Most embarrassing foreign-language mistake?

What’s the most embarrassing mistake you’ve made while learning a foreign language?

Mine was in the fall of 1989, in my dorm room in Leningrad (yeah, I know, but it was Leningrad at the time). After 3 years of straight A’s in Russian, I was discovering the huge gaps in my vocabulary, much to my dismay, and was trying desperately to remedy them by reading everything in sight. One day I picked up a jar of tomatoes in hopes of reading the ingredients label. As Soviet food labeling regulations were much more lax than American ones, I couldn’t find anything useful, no matter how hard I squinted at the jar.

My roommate (thank God she was the only other person in the room!) asked me what the hell I was doing, and I explained in my very limited Russian that I wanted to know what else was in the jar, besides tomatoes. “But what else would there possibly be?” she asked. I wanted to reply, “Maybe preservatives,” but didn’t know the Russian for preservatives, and guessed “preservativy.” As all you speakers of European languages will recognize, if you can stop laughing long enough, “preservativy” means “condoms” in Russian, and has similar cognates in several other European languages that I know of. Knowing Spanish and some French, I should have known better, but oh well. The best part was when she tried to explain what I had just said, and couldn’t find the word in any of the half-dozen dictionaries we had in the room; she had to resort to a line drawing!

Most embarrassing mistake I’ve witnessed, but not made myself: a Russian guy I was dating years ago in Chicago was accepted into a local company’s training program for junior computer programmers. He generally spoke excellent English, and the program was known to be very demanding, with lots of homework. One day, he was telling me how one of his classmates had blown off the homework assignment, and the teacher was yelling at the guy. His description? “Boy, she really went down hard on him. And in front of the whole class, too!”

Those prepositional idioms sure can be rough!

I was in a French restaurant in New York, and something possessed me to ask the waiter where the ladies’ room was in French. Well, I was thinking “lavatoire” (which, I know, isn’t even French for ladies’ room!), but it came out, “Garçon—ou est l’abattoir?” (“Boy, where is the slaughterhouse?”) I have never tried to speak French again.

Not my own, but I can offer two that friends of mine made in Spanish.

  1. A male friend, wanting to get off the bus, instead of just saying “Parada!” (bus stop), shouted out 'Tengo parada!" (“I have a hard-on!” - that is, “una penga parada,” a “standing” prick). He was surprised at the alacrity with which people got out of his way to let him off.

  2. A female friend, wanting a “chicha” (fruit drink), asked for a “chucha” (pussy) at a refreshment stand. When they asked “Una chucha???” in bewilderment, she replied loudly, “Si, una chucha grande” (“Yes, a big pussy!”) She says she’s glad she didn’t ask for a cold one as well.

While it’s not a really embarrassing error, I confused the German words zücken and zucken – the former means to flick out something, like a switchblade and the latter means to twitch. I said, specifically, in a chatroom, [zückt sich die Augenbrauen], saying ‘flicks out his eyebrows’ instead of what I meant, ‘twitches his eyebrows’.

Then, to make matters worse in trying to lightheartedly brush off my mistake, I screwed up ‘hides himself in a corner’ somehow – I could’ve sworn I said [verbirgt sich in einer Ecke], but maybe I made a typo or something. Needless to say, I never returned to that chatroom, though I may one day, but definitely under a different name.

And needless to say, my German has improved a great deal since then.

My gaffe occurred while I was working in a restaurant in Paris. It was late, maybe 3 a.m., and being a Monday night there was only a trickle of customers. So all the wait staff was just standing around. I sat down at a booth, kicked my feet up on a chair, grabbed a magazine and started reading it. A fellow waitress (obviously not happy with my laziness) came over and asked, sarcastically and in French (is there any other way?), if there was anything she could please get for me, sir.

I replied, in my own sarcastic French and to mock the overly-fussy customers that frequented the place, that “Yes, I would like a Long Island Ice Tea, but with 2 ice cubes and 3 straws”. Her jaw hit the floor, and she asked me to repeat myself; I did, and she brought over another waitress to hear what I’d said. Wild laughter from both of them.

Problem was, I evidently didn’t quite know the word for “straw” correctly. So it came out as “Oui, je voudrais un Iced Tea Longue Island, mais avec 2 glaces et 3 pipes.”

“Paille” (pronounced “pie”) is the word for straw. “Pipe” is the word for – wait for it – blowjob. To say the least, my hand jesture for “straw” didn’t help matters. Alas, I never did get that Long Island, or anything else (let alone 3 of them!).

Let’s see:
In German, there is a very fine line between the word for puddle and the obscene word for vagina. Needless to say, I told a class my shoes were wet because I stepped in a vagina.

A friend in German also had the same problem with the word preservatives (also means condom in German) as she explained to her future in-laws how American food has “condoms” in everything - mayonaisse, jam, hot dogs…

A German student of mine went to Italy. A cat lover, she pointed across the street to a cat and yelled to her friend a few feet ahead, “Katze” (Cat).
Unfortunately, the word “Katze” sounds very similar to the Italian word for penis.

