30 People Share Their “They Didn’t Realize I Spoke Their Language” Stories And They’re Hilarious
Your friend and you get lost in a crowd. Abroad, far away from home. You're different and you can feel it. This feeling grows into a sense of superiority and you and your friend begin talking louder and louder, discussing everyone around you, even making fun of their foreign way of life. You toss in a few fu*king curse words to make it juicier and right then, when you least expect it, a random passer-by responds in your mother-tongue. Damn it! You forgot that the world is smaller than ever with cheap flights and even cheaper rooms covering most of it. You try to think of an explanation but you can't so you just lower your head and burn in shame. But the person who caught you feels victorious, after all, they served justice and that's worth bragging about. So they do. Bored Panda has compiled some of the best "they didn't realize I spoke their language" lines that multilingual people have ever posted online.
Most of these stories are a bit negative, here's a lighter one. My mum's a linguist and speaks about 15 languages fluently and as such, I picked up a couple along the way. Most of my childhood was spent in Germany so I have a firm grasp of the language...which doesn't really seem to match my appearance. I'm a 6'3, 220lbs, black man, who speaks German. Now this isn't too uncommon a sight in Germany, but in North America, I'm a f***ing unicorn. So I was standing at the bus stop one day in the heart of downtown Toronto and there were these two 60-something year old German ladies who were not having a good time. They were trying to find the Art Gallery and were fed up with the fact that they were having such a s**tty time navigating because their english-speaking children had left them alone for the day. I didn't have anything particularly important planned for that day, so I turned to them and said something to the effect of "You know, our city has a lot to offer if you know where to look. Would you two like me to show you where the Gallery is, and a couple places you can get lunch along the way" They nearly fainted. They were sooooo happy that they found someone who spoke German and couldn't stop taking pictures with me to show their family 'the guy that saved their day'. I walked them to the Gallery and gave them a bit of an impromptu walking/bus tour along the way. That was the day I gained two Omas.
Back in 1980, the percentage of bilingual Americans was 10.68% whereas in 2016, the last ACS survey for which we have data, it was 20.14%. Even though this percentage has been steadily increasing, it is still low compared to traditionally multilingual countries (for example, in Switzerland some 42% of the population use two or more languages in everyday life) but pretty similar to that of other countries with a world language as a national one (for example, France with its 20%).
I lived in South Korea for three years, but I never learned too much of the language. A friend of mine is 100% Korean but is very tall and was educated in America and New Zealand so she has an American accent. Her co-teachers at her school all assumed she couldn’t speak Korean so they would talk s**t about her constantly while she would listen on and feel terrible. She said nothing for a whole year until she had to speak at the end of year ceremony. The school offered her someone to translate but she refused and in front of 800 or so students and faculty members she delivered her address in perfect Korean. She subtly called out the coworkers that had spent an entire year calling her a foreign pig. Apparently one started crying from the shame of it. I wish I had got to see that.
The survey’s language data shows Spanish remained the largest non-English language spoken in 2016, as it was spoken at home by 40.5 million people, or 13.3 percent of the population age 5 and older. It was followed by Chinese with nearly 3.4 million speakers at home and Tagalog with 1.7 million speakers at home.
Several studies have revealed that early exposure to various languages boosts the communication skills of individuals, aside from the other established list of benefits of being bilingual. This includes delaying the onset of cognitive deficiencies, development of better working memory and increase in executive control, and so on.
My cousin is a big white guy who studied for 2 years in Japan during college. He worked for one of the head of Honda America for a few years. When the head guy learned that he spoke Japanese, he would make sure my cousin was in all the meetings and phone conferences with the Japanese branch. My cousin would listen to everything the Japanese would be saying to each other and report it to his boss during breaks. As such the boss looked like a psychic to the Japanese because after break he would address their concerns without being prompted. The boss made mad bonuses every quarter and always funneled a bunch of that to my cousin.
While learning a language, people often mentally translate what they are learning in their native language (L1) before they can fully appreciate the other language (L2). But when a person is bilingual and use both languages everyday, they know the language they're speaking in "automatically" and they rarely need to translate L2 to L1 in their head.
Being bilingual provides different perspectives to the person. They become more open minded as well as more accepting of other cultures. Aside from gaining more opportunities to find a job, bilingualism offers them higher social mobility. Some studies have shown that they also might be more confident in communicating with other people.
I once interviewed for a part-time school holiday job, together with a good friend of mine. My friend is Chinese, the majority race of the country I live in. I, however, am quite clearly not.
The first thing the HR manager says when he sees me is "We need someone who speaks Mandarin", a criterion not stated anywhere in the employment ad, and which subtly translates to "Chinese candidates preferred".
My friend, while ethnically Chinese, speaks little to no Mandarin. I, on the other hand, speak it rather fluently.
Probably as a test, the HR manager decides to field us questions in Mandarin, clearly intent on cutting me out of the interview.
My friend turns pale, as he stumbles along to answer the question posed in whatever halting Mandarin he can scrape together.
The manager then turns to me, rather arrogantly, waiting for my reply.
It gave me great joy to tell him straight to his face "Thank you for the opportunity, but clearly I am not the right candidate you are looking for to fill this position since I am not Chinese" in crisp fluent Mandarin.
