Like most people, I read Dear Abby for the Schadenfreude, but today’s column was interesting to me in my capacity as Languagehat. The subject was people who talk about others thinking they can’t be understood, and there were some great anecdotes sent in by readers. A couple:

DEAR ABBY: My son, an 18-year-old college football player of Italian/Irish heritage, was sitting in an airport in Austin, Texas, during a layover. A family from Japan was sitting next to him, complaining about their flight and their food, and finally, that someone nearby smelled bad. My son turned to them and, in perfect Japanese, said, “Yes, something does smell funny.” He said they looked at him in shock, got up and literally ran away. He said the same thing your writer did: People shouldn’t automatically assume others don’t speak their language, even those visiting our country. —DORIS IN KAILUA, HAWAII
DEAR ABBY: My mother is from Germany, and I speak German. I vacationed there with my husband, two children, my mother and my in-laws. On the way home, my father-in-law and I went to the flight desk to check in. The woman behind the counter told us our plane had left two hours before! Then, in German, she said to her co-workers that we were stupid Americans, and she’d make us stay another night and take a flight the next day. I replied in German that we were not stupid, and we’d take a flight that day. Her jaw dropped, and her boss came over and ran with us to the next flight. —CAROL IN PORTLAND, ORE.

So remember, you never know what languages that person you desperately want to mock might know!


  1. Great stories. I’ve heard so many of these kinds of stories that I would think people would be more careful when speaking about ASSuming that others don’t speak their language.

  2. bathrobe says

    Yes, that kind of story is always fun. There is a delicious sense of empowerment and revenge!
    But knowing the other person’s language doesn’t always lead to happy results.
    One time I was having dinner with foreign friends in Japan when somehow a conversation was struck up with some local Japanese girls at the next table, but in English. When it came time for the inevitable asking for phone numbers, I could only listen helplessly while one girl told her friend: “I’ll just give him any old number”. It would have been worse if I’d let on that I actually knew Japanese because people can get very angry when they find out you’ve misled them (although in this case it wasn’t deliberate). Well, I guess it didn’t matter in the end. If she had really been interested she would have given me her real phone number 🙂
    I had another unfortunate experience with Japanese people some years ago, but this was for exactly the opposite reason — people thought they understood but didn’t. I was having dinner with Australian friends in a Chinese restaurant in Australia. There was a group of Japanese students at the next table. My friends asked me, “What will you do if China doesn’t work out?”. I said: “I don’t know… go back to Japan….” The Japanese students all turned to look at me as one. It only dawned on me much later that they saw me as a racist Aussie telling them to go home. No doubt it has become part of their repertoire of racist experiences in Australia 🙁
    (Sorry, both are only loosely related to the thread)

  3. LH, that kind of thing happens to me in Malaysia all the time. It’s helped along by the fact that while more and more Malaysians can speak and understand English, very few ‘Mat Sallehs’ can speak and/or understand Malay with anything one could reasonably call fluency. It provides me with plenty of entertainment.

  4. My mother and her siblings are half-Filipinos and half-white and are native speakers of Tagalog. People usually mistake them (and myself, despite being 3/4 Filipino) as being Mexican or Spanish or whatever. Because of this, we usually hear private, but loud conversations conducted publically in Tagalog. Hence, the shocked reaction on their part upon learning this (oh my god! what did I say??)
    Anyway, she was telling me about the time, back in the 1980’s when she and my aunt were shopping at the base exchange at a US Military Base in the Philippines. The base is located in a Kapampangan-speaking area about an hour’s drive northwest of Tagalog-dominated Manila.
    The woman at the customer service desk was gabbing for such a long time to her coworker in Kapampangan. My mom and aunt had been waiting and waiting. When the woman was done, she said “ok, I have to go help these two Mexican whores now” in Kapampangan. Now, my mom and aunt don’t speak that language, but they understood it perfectly for having lived in the province since childhood – but even if they didn’t, putang Meksikana is the same in both languages and it isn’t too far removed from putas mexicanas in Spanish!
    As you can guess, it wasn’t pretty – the cashier was mortified when my mom and aunt started angrily yelling at her back in Tagalog. hahaha.