When I was new in Germany, I ordered a pepperoni pizza at an Italian restaurant. They brought the pizza and I searched and searched for one piece of pepperoni, but instead they had all these little green peppers on it. I tossed the peppers into the ashtray and indignantly asked the waiter where the pepperoni were. He pointed to the ashtray and said, “There.”
Thus I learned that pepperoni in German was a little pepper, and had nothing whatsoever to do with spicy salami.

And lastly, not embarrassing, but funny - teaching verbs, I used the exercise:
Me: Did you eat an apple?
Student: Yes, I ate an apple.
Me: Did you drink a milk shake?
Student: Yes, I drank a milk shook.

It took me awhile to explain why that was not correct.

Upon burping at the dinner table of the American host, my norwegian friend excused himself by saying “Excuse my rape”

To burp, in Norwegian, is “å rape”, pronounced with two syllables, short a, short e. He pronounced the word like in English, not knowing the meaning of the word, rape, in English. Explanations were made, hilarity ensued.

Canadian airlines make all announcements in both English then French. One day they had a flight attendant who was making the announcements in French for the first time. Poor guy. Rather than “ceinture” which means “belt” he said “chanteur.” So he was saying make sure you have your singer around our waist. That wasn’t so bad. But then he was talking about the seats. He meant to say “for your comfort you can lower the back of your seat.” Important: “baisser” (pronounced with the S sound) is “to lower”, “baiser” (the verb*****, pronounced with a Z sound) means “to f**k”.

So make sure your singer is fastened tighly at your waist and for your comfort you can f**k the back of your seat.

[sub]*****Note: The noun “baiser” means “kiss” (noun). The verb “to kiss” in French is “embrasser”. Important distinction. “Embrasse-moi” is quite different from “Baise-moi.”[/sub]

When I was a teenager I worked a summer at a horse farm. The owner was on very friendly terms with the Mexican grooms (a little too friendly if you know what I mean, actually). Anyhow, one night they very graciously cooked dinner for us. I had picked up some spanish here and there and wanted to compliment the food. But instead of saying that dinner was “muy sabrosa” (very delicious), I indicated that it was “muy peligrosa” (very dangerous). I think they about fell on the floor laughing.

Oh god, where to start?!
In France.

Asked what I would be doing on the weekend, I explained that I intended to just relax. Not having the best grip on the whole reflexive verb thang however, I instead said that I would be having a good case of the trots.

I mixed up stamps that you stick on a letter, and stamps that you use to stamp information on things, like a rubber stamp, and went into the post office and asked for tampons.

Moving quickly on…
To Sweden.

Said to grandparents-in-law on a walk in the country (you will have to imagine the excited tone of voice) “Oh wow! Look, an ASSHOLE! (räv/röv)”.

Said to mrsIteki "I love you with all of my arse. (hjärta/sjärt). Horrible mrsIteki said that in that case she knew I loved her a lot. She is so cruel…

Having taught myself quite a lot of words from reading the Swedish text on english language television I decided to try out a new phrase. Instead of saying in my usual awkward way “Thank you for driving me to this place”, I thought I would give “Thanks for the lift” a try. However, learning by reading does not prepare you for silent letters, so my earnest attempt to thank my sister-in-law for dropping us off resulted in me thanking her (and her boyf) for the fuck (skjutsen/skjuten). I still haven’t lived that one down.

An english speaking friend of mine was asked in Swedish class to say something that made her happy. The word “kiss” in Swedish means piss :frowning: “It makes me happy when my boyfriend pisses on me.” Hilarity does indeed ensue. :smiley:

The word for “blinkers” (like a horse wears around their eyes) is much too close to the word for “labia minora/majora”, the word for codpiece is also too close for comfort. I can’t remember if I have actually confused these or if I have just had nightmares that I did. I know I have been close at least once.

Believe it or not, I am actually bloody good at Swedish!

I was going to start a thread a few days ago about weird words in other languages, but this is as good a place as any to fling them out. Toilet paper here often has kräp on the wrapper hehe. The word for orange is apelsin, making it hard for me to bring home the right sort of juice. There is a catfood called Pussy.

Puss is kiss, kiss is piss, mouse is pussy. People regularly shout out that there is something wrong with their pussy when they are having computer problems with their pointing device.

One time during a spanish class I wanted to say something along the lines of “I enjoy myself at parties.” For some insane reason, I decided to get creative and looked up another word. Instead of divertirse, I used disfrutarse…incorrectly. I told my mindbendingly gorgeous teacher (looked like Sofia Loren!) that I “enjoyed pleasuring myself at parties.” Not my proudest moment.

Similar problems with dialects or regional differences in the same language:

I was in Albuquerque, NM staying with friends. A friend of mine, originally from Argentina was also attending a conference in Albuquerque. We were going to go out for coffee, he asked where I was staying. “On Conchas,” I answered. “Where???” He asked incredulously. “Conchas” refers to a conch shell, like the one in Lord of the Flies. But in Argentina, “conchas” is “c*nt.” (Conchas was the name of the street – my friend wanted to steal the street sign.)

This was more a slang misunderstanding than mistranslation . . . My 8th-grade algebra teacher was from England. One day, two or three boys came late to class, and she said indignantly, “I know where you were—you were out in the parking lot with a fag in your mouth, weren’t you?”

