Ever have someone assume you didn't speak their language when you did?

Several years ago, I saw one of those hidden camera shows where they had an obese, American white lady go in to a shop to get her nails done. The shop was operated by Chinese ladies. They wired the lady and were trying to find out if the Chinese ladies would talk about the customer in their native language, assuming that the customer didn’t understand what was being said. Turns out, the Chinese ladies had lots of rude comments about the lady, her weight, etc.

I remember reading a thread on here a few years ago about this subject, but for the life of me I can’t find it. I do remember a story that someone had though. Basically, a blonde haired, white American lady who spoke fluent Chinese was in a large shopping area in Beijing and a shopkeeper yelled out to one of his co-workers, “Hey, this lady has blond hair, I wonder if her pubic hair is blonde too”. Or something like that.

Although I don’t speak Spanish fluently, I am able to understand a lot of it. Once, in my office building we had a large group of Mexican guys doing some renovation work. I rode the elevator with them many times and a few times I heard some conversations that they assumed I couldn’t understand. Once, they were talking about a lady who had just gotten off the elevator and they were commenting about how they’d like to “do” her, etc.

Has anyone here every had an experience where they heard and understood a conversation at was assumed that they didn’t speak the language?

My husband did. He’s of Italian descent but he and his parents were born in the US. We were on vacation in Italy in late March, and found the temps very warm and lovely compared to Chicago, so we were wearing light-colored, Spring-weight clothes. The Italians were all wearing black or dark clothes and were looking very fashionable. He was waiting for me to come out of a shop, and heard a few Americans walk past, loudly discussing the Italian sense of style and how everyone was dressed so chic. “Except that guy,” said one of the men, indicating my husband. Imagine the critic’s surprise when a very American accent and perfect English comes from his target, criticizing the guy’s sunglasses in return. My husband followed that with, “I’m from Chicago!”. The dude looked sheepish and his friends laughed at him. :slight_smile:

Yeah, but it was ASL. I was on a public bus, and there were these two young people (ages about 18-24) that were talking dirty up front. I tried my best to look away, but the conversation got really explicit, and I was in a side facing seat where I couldn’t look out the window.

My stop came up, so I walked up front to exit the bus. I looked at them and said in ASL, “I understood you.” They both turned about five shades of red. I walked off the bus smiling. :smiley:

Oh yes. I lived in Spain for a couple of years because my husband was stationed there. The area where I lived and shopped was called “Little America” because so many Air Force people lived there…and most of them only spoke a few words of Spanish. However, I had taken three years of middle/junior high Spanish and a couple of years of high school Spanish, so I understood it very well, even though my pronunciation was lousy. I had learned Mexican Spanish, but I knew the changes for Castillian Spanish, which was what most of the locals spoke. I also used an olive drab backpack with an American flag appliqued to it, because I took the train or bus to get around for the most part. So I was identifyably American.

I heard a LOT of comments about Americans in general and me in particular, most of them rather unflattering. A lot of the guys thought that American women were easy and that I’d probably go home and screw them.

On the other hand, I got to be on fairly good terms with the owners and the son of the owners of the tiny deli/grocery that was on the ground floor of my apartment building. Most of the military personnel and their families shopped for food only at the commissary, but I was willing to shop at the Spanish markets. Quite frequently, I could save a fair bit of money, the produce was almost always a lot fresher, and, of course, it was a Life Experience. The owners’ son was enamored of English language pop (from the UK and from America), and I used to translate the lyrics for him to the best of my ability. He was quite excited about this.

I can’t say that I was actually friends with any Spaniards, but I was on good terms with many of them. Most of them seemed to want Americans to have a good opinion of their people and country. It was only a small percentage who made rude comments, assuming that I couldn’t understand them…and in any general population, you’re going to get a few people who make rude comments.

I worked in an office where a number of the engineers were from Puerto Rico, and one was from Spain. I think they were surprised one time when I chuckled at something they said. I’m not fluent in Spanish by any means, but I’ve got a pretty good ear, and I caught what was being said. Nothing rude by any means, just typical office nattering.

I suspect after that, they were more careful speaking around me.

One of my uncles works in the diamond district of NYC, and I had dropped by earlier this year because a piece of jewelry needed repairs. A Hasidic colleague of his stopped into the office, was introduced to me, chatted for a moment, then apologized to me that he had to do this because it was business, and switched to Yiddish. (While I look Orthodox, I am not and don’t look Hasidic, the only group in America in which someone my age might be expected to speak Yiddish.) I don’t really speak much Yiddish, honestly, but I can count, and this was a business conversation with predictable content- so-and-so wanted to buy something for $X, but the guy really wants $Y, etc. I don’t really care one way or the other, but I told my uncle after the guy left that his colleague really ought not to make such assumptions.