  5. that can be really embarassing…
    ne way off topic..i once found in ur archives the discussion abt ‘do what now?’.
    i’m in texas and people here use it often…

  6. I always cringe when I hear some foreigner complaining in English about “Japanese guys” (or whatever) on the train, assuming that the Japanese guys all around them can’t understand. All jokes about ESL education in Japan aside, more people can understand you than you think.
    Once, I was on the train with a friend after we’d been out drinking, and we got into one of those friendly-but-saltily-worded arguments you have with friends. We’d been trading some pretty frank insults and, ahem, suggestions back and forth for a few minutes before I realized that one (Japanese) guy sitting near us was almost suffocating trying to contain his mirth.

  7. Isn’t there a Seinfeld that hinges on this very phenomenon? Then again, isn’t there a Seinfeld for just about every phenomenon?

  8. I’m a white guy who understands some Cantonese, including some risque terms, so I get to eavesdrop on some conversations here in San Francisco, although not very well.
    But I’m truly amazed what people will say *in English* while talking on their cell phone or walking behind me or to each other on the bus, when they can reasonably assume I can understand them.

  9. Not quite the same phenomenon, but related: Years ago, I was traveling through Oaxaca State with my mother. We were in a tiny beach town, and as we would walk along the one road to the beach, the old men outside the cantina would call, “Huerita! Huerita preciosa!” (“Hey, little white girl!”) I don’t think they expected me to know what it meant, though they certainly wanted me to hear it. Anyway, I am very fair-skinned, and it didn’t take me long to burn to a crisp. That afternoon as I walked down the road again, they started up: “Ch-ch! Huerita!” I whipped around and snapped back, “Ya no soy huerita! Ya soy rosita!” (“I am no longer a little white girl! Now I’m a little pink girl!”)
    There was a stunned silence and then the old men started laughing. One evening later in our trip, when some much younger and less benign men started to harass my mother and me, these same old men emerged from their cantina, waving their canes angrily, telling the boys to leave Rosita alone. So I guess the moral is that sometimes good can come of understanding what you’re not supposed to understand.

  10. michael farris says

    Is huer(it)a related to güer(it)a?

  11. As an ESL bilingual teacher, I always thought I had excellent antenae for languages, ethnicities, etc. But one lady recently fooled me big time. At my school, we got a new social worker, blonde, blue-eyed, with an Eastern European last name, and accent. One day, she noticed my star of David necklace and commented that she too was Jewish, much to my surprise. I asked her where she was from and I almost plotzed. She answered Chile. Her parents had been Polish Jews who found refuge in Latin America, where she was born and raised. She was hired as a bilingual (English and Spanish speaking) social worker and we’ve become friends. Yes, I know Latin America is full of blondes, look at the Argentinean soccer team playing right now, not just mestizos. But I got fooled.

  12. If I may stand in for dear Abby for a second, the “gasp! they speak our language” faux pas is part of the simple injunction against being duplicitous, in any language; the cell phone gaffe is part of basic phone etiquette—it’s the speaker’s obligation to find privacy, not the bystanders’.

  13. I can say from experience that it’s even worse when you get in the habit of using a given language for secrets, and sometimes unthinkingly use it even when visiting the country where it’s spoken.

  14. it’s even worse when you get in the habit of using a given language for secrets, and sometimes unthinkingly use it even when visiting the country where it’s spoken.
    Heh. Now, that’s got to be embarrassing!

  15. German, Japanese, Cantonese, Malay,…Gimme a break.
    I think if more than 10 million people speak your language, you can safely assume it’s not some sort of secret code.

  16. Michael: Yes, guero and huero are the same word. In fact, I think the “g” might be the proper spelling, though I’ve seen it both ways in Mexico; since it’s slang, I can’t find it in my dictionary. I’ve always heard it pronounced like “huero”–the “g” is very soft, if it’s there. At some point, someone told me the etymology but now it appears I stored it in one of those brain cells I frittered away on booze and loose living, because I can’t for the life of me remember it.

