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Confusing and suprising people on purpose - adventures in language learning.

Confusing people with your languages can be pretty amusing ;) It can also help you get out of potentially dangerous situations, as my third story will show. This post is inspired by and dedicated to @SilviaSpells and her wonderfully diverse language and ethnic background :)

Edit: I added two funny topic-related videos at the bottom. If you're looking to get a laugh - check them out ;)

So far, I confused two of my teachers and a random guy - a beggar/con-"artist"-robber bothering me for money - on the street.

  • First story - teacher in high school:

The class is studying English tenses (I think it was Future Continuous or something of a kind) and I sat bored in the back, so I pulled out a book in English and started reading it (because hey, English class is for English, right?).

Of course the teacher noticed. She called me out and started questioning me on the material we were learning, but as I answered correcly, she dropped the issue. Then she asked me to stay after class and I thought "I'm so cooked". But she just asked if I've been to UK before and how I learned English. I said "Uh... the internet?". She didn't quite buy it.

Soon after she signed me up for a school competition, which was mainly for seniors (3rd grade), I was in the 2nd grade. She said that she didn't have time to prepare me and give me tips, as other teachers did for their participants, even though I was the only one from my class participating. And she gave me wrong time of the start of it -  to this day I'm not sure if she did it on purpose. The time alloted for the test was 1,5 hour, I turned up one hour late, but they allowed me to take the test. 100 questions, only 30 minutes. Barely enough time to give the answer, and not enough to check it even once. I had no high hopes. Turned out, I placed 3rd in my school and qualified for country-level competition. I was from science-oriented class while the rest of the kids were from language-focused classes.

That teacher approached me again, grilled me a bit more as to where I learned English. I gave her the same answer - I learned by myself. Then she said she won't have time to prepare me for the next level of competition either. In the end, I pulled out of the competition - the main prize was free entry for college into the field of the study of English politology, and I already knew that's not what I want to do. So, I left her probably feeling a bit confused.

  • Second story - lecturer at my uni:

In our first practice in English, we were asked to introduce ourselves. Most of the people said simple things with accent that could clearly be improved. When it was my turn, I said what I wanted to say about myself, which turned out to be a lot more than the others said. It caught the teacher's interest, so she asked me more questions and we chatted a bit. She then told me (in my native) that I'm too advanced for this class, but I can't be placed elsewhere because there are no C1 or C2 classes available. I replied in English " I'm completely fine with the current level" and gave her a smile. She laughed, and she quickly became my favourite lecturer.

We often talked after classes. Once, she asked me "So, where did you live before?" to which I replied "Well... here". She asked if I've ever been to the UK, to which I said no. She was quite suprised and said I sound like a native - which is not quite true, when I speak aloud I still notice that my accent could be improved. 

Then the day of the final exam came. It was an early morning and I had to commute to the uni, so I skipped breakfast. The exam was to take 1,5 hour. I wrote it in 20 minutes. I asked if I can leave earlier. Another supervisor came up, clearly thinking I just gave up and wrote nothing on the test. He took a look and said "It's flawless. You, Miss just broke the system" and allowed me to leave. My lecturer asked, trying not to laugh (I'm sure she had quite a ball on the account of her confused colleague) where am I gonna go. I said "to buy some  fries, because I'm d*** hungry" and left, leaving her laughing out loud and the rest of the class and the other supervisor looking lost. I could still hear her giggling through the door when I left. ;'D

  • Third story - beggar on the street: 

I was walking to the bus stop when a beggar holding a bunch of flowers approached me, asking for money. I didn't answer right away, thinking of how to refuse and get out of there without risking him following me or worse, trying to rob me.

It's kind of a con - you give them money, then they give you a flower out of fake "thankfulness". And somewhere around the corner, you get robbed - you are marked as a target by the flower you are holding, since it indicates that you have money with you. And if you are going to a bus station, you clearly have some money, at least for the ticket, so those people often hang around there. Even if you don't give them money, they may follow you.

I was silent for a moment too long (or thankfully for long enough) and the guy asked, a bit unsure now and with heavy foreign non-English accent himself, if I speak my native language. A bright bulb came up inside my head - let's play it that way. So I tried to look confused and said a couple of sentences like "I don't understand", "What are you talking about?". The guy just shook his head and waved me away. I luckily got out of this one and it was him getting conned.

  • Other than that:

I succesfully chatted with a Dutch man using English and bits of German, and could talk to a colleague's British husband about various topics. I also gave a horse-riding lesson to a German family, using German and English with their daughter. I suprised my Russian-speaking Ukrainian professor by understanding his notes without needing his translation - even though I don't speak much Russian, I could figure out the meaning just by being able to read Cyrillic.

