Laughable Languages: Funny Phonology, Strange Semantics, and Other Adventures in Foreign Language Acquisition


I should start this article by apologizing for the technical terms in the title.


Now in my final semester as an undergraduate student, I made the dubious decision to take a class that meets twice a week at 8am for two hours. For linguistics, however, I was willing to sacrifice two of my mornings (I know, I know, in the real world most people have to get up for their jobs before I usually get up for class). I was perhaps unduly excited when I realized I could use what I’d been learning and apply it to this particular story about gallivanting in foreign lands. For those unfamiliar with linguistics, phonology refers to the sounds used to compose words and semantics is essentially the meaning of words and how we understand one another when we communicate.


I should probably apologize again for providing an impromptu lesson – but I like to think other people are just as passionate about languages as I am, so I’ll leave off saying sorry.


Although there’s only one language besides English in which I feel perfectly comfortable conversing (French), I have had the occasion to study Mandarin Chinese for a number of years, and have also tried my hand at Arabic and Spanish. Because I am most familiar with French, the majority of the following examples will come from that language, but perhaps someday I’ll have the capability to write a follow-up article focusing more on Mandarin and Arabic!


Without further ado, my top five entertaining incidents of language mishaps:


5) Seal Eyes: On my first day of high school in France, a guy named Gael took me to a bar after class to help me improve my French vocabulary and pronunciation. The first words he taught me? Swear words. Universally acknowledged as the most important thing to teach any foreigner, I was happy to spend an hour memorizing all the gros mots (the translation literally means ‘large words’). The thing is, swearing in French never felt as satisfying as the English words I’d been so petrified of in my youth. Dirty though their meaning might be, French swear words still seem ineffective or silly. But fear not, learners of French as a second language! You will soon discover the joys of words that sound bad, but only to an English speaker. In this case phoque yeux – literally seal eyes, though it’s not very grammatically correct to put them together like that. We’ll focus on the pronunciation though. Despite it’s odd spelling, phoque sounds just like “f***.” And yeux, while it’s more of a “yuh” sound, could be mispronounced as “you.” Yay French!


4) Anatomy 101: I was in the library with friends, ostensibly studying but actually being taught new French words, a favorite pastime. One friend decided to check how well I knew the parts of the body, moving from the words for different fingers to obscure bones and finally, to an ambiguous region somewhere between her chest and her under arm. “Les aisselles,” she told me. Like so many language learners, I feigned understanding though I was only half sure she was teaching me slang for breast, possibly the equivalent of “boob.” Later I learned aisselle actually means armpit. Good thing I never used that one in public!


3) With Tomatoes: During my time in Morocco my friends and I were regularly harassed by men on the street, who would employ any number of colorful phrases to compliment us. With this particular incident we were not offered a compliment, but a bizarre response when we declined to buy the man’s wares. When asked if you’d like to buy something from a street vendor, the polite response is La, shoukran – no, thank you. Apparently we struck a nerve with this man, because instead of moving on to some other target or silently grumbling, he yelled, “Eat your shoukran with tomatoes!” To this day I am not sure what to make of his statement. If anyone is intimately familiar with Moroccan Arabic, maybe you could clarify why he felt the need to include tomatoes in his obviously angry reply.


2) Dumplings: Although its grammar is relatively straightforward – no verb tenses, no need to make agreement between subject and verb – Mandarin Chinese is complex because of the tones required for its pronunciation. There are four tones in Chinese, which is very difficult to explain without providing sounds, but for the sake of this story let’s just accept that there are four ways to say every word, and this drastically changes the meaning of the word. One of the stories I’ve frequently heard about a non-native speaker of Chinese making a gaffe is the story of the dumplings. The word for dumplings is “shui jiao,” both words pronounced using the third tone. This is very similar to the word for sleep – “shui jiao” pronounced using the fourth tone for both words. To a speaker of Chinese, the difference is enormous. To someone accustomed to English, not so much. Which is why this person found himself getting yelled at after trying to order a plate of dumplings and accidentally asking for the dumpling-maker to sleep with him.


1) Rain, Rain, Go Away: There’s nothing quite so much fun as learning and using the idioms of a different language. In France I was always excited to put such phrases to use, but this occasionally led to ridicule when I misused the phrase. In French, to comment on how hard it is raining, one can say il pleut comme une vache qui pisse – it’s raining like a peeing cow. We have cats and dogs, they have peeing bovines. I actually think the French version makes more literal sense. Anyways, I proudly paraded out the phrase one day during a torrential downpour, only to realize as my friends erupted into laughter, that I’d forgotten a key word and instead said il pisse comme une vache – it’s peeing like a cow. Yes, I know, it doesn’t even make sense.


The moral of the story when it comes to language errors is that, though they make you feel like a dunce (especially if you’re caught by a very young child, who then questions your intelligence), each mistake brings you closer to the people who hear it, and reminds you to not take yourself too seriously. Instead of wincing at the differences between your poor pronunciation and their perfect speech, take heart in the fact that you can still share a laugh over something as basic as a cow peeing.


Chinese Bathroom Sign




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