I had something similar when I visited France. I was in a gift shop when an American tourist said, “Excusez-moi” to me. I knew immediately he was American (the French say, “Pardon”), and that he obviously thought I was French.

A couple of other people mistook me for a Frenchmen and started talking to me in French. I can follow a bit, and could speak it a bit (it helped that my high school French teacher was a stickler for getting the accent right). In one case, a group of people asked me in French for directions to the Pont Neuf. I started answering in French, but lapsed into English and said, “Let’s see.” The immediately switched to English. Turned out they were German.

This isn’t quite the same but my parents were on holiday in Britain many years ago and stayed at a bed and breakfast, alongside a French couple who were also there. My mother doesn’t speak French well but she knew enough words to realise that the couple were complaining to each other in their language about pretty much everything, not being rude to my parents but having a whinge about the B&B in general.

On the last morning they were both there they were eating in the dining room and the couple starting looking around for something, and repeating the French word for cheese, so my mother said, in English, “the cheese is just over there”. She said their faces were priceless, and they thanked her and sat in almost-silence for the rest of the meal. So she gave them the impression that she could understand them all along when in reality she couldn’t, only bits and pieces here and there.

Oh yes, and it still gives me a bit of mean-spirited satisfaction to this day.

I grew up in an Air Force town, one with a lot of foreign officers coming through all the time. After college, I worked as a waiter at a steakhouse which was popular with the AF crowd. Most of the time, the airmen were quiet and respectful, but occasionally, we got a rowdy group.

So I’m puttering around in the kitchen, and the manager tells me I have a group of about 15 airmen. Rowdy, high-spirited airmen. Awesome.

Turns out it’s a group of officers entertaining a visiting German air force officer, and they thought it would be the absolute height of comedy to have him place all of their orders for them, auf Deutsch, of course. I picked up on the game of “stump the chump” fairly fast, and decided to play it straight.

I had three things going for me: 1) I was an experienced waiter with only one table, 2) I have an excellent memory, and 3) at the time, I had just finished 6 consecutive years of German language study, and pretty damn near perfectly fluent in the language (please note that this was 20 years ago. It hardly holds true now.)

So this guy starts rattling off orders in German, starting on one side of the table, and working his way all the way around. All the other guys are noticing that I’m not writing anything down, and that I’m apparently just staring at the German officer in cretinous befuddlement.

They were just falling all over themselves with laughter. Boy, they got me, dumb local kid that I am.

Until I answered him, in perfect German, repeating every order he’d just told me down to the last detail. I will never forget the silence that ensued, or the look of utter chagrin on the officer’s face, for as long as I live. Talk about schadenfreude. :smiley:

To their credit, I got an excellent tip for my services, and the German officer approached me afterward and inquired about my knowledge of his language. He complimented me on my nearly complete lack of American accent.

What can I say? I had a really good German teacher. Ah, that was a good night. :smiley:

Missed the edit window - I just checked the story with her again and it was the French word for milk that she recognised, not cheese.

Being a blonde white chick in Japan? Yep, I get that pretty much every day. Especially when a bunch of us go visit a customer and I get to say, “I’m the interpreter.” heh.

A long long time ago I taught English to Japanese high school students. As I approached the podium to start my self-introduction, the lesson, etc. a couple of the rowdier boys got in a few cheap shots re the hot young (erm, it was awhile ago; I could be misremembering my actual hotness) foreign teacher.

Until I looked down at the class list and BY UTTER CHANCE, picked two names I could read in Japanese, and those turned out to be the same two boys who had been yukking it up at my expense moments earlier. Awesome.

I am a petite blonde woman (who just happens to be very fluent in Spanish.) I lived in Puerto Rico at 13 and took Spanish class every year after that until our school district ran out of classes for me to take. It used to happen to me all of the time, because of the job I was in. I was a residential superintendent for a few years.
Being in South Texas, most of our subcontractors spoke Spanish. I would pull up to the job and the jokes amongst them would start almost immediately. Nothing too bad, and I was raised by men so I’m not easily offended anyway. I ignored all the comments for a few months and let them have their fun. One day one of the guys asked his boss how high to install a medicine cabinet and before the boss could answer, I did. In Spanish. The looks on their faces was priceless. Sadly they quit talking about me whenever I came on the jobsite after that.

I have a story from the opposite side. When I was a kid, my sisters and I visited our grandparents in Germany. We assumed that no one would understand us if we spoke English, so we talked about people pretty freely. Oops. Years later, I realized that they probably understood pretty much everything, as most Germans learn some English.