Those are the stories I remember the best from my language adventures. I'm looking forward to more adventures like that to happen with Japanese, Chinese and other languages that I'm trying to learn ;)  

Do you have any stories related to using foreign languages that were funny, confusing or helped you get out of certain situations? I'd love to read them - I'm sure with languages other than English, it can get even more complicated ;D

Edit: Some funny videos I found, they're hilarious:
Do you speak English or German? Nooo, not at all... - a sketch with Simon Pegg;
How confusing can Polish be - from a Polish comedy "How I Unleashed World War II"/"Jak rozpętałem drugą wojnę światową". I haven't seen the film yet, as it quite precedes my date of birth, but after seeing this clip, it's on my to-watch list (and that's a long list, I'm a movie maniac. Think in thousands.)

February 21, 2018



Loved these stories. When you answered my question about prosopagnosia the other day, I assumed you were a native Russian speaker, so you can add that accomplishment to your list.

So here are a few stories from my language learning travels. I went to Guatemala between my sophomore and junior years of university. I spoke no Spanish and had never studied it. Well that's not quite true, I knew one expression, "Lo siento, no tengo dinero" which was taught to me by a Venezuelan friend just before I left the United States. So I was in Guatemala City walking around with my friend Diana and we passed many women sitting on blankets on the edge of the sidewalk selling various things. They all said something to me and I replied with my one Spanish expression. The women would laugh, smile, and talk to each other so I thought I was a big success. One problem - I could tell my friend Diana was getting annoyed with me, but I didn't know why. Finally she burst out, "Stop it. You're treating them like prostitutes!" I was horrified, "What am I doing?" "Well," she answered, "They keep saying qué ojos azules and you keep saying that you have no money." So my first "success" in Guatemala turned out to be another case of "Ugly Americanism."

I tended to make a lot of mistakes that summer. I'd reach into my mind for a word and come up with the wrong one. Someone asked me "Cómo le parece Guatemala?" I wanted to reply "es un paraíso" but what came out was "es perezoso". Another day, another international incident. Fortunately, most people realized I wasn't trying to be offensive, I was a simply a rank beginner making lots of mistakes.

One last story. The other day I was holding office hours (I'm a professor at a university in the USA) and I was talking to a student when my wife stopped by. We had a very brief conversation in Russian (my wife's native language) in front of the student and after my wife left the student sighed and said to me "French is such a beautiful language." I just answered "Yes it is."


"French is such a beautiful language." I can't stop laughing. That's great:)...


A couple more stories: about my son Саша (Sasha). Sasha has two mother tongues Russian and English. He also understands and speaks a lot of French and he knows a little Spanish. Oh and did I mention he's only 2 and a half?!?! (Yes, I'm a proud papa).

Story 1: The other morning at breakfast he said to me: "Papa, slipper!" "Okay, what about it?" "Von Papa!" "Von? What is Von? Are you trying to say Van?" Finally, after I looked under the table and saw that one of his slippers had fallen off. I was thinking "Oh no way. No child of mine is going to speak English with a Russian accent!" So I said "Sasha, it's not 'von', it's one like 'won'." Sasha just looked at me silently. I said, "Come on Sasha, you can do this. Say 'one slipper'." He looked me right in the eye and said "Two slippers."

I think I'm in trouble when he becomes a teenager!

Story 2: Sometimes when Sasha is talking to me and I don't understand what he's saying, I just assume he's using some Russian vocabulary that I don't know. This morning he was trying to tell me something and I just wasn't getting it. Finally he looked at me in exasperation and said "Papa, I'm speaking English here."

The kid cracks me up.


I think he was trying to say вон meaning "it fell off" or something like that ;D Knowing 4 languages at such a young age - your child is amazing! I can figure out Spanish, but where did he learn French though?
He seems to be quite sassy already: "I think I'm in trouble when he becomes a teenager!" - well, not trying to scare you... but I think so too ;)


We have a friend who moved here (the USA) from France and she spends one day a week with Sasha and speaks to him in French. We have another friend from Venezuela who used to talk to him in Spanish but she moved away, so at the moment it is just me reading to him in Spanish.

Sassy is a good word for him. We have an electric piano. The other day I was practicing a song and was playing it over and over and over again. After about 20 minutes of hearing the same song Sasha came over and said, "Papa, thanks for the music" ... and then he turned the piano off!