  17. My late father once overheard an evaluation of two peoples’ sexual (mis)adventures (with eachother, he told us with an expression of great disgust)near a busstop in a suburb at six o’clock in the morning, in very loud Italian. He was an arabic-looking Italian living in the Netherlands, and as the suburb he lived in is full of Moroccans and Turks, and there are not really a lot of Italians in the Netherlands, probably the people near the busstop mistook him for a Moroccan.
    I was told that both partners in the discussion went green around the gills when he could take no more of their personal details and told them so, with the typical chilly politeness of the Sicilian who has had enough. I would have loved to be there and then.

  18. [Cool, now I know what Beck’s album/song “Guero” means.]
    My stories;
    First, one frome when I was a little girl and traveling in Europe with my mother. We were on the Metro in Paris and I saw a young woman jump the stile. “Look, Mommy, she didn’t pay!” I said in astonished English. “No, I didn’t,” replied the American student! Being a usually polite, as well as rule-abiding child, I blushed a thousand shades of red at being caught accusing her.
    And in the second story, I understood something in a language I didn’t really speak, but had been around enough to pick up the basics. I was working in a social service agency in Chinatown in NYC, where most of the executive staff spoke Mandarin and English, most of the secretaries and clerical staff spoke Cantonese and English, and some of our part-time senior citizen office aides (one of our programs) spoke only Cantonese. One day, one of these workers, having been sent on a delivery errand, came back to tell my boss, one of the executives, that the office to which the delivery was made had moved from the 1st to the 13th floor of its building. My boss couldn’t understand the man’s Cantonese, and the few bilingual Mandarin/Cantonese speakers were gone at the moment. Overhearing the entire awkward Cantonese-Mandarin exchange, I said to my boss, “He said, ‘It’s not on the 1st floor — it’s on the 13th floor now.'” Jaws dropped. People didn’t carry on Cantonese conversations around me anymore after that. Little did they know all I understood was “1” and “13” and guessed the rest from context!

  19. The Above gives full meaning to Rabbie Burns'” oh! to have the gift to see ourselves as others see us. “. the only way the find out the core of fellow man. Learn languages and do not let on that thee have a clue” then thee can be in the facts gathering group.

  20. it’s even worse when you get in the habit of using a given language for secrets, and sometimes unthinkingly use it even when visiting the country where it’s spoken.
    I fear that’s what’s going to heppen to my wife and me! Here in China we can speak Malay freely without a soul understanding anything we say. It was the same in Canada. When we go back to Malaysia we’ll need to find another language. Either that or just write notes.
    tbell: I hate to burst your bubble, but even a language with millions of speakers can be a secret code. Depends on the context. So, no break…sorry.

  21. Once I was in Peru, touring one Inca ruin or another, and since I didn’t really feel like paying for a guided tour in English, I tagged along with a Japanese tour group.
    I don’t look in the slightest like I might speak Japanese, so they must have thought I was just a random tourist who happened to be following the same route…until I asked the guide a question in Japanese!
    He was completely floored and all the group members had a good laugh, but he very nicely answered my question.

  22. hmmn, the context in these anecdotes is mostly public and urban I assume. I’ve heard Yoruba spoken on the streets of Changsha in Hunan province. Just too many speakers for these majority languages to safely mock when people move around so much. I’ll stand by my assertion.

  23. There’s a great scene in the Astaire/Rogers flick “Top Hat”, in which Eric Blore’s manservant character has a dispute with a cop in Venice and calls him all sorts of names, to which the cop just nods politely as if he’s being complimented. This goes on for a while until the policeman finally says, “You are under arrest for insulting an officer!”

