay, I began to feel misrepresented.

Was I the only one who felt like "survivor" didn't accurately sum up my identity?

Beneath this question of terminology, there is an implication that we start out as victims, but we outgrow that label as we "triumph" and move past the immediate aftermath of the crime. Survivor implies having survived the recovery process.

Though the physical pain and rainbow of bruises did eventually fade, the impact of my rape never really did. I stopped doing a lot of things in the wake of the rape — traveling alone, going on runs outside, dating. Though eventually I was able to get my life back, I lost years to fear, to post-traumatic stress disorder, to hiding. Those years would've been different had I not been raped. I would be different had I not been raped.

For me, survivor sugarcoats the reality of rape.

Survivor tells an ultimately hopeful, inspiring, empowering story. Look at us, thriving despite violence. Survivor is easier for people to hear. It is more comfortable than victim. Victim reminds people of violent acts and brutal realities. Survivor makes them think of rousing music and impossible courage. Survivor is the story of sexual violence that the media, the public, wants to hear.

I don't know a single person that has experienced sexual violence and thinks they're better off for it. The act and aftermath of sexual violence is not oriented around the potential light at the end of the tunnel. 94% of rape victims have symptoms of PTSD, and 13% attempt suicide. Rape victims are up to 10 times more likely to abuse drugs. It's not all empowerment and #MeToo rallies and harrowing news stories with "happy" endings. It's not all inspiration.

My friend once told me "surviving rape made you brave and strong." But that's not true. I was brave and strong before somebody raped me. The rape made me afraid, made me cower on the gray-carpeted floor of my bedroom and avoid being touched, even by close friends and family, for years. I don't think I became stronger because of the rape. I think I simply got back to my baseline — brave and strong.

Conventional wisdom tells us to "get out of the victim mindset."

As if there were a stigma associated with the term "victim," and "survivor" seeks to evade it. Are victims of other crimes ashamed to have been victimized? Maybe. But there is a particular and particularly egregious stigma associated with sexual violence.

I refuse to feel ashamed of what was done to me. The shame of the act is not mine; it is on the one who perpetrated the crime. My rapist may never be punished, but he will always be guilty. The language I use to talk about sexual violence should place the spotlight on the fact that another person perpetrated a crime against me, and we do not call the victim of a robbery a "survivor."

I do not want to be the focus. I want the crime to be the focus. I want the criminal to be the focus.

When we hear the term victim, we think about the crime and acknowledge its perpetrator.

We know who these people are, though they are rarely imprisoned. My rapist had dark curly hair, a rough beard, and sharp fingernails.

When we hear the term survivor, the perpetrator is erased. Empowering victims, linguistically or otherwise, won't stop rape. There are survivors of a fire, a natural disaster, or a disease. Sexual violence is different. It is not an unstoppable pandemic. It is not a blameless illness. There is always somebody who bears the blame.

Though I prefer it, I avoid using the word "victim" when writing or speaking.

I use the word "survivor," the word the #MeToo movement wants me to use, because I want the movement to succeed. Common language is important to unification and a consistent message.

But when I'm alone with myself, I know my truth. Yes, I survived, but I am a victim of a heinous crime.  

Mostly, though, I wish I did not have to spend time worrying about verbiage. We need to get to a place where language can be more nuanced, more telling, and more personal. We need to be able to speak our truths however we want to articulate them, to fully own our stories and not just donate them to the cause.

This story originally appeared on The Lily, a subsidiary of The Washington Post, and is reprinted here with permission.