There's this Polish tongue twister: "Szedł Sasza suchą szosą susząc sobie szorty" - "Sasha walked on a dry road drying his shorts".

And here's a gibberish one I made up about sassy Sasha: "Sassy Sasha sashed with a sash sassily salted the saucy sauce". ;D

I read your story for a second time and I'm still laughing. Sassy indeed! ;)


How people can mistake Russian for French is beyond me ;D They're completely different in sound. I got mistaken for being Russian quite a lot when someone heard me speak Polish abroad. Well, they do sound similar. This is the first time someone thought I was Russian not having heard me talk, though - thank you! Maybe there's hope for my Russian yet ;)

As for prosopagnosia, I've read about it before, hence I was able to give an answer. Reading about medicine and various interesting or rare conditions is a hobby of mine - I almost got into the medical field, but chose mathematics instead. Still, I enjoy reading various medicine-related articles. Languages, maths and medicine - I'm really quite an oddball.

Lo siento, no tengo dinero - I'm gonna remember that phrase, who knows, it may come in handy :)


This is such a great thread, MyaRexa! Thank you for posting. I don't have very many stories quite yet. Here are the best, however:

1: Shopping in store when Mexican woman pulls cart next to me with child in it as we pick through the rack of clothes. I smile at the little boy and keep looking. I see him point and hear him say, "Esa gringa alta tiene muchas camisas negras..." to his mother. I did have a lot of black shirts on my arm. It tickled me that he called me a tall white girl so much, all I did was smile at him and say, "sí, así es..."

2: Picked up friend from art class and met her very Russian teacher and was able to communicate decently, to her excitement. She told my friend I was "such smart and interesting girl."

3: Was told as a skinny teenager at an amusement park by my ex that I was fat in Spanish. I proceeded to correct his verb choices and conjugations, and tell him exactly what I thought of him in Spanish. Was then stared at by Spanish speakers walking by with this look of, "he is going to die."


JK, I'm laughing my (bottom part) off at the third one ;D Good going, Lauriana! I wish I could see that ;)


Thank you bunches, MyaRexa))). I would like to see it from third person also:))


Me and my friend who speaks Spanish were in our French class. As a joke I insulted him in Spanish so, as a joke, he shouted "CALLATE COÑO!" Turned out that our teacher could speak Spanish xD


What a champion lol! Those are awesome stories. :) I love the one about the test the most, French fries call my name quite frequently. ;)

Story 1: Someone on a language site messaged me in Mandarin asking if I could help them study another language (common one, but surprisingly I didn't know it at the time), so we were going back and forth in Mandarin, and I found that hilarious because Mandarin is my weakest language (still!).

Story 2: I was visiting a friend at my old job, and while we were speaking, someone came up and asked if we knew the way to the gym, but his English level was low, so we had to tell him in Spanish. Me and my friend were reaching into the depths of our minds to remember directional words in Spanish, and it was interesting making sure he understood where to go, because it was fairly complex. We then wrote down a script so that if anyone asked the question again, they can simply recite it (for the people that don't speak Spanish).

Story 3: I tutor French and do this using Spanish, to get the student away from translating back to English (they speak Spanish). It's fun using laddering in teaching as well, and to see the 'click' when they realize the similarities in the two languages.

Story ?: I argue with my friends in different languages a lot, sometimes just one that we don't speak natively (I remember carrying on with a friend in Korean when both of us were pretty basic in the language), or up to four (French for my native speaking friend, Korean because we are both learning, as well as Spanish because she can understand it, and English.

Story 4: At one time, an overseas friend of mine thought I was arguing with her, and thought it was in Spanish as well (I'd said ee hoy minoy -- an Early spongebob reference). I was in tears for a good ten minutes trying to understand why she thought I was speaking Spanish, and I had to tell her that 'hoy' was a Spanish word, but it made zero sense in this context.

Most of my stories that aren't too 'funny' involve translation, I get asked to read Portuguese, French, Mandarin, Japanese, etc. My mother's favorite pastime is asking me to translate Spanish videos, articles, or sites she happens upon, and then smirking if I can't give her a 100% correct translation in two seconds. :P


Everyone doesn’t seem to buy it when I say that I can understand some Swedish and Italian because I studied them by myself. And whenever I say that I can read some basic Japanese, some people think I’m joking because 80% of people just learn a few elementary or random spoken phrases through Anime (and even though I like some Anime, I have a really terrible memory for directly quoting movies and TV shows, I usually turn on subtitles because I have a much better visual memory). I shock a lot of people who actually ask me about my knowledge of the subject, even if I just write random stuff in Hiragana. I could use work in all of these languages, but apparently I know a lot more than most people ever will. I’m practically bilingual to them just because I speak Spanish well enough to converse a bit with the natives, even though I think my Spanish has a lot of room for improvement.


