Language Fails

I aspire to speak a foreign language fluently. I’ve been aspiring for some time and so far I have a muddle that gets me by some of the time in some places. I have just enough basic vocabulary and brazenness to be the cause of many language failures:

1. The classic: being looked down on by a French speaker. Despite not really knowing French, I decided to casually ask for tickets to the castle in Luxembourg City in the local language. Approaching the window and holding up two fingers I, rather coolly, said trios (three). The guy behind the counter then rolled his eyes at me and asked, in English, if I meant “two.”

2. Mispronouncing foreign words and then lying about it. I embarrassingly used the French work chic, but pronounced it as “chick” instead of “sheek.” I blame the brand of tight jeans everyone wore to my elementary school in the 1980s for this mistake (see “Chic Jeans” ad below). Despite this excuse, it is still wrong. As I made the mistake in front of only Europeans, I covered it up by lying and saying that “chick” is the way Americans always pronounce chic.

3. Inserting Spanish into Mandarin and visa versa. Unlike French, I did actually study Spanish in school and can correctly say a few things. So when I started studying Mandarin, I instinctively inserted Spanish words to fill gaps in my Mandarin. So, for example, I’d say pero for “dog” instead of gou in the middle of a Chinese sentence. Fortunately the Chinese, unlike the French, are very kind and were usually just pleased I could say much of anything at all.

Somewhere along the way my brain started processing Mandarin better than Spanish. This was, rather unluckily, around the same time we moved from China to Europe and starting taking vacations in Spain. I then had the reverse problem of plugging Mandarin into Spanish sentences. So I’d frequently say things like yi dian dian instead of un poco for “a little bit.”

4. Cantonese is not just “sing-song-y” Mandarin.  In Hong Kong, I’m a new learner of Cantonese, which is just similar enough to Mandarin to be a little easy and also very confusing. My biggest Mandarin/Cantonese muddle so far was with two hotel cleaners yesterday. They very sweetly starting chatting to me in body language and Cantonese sprinkled with English about my kids. The basic Mandarin/Cantonese problem quickly reared its head: some words are exactly the same (tricking my brain into thinking and speaking in Mandarin) and some words are completely different (leading the cleaners to wonder what kind of weird mixed up language I was trying to speak). I was basically speaking to them in Mandarin with a sing-song-y Cantonese lilt added to the end of every sentence. They smiled sweetly, obviously thought I was nuts, and quickly switched to their own basic Mandarin to get us through.

5. Full circle: making a mistake with “two” in Cantonese (rather than French). To my ears, the Mandarin number one sounds almost exactly the same as the Cantonese number two. One is a high tone and one is a low tone, but it’s still very, very easy to mix up when you’re trying to think on your toes. I’ve already made this mistake several times, but no one rolled their eyes, I just received less change back than expected.

Related posts:

China’s Pearl River Delta: woe for the Chinese language student

[Comic] The Retrograde Chinese Lesson

20 responses to “Language Fails

  1. Oh, I love it! Thank you for owning up, and making me feel so much better. I have the horrific habit of speaking back to people in the same accent, which is mortifying for all concerned. Especially when there are people from more than one region in the same room..

    • Ha! I’ve similarly absorbed a bunch of British English words (some with accent). Rather embarrassing when I’m back in the US. I blame the influence of my daughter who absorbs accents and words like a sponge.

  2. 😀 You just made my day! Thanks for sharing!
    I tend to think that those are the highlights of expat living, it just makes life sooo much more fun – for everybody, I guess!
    AND I am very impressed with your picking up Cantonese and Mandarin! I can’t imagine how hard that must be. Kudos! And saludos!

    • Don’t be too impressed, while my Mandarin is basic, my Cantonese amounts to about 25 words often mis-pronounced… Plus, don’t you speak Dutch, English and Spanish (and probably fluently?)?

      • I think, an Asian language must be so hard to learn – both when it comes to pronounciation as well as to the reading / writing part!
        Well, yes, I speak German, English, Spanish and a bit of French, but no Dutch, although it is similar to German. But those languages are easy to learn in comparison to Chinese! That’s waaaay fancier! 🙂

  3. I understand the difficulties in point 5. Took me a lot of cerebral effort to get the number 1 and 2 distinction between Mandarin and Cantonese!

    • Good point. Especially since I bought knock off “Angry Bird” “Crocs” for my daughter from a shopkeeper in Tai Po who spoke (and joked) in absolutely perfect English. I might build up just a tad more Cantonese, and then bail and re-double my Mandarin efforts.

  4. Pingback: “Gau go gaau gau gau ge!” Song by The Police or Cantonese tongue twister? | Expat Lingo·

  5. If you can navigate your way through a Cantonese restaurant menu written in either
    简体 or 簡體, what else is there?

    The last time I was in Jakarta, I was helping out a Japanese businessman in my hotel lobby. He admonished me for not using polite language (in other words, as if he was my boss). You’re welcome! If you plan on flying with a Japanese airline, see how they apologize to you, and then to a Japanese person. If you forgot your book at 美心 and the TV is broken, that will be some quality entertainment.

    • Food on the mind again, bento? You’re new blog immediately popped to mind when I saw an odd food product in the local Park n Shop yesterday. Something labelled “Hot Cheese Fish Sausage.” It was not in the refrigerated section, but looked just like a package of cheese sticks. It appeared to be of Japanese origin. Ingredients included: white pollack, processed cheese, starch, egg white, salt, sugar, gluten, soya, rice wine, red pepper, and a bunch of E numbers. I feel ill just typing that.

      • Please 叫我 Jonathan!

        Was it I reckon it was kamaboko/surimi, processed and cured fish cakes. Even more unusual? Some feller in Japan used one to play the flute. Oh, and apparently there’s a statue of him (

        I dug your article on Shenzhen being inappropriately termed a fishing village. That’s pretty much how EVERYONE who talks about the modern history of that city starts off. Including you;)?

      • Jonathan, that’s exactly the ‘cheese fish sausage’ I’m talking about. Different brand, but same look. Have you tasted one?

        As for the Shenzhen origin myth, I suppose it’s roughly the same story that gets sold about Hong Kong before the Treaty of Nanking: “A barren rock with nary a house upon it.”

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