I think we were all too stunned to laugh for about ten seconds . . . Then all hell broke loose.

YES! This happened to me as well, except I was with the family I was working for. They all looked at me rather strangely but I insisted that I knew what I was asking for. In any case, it came back covered in hot peppers. Not wishing to look like an idiot who didn’t know what a pepperoni was (which I was and didn’t), I ate the whole damn thing. Everyone was very impressed.

My other favorite story involves a shampoo called “Duesch-Das”* which stems from the verb dueschen* meaning "to shower. It took me a long time to explain that in American you would never want to put anthing called “douche” in your hair.

*How do you put the umlaut in?

Here are a couple more, but not by me.

I used to teach English to international students while I was in college. The classes were a fairly good mix of nationalities consisting primarily of students from Asia/Southeast Asia with a few from South America and the Middle East. Eventually, the subject of slang (specifically swearing) would come up. Having been in the same situation as my students, I always told them that I would answer any question about usage, meaning, etc. My only caveat was that it had to be after class so that anyone who didn’t wish to partake did not have to. Needless to say, these sessions were attented enthusiastically by all of my students as well as many from other classes as well. A couple of examples:

A lovely Brasilian student asking me what brick meant. Not quite understanding, I wrote “brick” on the board. “No” she answered, “with a ‘p’!”

A young Estonian man telling me that he had been playing tennis with two of his American friends the previous night and had heard one of them saying to the other “Stop fking me!" No, I explained, he was probably saying "Stop fking with me.” My student insisted that it was the former and not the latter until I explained what the former meant. At which point he agreed that it was probably the latter.

Like Iteki, I have a gift for these:

One of the practice sentences in Wheelock’s Latin is something along the lines of Haec multi viri facent. It means, or ought to mean if I’ve reconstructed it correctly, “Many men do these things.” My own translation is a perfect example of the dangers of relying too much on word order and not looking at the endings: “This woman does many men.”

That one, at least, is understandable. I don’t know what was going through my head the day my Czech professor dictated a sentence that actually meant “When it rains, I just want to stay in bed with a hot bowl of soup.” Faced with several vocabulary words I didn’t recognize, I translated the sentence as “When it rains, I just want to stay in bed with a strange male singer.” It amused the classmates, anyway.

And I once had this dialogue with my host mother in Spain as I walked into the dining room with a cup of coffee in one hand and a plate in the other:

Por que no llevas una bandeja?” (“Why don’t you carry a tray?”)

I had never heard the word “bandeja” before, and decided – heaven knows why – that she was asking me why I didn’t wear a bra. I think I stammered out that I wasn’t very big in that department, whereupon she explained that of course she had big trays in the apartment. Thank goodness, I don’t think she ever realized what I thought she was saying.

Another couple of favorite Spanish bloopers, from classmates in what was supposed to be an advanced conversation class during my semester in Madrid:

During a discussion on favorite hobbies, one classmate said hers was “montar caballos” (mounting horses, with a rather blatant sexual connotation) rather than “montar a caballo” (horseback riding). At least I assume she meant “montar a caballo,” but I guess one never knows.

I think during the same discussion, another classmate said he’d been playing basketball the day before, and so had “agujeros en las piernas” (holes in his legs) rather than “agujetas en las piernas” (muscle soreness in his legs).

LOL!!! Oh, what a wonderful thread. :0)

Well, I didn’t make this mistake. A friend told me this incident that happened to another friend of hers, named Corrado. Anyways, Corrado had a student who came to see him during his office hours, and as the student was talking, she called him “Corrido.” Well, poor Corrado just had to laugh. “Corrido” is part of a Spanish construction of the verb “correrse.” When two lovers have gotten their freak on, one can say to the other, “?Te has corrido?” or “Did you come?” So this student was in essence unwittingly asking her instructor if he just came! :smiley:

Another funny story I heard from a Spanish teacher. She was hanging out with some Spanish friends, and I forget what, but something embarrassing happened to which she replied: “Estoy embarazada.” Translation: “I’m pregnant.”

Gosh, I just love foreign language.

Not me, but a couple of stories:

An American went to England and in a department store asked to buy suspenders (in British English - garters). When the surprised salesperson asked if they were for his wife, he said, no - for himself.

This one is somewhat apocryphal, but supposedly in Israel an American tourist told a female hitchhiker that he had room - but used the word cheder instead of makom, indicating that he had *a room * (for her).

Upon entering a Spanish-speaking Catholic church in Chicago, the priest greeted me in Spanish and asked how I was. I responded in Spanish, thinking I had said that I was feeling very blessed, but the priest had a rather startled look on his face, repeated what I had said a couple of times, smiled, repeated it again and then shook my hand.

After the mass I asked my wife, a native speaker of Spanish, what I had said really meant. She gave me a very quizzical look and asked for the context. Then she asked to whom I had been speaking when I said that. Then she busted out laughing.

I asked her again and again what I had said and finally she stopped laughing for a minute and said that no one would ever say what I had said, but it was rather like saying that “I am without sin.”