My folks and friends were impressed too, when they discovered I could speak (a very basic) Japanese and Chinese. It's somewhat of a rarity to know these ones. I'm too planning on trying to watch anime with the subtitles. Sometimes, I already pick up some phrases by hearing alone. Anime can be confusing though, as for politeness levels and general appropriateness. I'm trying to use it just for listening comprehension.

I agree, knowing even a bit of any foreign language can impress people easily ;) And I wish I would finally start learning Spanish seriously - I just can't find time to do it, but I really want to! I've got to focus on the languages I started and plan to finish first.


Once I was at Subway in Germany and there was another customer who apparently only spoke Spanish (how he even got there was quite a mystery...). Obviously at Subway you are supposed to answer several questions to get your sub the way you want it. The staff was trying to talk to him in German and in English but he just kept telling them in Spanish that he doesn't understand. I translated the questions to Spanish and his answers to German. He was very surprised that a random blonde girl like me spoke Spanish but he was soooo grateful that someone finally understood him! :D

I often surprise people by understanding what they are saying. I speak several languages and based on them also understand several more (for example I understand Scandinavian languages pretty well because I know Swedish). A lot of people are not very careful speaking their native languages abroad. I like listening to people without them knowing that I understand them. Then I might say something random in their language and it's so funny when they're suddenly all quiet and start wondering what they have been saying. :D


Wow. That is amazing


You are really a gifted student Mya I must say.
We only had Chinese and English at junior high and high school and I was only good in Chinese.

A similar story for me was in Germany. I and some Asian schoolmates took profit of the term break to go visit Germany. One day we went to the Neuschwanstein Castle. It was around Christmas and so although it was a bit cold and gloomy, there were a lot of tourists. Everywhere was wet and slippery with snow mixed with dirt. Outside the train station they put up some rods and lines so pedestrians must walk in a single profile. So we could not move fast. I was the last one behind all my friends and as we move on, I heard a male voice start grumbling in German behind me. Actually I did not know what he was saying, as I had only just finished a semester of German the first time in my life. But I heard the word "Ya"panese being repeated in every sentence (thanks to my Asian face I don't remember how many times I was thought to be a Japanese). It lasted for a few minutes until I wanted to stop it, turning back to the man, letting him go first and telling him "Ich bin nicht Japanese, sondern Chinese.". He became red in the face as he passed me, and some girls following him, likely his daughters, laughed their heads off.

BTW I believe I have a very versatile face. Native people always come to me starting with their own language first as if I am their citizen - Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, and once even Tagalog (or Cebuano?) - after I had tanned for a few days.


哪里哪里, I wish I was half as gifted as people as you :) You have an impressive language range! German is not among the languages on your profile, do you know any more languages than those listed by Duo?

Today, I finally got the Chinese input installed, and to test it I made a sentence which may come in handy for me: 我不是俄罗斯人,但是波兰人。

I'm not sure if it's completely correct, some words are new for me. But there's no learning without making mistakes ;)

I started to notice the difference about how Asian people from various countries look. Sometimes I can tell that someone is Japanese, Chinese or Korean. Thai, Cambodian, Filipino, Malaysian - those I still have trouble with. And China is very diverse, people from North and South look quite different.

I've been told I have the typical Slavic look, but as though I may have some distant Tatar roots. Dark blue-grayish eyes, but brown hair instead of blonde. Hmm, maybe some day I'll find out that one of my distant ancestors was Tatar ;)


Haha, no I'm not. At least I had never finished any exam with 1/3 of the time. Also the worst is I am quite a lazy person, always making the minimum effort only :-)

As our place had been a British colony, every educated person here knows Cantonese, Mandarin and English, just better or worse. My other better language is French. These are all the languages I can converse with. Japanese is slowly getting there, but still I need a lot of training. My German is all gone now, and other languages shown up here are just a hobby thing. Although I would love to know them all well, it's not possible in reality.


It's not wrong but a better word choice is 而是
It would sound a bit literal though and so my suggestion for a natural verbal way would be breaking it to 2 sentences.