  24. creepy dude says

    From a story in the Spectator some time ago: “This reminds me of the time I was locked in that closet while my captors plotted outside in their foreign tongue. My spirits soared knowing the fools didn’t realize I spoke their language, but quickly deflated the longer they discussed the best way to kill me and dispose of the remains…”

  25. During WWI Choctaw Indians were used in the American army to send messages that could not be deciphered by the Germans. And, indeed, despite a rather high percentage of the messages being intercepted, this “code” has never been broken.
    During the Second World War, Comanches were used in Europe while Navajos were used in the Pacific. Again, they remained totally incomprehensible for the enemy.
    Last year, the last of the WWII Comanche liaison officer, Charles Chibitty, died at the age of 83. I wonder if today the US Army would be able find enough Amerindians speaking a native tongue that couldn’t be understood by any one else in order to create a viable secret communications team…

  26. While travelling with my mother to Hämeenlinna (which is a town an hour north of Helsinki), I had some fun with surprising the waitress at the restaurant we stopped to eat at. It was empty when we arrived, so I asked in Finnish whether or not it was still open, and she responded yes and asked if we’d like an inside or outside seat. I translated this to my mother who doesn’t speak Finnish, and naturally the waitress realized that she should speak Finnish with my mom. Anyway, while we were being shown to our seats she asked whether or not we’d like the menus in Finnish or English, and I shrugged and said in English that it doesn’t matter to me because I speak both. Well, she sort of threw her arms up and walked off.
    On returning with the menus she asked us, “So, where are you from that you speak such fluent English?” We just sort of laughed. Anyway, the waitress still chose to speak Finnish with me, so I ordered and so on, and we later conversed a bit. It turned out she was shocked first that I spoke English so well, and had thought my father was Finnish, when in fact he is not, and I’d just learned the language. So, I elicited more shocked looks by explaining what I study (Finno-Ugristics, Karelian, Saami) and so on.
    Anyway, when we left the restaurant the whole wait staff was sort of staring at us from behind the bar. I guess they don’t get many Finnish-speaking foreigners up in those parts. My mother remarked later that that was one of the more strange complements she’s gotten, that her English sounds “so fluent”. 😉

  27. On further thoughts, I’ve had at least one occasion on which other Americans have been talking about me, thinking I’m one of the locals who doesn’t understand English, but it wasn’t exactly anything so horrendous. They seemed to be discussing whether or not I was gay, judging by the way I dress, and had remarked about how there was an exception to every rule. Anyway, this was while I was lugging a lot of stuff to the harbour to hop on a ship from Stockholm to Helsinki, and so when they appologized for blocking my way while taking a photo, I cheerily responded in the most American way, “Oh, no prob.” Didn’t stick around for the reactions, as I had a ship to board, but I just thought it was amusing.
    One really just has to learn not to speak so loudly at all in some ways especially if it is English. Whenever I take a call on the bus here, and it happens to be in English, its very clear that many people are listening in. So many people study or have learned English here that it’s only natural that they’d be interested to listen in to see what they can understand. After all, I’m be the same with any language I’ve learned anywhere else. Naturally its up to the speakers to watch what they say, because no one can be blamed for being forced to listen.

  28. More than 100 such anecdotes on Quora. The story from Naï Damato is particularly awesome.

  29. David Marjanović says

    I wonder if today the US Army would be able find enough Amerindians speaking a native tongue that couldn’t be understood by any one else in order to create a viable secret communications team…

    On the one hand, Navajo grammar is described at length on Wikipedia, so that kind of ship has sailed. On the other hand, by the time anybody learns Navajo grammar to fluency, the war might be over anyway.

  30. SFReader says

    I can just see it.

    Super-secret communications unit staffed by 80 year old Navajo grandmas and grandpas, because the youngsters have all switched to English long time ago…

  31. David Marjanović says

    on Quora

    Best quote from before it dawned on me that that page never ends:

    “I belong to Hyderabad and our main languages are Telugu and Hindi, but for my job I moved to Bangalore where the main languages are Kannada, Hindi and English. They also have other languages like C++, Java, SQL etc.”

  32. It does end, it’s just that it’s long enough to be paged in as you scroll. Once you’ve done that, it’s a completely normal page.

  33. David Marjanović says

    I suppose it has to end at some point, but I didn’t arrive at that point for hours and eventually gave up!

  34. Infinite scrolling Web pages:

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