It happens a lot. We have a fairly big Armenian community in L.A. and, while I can speak Armenian, I refuse to do so. Many of the employees in the Armenian stores just assume I can’t speak it. I’ve had them talk about me a few times but they just get ignored.

This happened to me as a tourist in Montreal. My mom and I were walking down Rue St. Catherine and an elderly woman stopped us and started asking me in French where her hotel was, and she had been up and down and couldn’t find it, and could we help her, yadda yadda, obviously thinking we were natives for whatever reason.

My French is passable and I was amused and willing to give it a go, so I told her sure and turned to my mom and asked (in English) for our map to show her. At that point, the very surprised-looking woman switched right away to English. Too bad, too, I was looking forward to trying out some actual French.

Also funny is being a native English speaker in a foreign country (like, hypothetically, China) where they fancy that they have nice English-language materials for tourists but the writing actually kind of sucks and is full of humorous errors. It was very hard for my friend and I to explain to our Chinese friends why we were so amused at signs labeling restrooms “Male Men” and “Five-Star Western Toilet” and warnings about “No Striding on the Artifacts.”

The five-star Western toilet, by the way, was about like an American gas station bathroom. But it wasn’t a squat toilet and there was already toilet paper in the stall, so I guess that made it five stars.

I was once on a near-empty bus late at night sitting near a young woman who answered her phone in Russian, which I speak. Unfortunately, this was not a good phone call, it was The Call. You know. The Breakup Call. I had to sit there and pretend I couldn’t understand her as she started out cheerfully…then became concerned…then there was a long silence…and then the tears and the cursing and “Why???” and oh, it was not pleasant. And she wasn’t being abnormally loud about it or anything, it was just an empty bus on a quiet night, so I didn’t want to embarrass her by moving. So I stared very hard out the window and pretended I couldn’t understand her, and I was so glad when my stop came and I could quit listening to that girl’s life go to pieces. :frowning:

Our German Club has a token Puerto Rican member ( she’s married to a German.) and we rented the hall to a bunch of mexicans for a sweet sixteen party.

Things were getting a little too squirrelly for zee Germans (which is saying something. They like their parties, but zhey like zheir order as well. There is a right way to do zees zings. Und zees guys were not doink it.)

And the Mexican guys were not listening to the German guys.

Then up walks our Token Puerto Rican. She started yelling at them in spanish and boy, did they ever shape up and toe the line.:smiley:

Almost exactly the same thing happened to me in Montreal when I was there for a conference, except that the couple asked for directions in halting English. It turned out I knew exactly how they could get where they wanted to go. Why they thought the average Montrealer wouldn’t understand English is beyond me.

As for Germany, my daughter is there now, teaching English in a high school and taking a Masters in International Business, which is taught in English. The seventh graders are still struggling with it, but by the time the kids are in the higher grades of high school most of them know it very well. When she visited the first time, before she spent a year of college there, she found that the East Berliners didn’t know English all that well, and spoke it back to her, but the people in Munich always spoke English to her when she spoke to them in German.

When I was in Hawaii my hair was really bothering the hell out of me, so I thought, hey, there’s a hair salon here in the hotel, why don’t I go get a haircut?

The salon was staffed (and pretty much visited) entirely by Japanese ladies. I was going to try my Japanese out on them, but didn’t want to after I sat in the waiting room for twenty minutes while they discussed whether my hair was naturally red or not. I mean, I just thought it was hilarious, but I didn’t want to humiliate them.

Awesome haircut, by the way. Weird, but awesome. (I have now forgotten most of that Japanese, so if I went back they could say whatever they wanted about me.)

I was in the Balkans a few years ago (I think this was in Croatia), doing some shopping in a small neighbourhood grocery store. A woman was wandering around the store, picking up stuff, and blithely chatting away on a cellphone, in English, to somebody who seemed to be her doctor back home. It seemed she was having some kind of … butt troubles. I kept passing near her in this little store, and I’d get choice tidbits, like “I was in the bathroom all night with this terrible diarrhoea…” and “…I tried that but it made it worse” and “…well there was blood coming out, but it stopped now”. There were also some disparaging remarks about how she didn’t trust the local doctors in this ‘third-world’ country, so she wouldn’t go see one even though whoever she was talking to clearly was telling her to.

It was so weird, I almost felt like it was a set-up, but it was pretty clear that nobody else there understood her. But really, English is not so uncommon in Eastern Europe that I would dare to have a conversation like that in the open. Also, if there is blood coming out of there, you need to head to the hospital!