MyaRexa you are so intelligent and I always look forward to your thought provoking posts and comments. I was so surprised to see my user name here...aww... thank you you are so sweet. <3 Though really, I actually struggle to maintain my mother tongue, whereas you taught yourself English to fluency at such a young age, which just blows my mind. I admit I sometimes use language to get out of situations, though luckily I have never had to use it to get out of danger. Sometimes I will pretend I don’t speak English to telemarketers on the phone. My mom would also speak hungarian to me when we were out in public and she didn’t want to be understood. This was okay when we lived in newfoundland where there were no other hungarian speakers, but when we moved to toronto I had to keep reminding her that actually there are lots of hungarian speakers in this city (there are lots of speakers of almost any language) so it is best not to assume that no one will understand. I love your story, so impressive and inspiring! In terms of teaching yourself a language, I came across this blog /journal recently of someone who taught himself Norwegian. It is a really really interesting read http://www.apronus.com/norsk/ of self teaching. I love how you broke the system (I also loved to read novels under the desk at school) and surprised all your teachers!!! I just remembered a funny story. I was on the subway once and I heard hungarian in the two seats behind me. I started listening in on the conversation (I always feel like I am eavesdropping whenever I listen to Hungarian spoken in public... for the reasons above). Anyways, as I listened it turned out that these two guys were trying to interpret a text message in English. I think it was something simple but a bit idiomatic, (wish I could remember what now). I thought about turning around and answering their question, but wasn’t sure if I should reveal that I had been listening in. Then one of the guys taped me on the shoulder and asked me in English, excuse me what does this mean, holding up the phone to me and showing me the text. Imagine the surprise on his face when I replied to him in Hungarian, translating the sentence into Hungarian! They were Hungarians just in town for a visit. They were so nice and so happy that I think we ended up hugging when we got off at the same stop. I have heard Hungarian spoken on the subway in toronto a few times but this was still a pretty rare and surprising coincidence.


This is an amazing story! :D I love suprising people like that. When I was on holiday in Cyprus, I looked up some basic phrases in Greek. Then, I tried greeting the cleaning ladies with them - it brought a smile to their faces and they recognized me and greeted me in Greek after that :)

When I say that I've been learning English for 20 years now - I feel so old... ;P Even though I was a really small child when I first had contact with it - two decades seem a lot when written down. But it's not impressive at all, it's more like being raised bilingual, since it's only a couple of years of difference as to being exposed to my native language. I'm not even sure if I can call myself bilingual, can bilinguality be learned? Or does it have to be acquired right after birth? Hmm...

BTW, I think I may try your idea on the telemarketers - they're pretty annoying. Maybe if I spout some Japanese on them, they'll leave me alone. I simply must test this one out - it'll be freaking hilarious xD


Yes, Surprising people is fun, especially when it brings a smile to someones face! I think the reason your story amazes me is because you learnt English of your own volition.. Most people who grow up bilingual do so by nessesity more than choice, I never choose to learn English, I had to when we moved to Canada (though I was really young I just picked it up). I think if you are fluent in two languages you are bilingual whatever age you learn. If course there have been interesting studies done on the differences in when you aquire your bilingualism, baby, young child, older child, adult... and apparently they all affect your brain differently (if you are interested in medecine it is interesting to read up on, particularly aphysia, language loss, in bilingual brains). However for all practicle purposes, if you can communicate in two languages you are bilingual. In the real world what matters is if you can communicate with others, and not when you learnt a language.


These stories are hilarious. ;-) May I ask what your native language is? I do not have any stories to tell since talking in English happens sometimes but I have never met someone speaking Irish.. Maybe one day I will be able to travel to Ireland and then I can surprise some people. :-D


My native is Polish and even though I'm fluent in English, I've never lived abroad. I'd surely love to meet someone speaking Irish. There's this small but popular Irish pub in my city, and they say "when confused - drink with the Irish" ;)


Well, there is an Irish pub near my city, too, but the owners are German and nobody can speak Irish. However, they play wonderful Irish music and sometimes there are even bands who play live.


How long did it take you to learn your languages?


I've been learning and using English for about 20 years now, which is since I was a little kid - they had this "English-teaching" club in kindergarten to which parents could sign their kids up to, and after that it was a mandatory subject in school, but only up to about B1 level at the end of the high school. I learned German for 8 years in elementary and junior high, and French for 3 in high school. They are a bit rusty now ;)
I've been learning Japanese for as long as I've been on Duo, which is just over 100 days. And Chinese since the Chinese beta course came out.
I was never taught Russian, but self-learned the Cyrillic and basics. It's also very similar to my native (Polish), so I can understand it to some extent when written or spoken.


i am Jewish too!!!

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