The look of bewilderment of his face was priceless.
I recently went to Japan for my first ever international trip and was totally prepared to have to struggle through all my day-to-day interactions in Japanese but was surprised at how widespread even a basic understanding of English is over there. Everyone assumes you won’t speak any Japanese at all so they stick to as much English as they’re comfortable with or you basically just play charades.
At a restaurant in Kobe, the waitress was practically fluent in English so we chatted a while and it came up that I’m studying Japanese so we had a little small talk and she was impressed. Then the owner came over to talk but wasn’t as confident in his English so he had the waitress translate. He was asking all these questions about where we’d been so far, where we were staying, how we liked everything, if we’d been down to Kobe Port yet, etc. It was simple enough that I understood 100% without her translation, and the waitress could tell. Finally, she says to him, in Japanese “By the way, he understands what you’re saying.” His eyes practically bugged out of his head and he got SUPER excited and asked if we wouldn’t mind waiting 30 minutes for him to close up and send everyone home.
So, I wait, he closes everything up and we all end up hanging out that night. He drove us around the city, bought us drinks, even drove back to the AirBNB. Japan is amazing.
American expat in Thailand.
I have a beard. On many occasions, people will say something like "Monkey! Monkey!" or "You want a banana?" or other similar comments. Most times, I just ignore it as I don't want people to know I speak some Thai. Once, after an excessive amount of monkey comments, I smiled at the people (two young girls, about 14 or so) and said "Monkeys don't have blue eyes. Monkeys have black eyes, just like you two." They were speechless.
I'm American, but can read and speak Russian on an intermediate level. A few years ago while visiting St. Petersburg, I was buying tickets for the hydrofoil to Peterhof. All the signs at the ticket booth were in Russian, and I could read the ticket prices. The ticket agent assumed I didn't know Russian, and tried to tell me the ticket cost three times more than the stated price. I looked her right in the eye and said in Russian, "I see on the board here that the ticket I want is (x) rubles." Her jaw dropped, and the ticket agent sitting next to her started laughing her ass off.
Flemish guy here. Working as safari guide in Kruger area, South Africa.
One time, my boss asks me to go pick a family of 4 up at the Klaserie reserve gate, do an afternoon game drive with them, and drop them off again afterwards. This was very uncommon; normally we only do game drives with people that book a room in our own lodge on the reserve.
So I pick them up, introduce myself and go over the rules, all in English. They reply in English, or at least: the dad does, and normally I can pick up straight away if it's someone from France, Belgium, Holland or Germany. But his English was Oxford English. So I thought; English people. Off we went!
10 minutes into the game drive I hear them speak in Flemish, and not only that, IN MY OWN DIALECT. Side note; every Flemish town has a dialect, we can hear what region/province other Flemish people are from, and if from the same region, we can often even pinpoint the exact little town or community they are from.
Oooh I was going to have fun with these folks! Found a few nice animal sightings, spoke English all the time, but then one sentence to the next, switched to their exact dialect. I thought; now they're going to be surprised! But nope... we all kept chatting in Flemish now. Only 20 minutes later, the daughter, maybe 10 years old, goes "wait a minute; he speaks Flemish!"
After all had a good laugh, I asked them where they were from. They literally lived one street away from me. It's a small world, folks!
This happened to my brother and father while they were traveling. Some dude walks up to my brother, thinking he is a local, and starts talking to him in Farsi. When he realized my brother didn't understand, started saying really rude things, about him and my dad being stupid. My dad (fluent in Farsi) comes over, and rips this assh*le a second one. The dude feigned being apologetic, and made excuses for his attitude. As he was walking away, he started muttering more foul things about them, but in Turkish this time. Dad speaks Turkish as well, and proceeds to rip him a third assh*le.
Said something like "You need to be careful when talking s**t about someone in your native language, there might always be someone who understands you" in German while I was in Italy. A woman who was walking by responded "Like me for example".
My uncle has a good one. My family are originally from India/Pakistan and speak Urdu, but my mom's family moved to rural Arkansas in the late 70s. It was a really small town, like never seen brown people small, but they ended up living there for over 20 years.
Anyway, when my uncle was in high school, they had a math teacher from Japan. One day the teacher was berating my uncle for something (in English of course) and my uncle got mad and cursed him out in Urdu. The teacher replied very calmly, in Urdu: "don't ever use that sort of language in my class again, understand?" Pretty sure my uncle's jaw hit the floor. He didn't expect a Japanese guy living in a small town in Arkansas to speak Urdu.
Im swiss and peruvian and live in peru, so i don't look at all like a swiss guy.
There were two swiss girls sitting behind me on a bus talking about latino guys. Then one of them asked the other if she found me attractive. I turned around and said that I would love to know that too. The look of confusion and shame was priceless. Then we just all laughed. Now I've got two new friends!
Me and my friend were sharing a cab with two girls we didn't know. Just decided to share a taxi with them, because it was a long way and we wanted to save some money. They started speaking Swedish not knowing my friend is also Finnish Swede (her mother language is Swedish, she has been in Swedish school, but is Finn and speaks Finnish fluently). I understand Swedish but I was too drunk to care. Suddenly she texts me: "They are planning to leave us with the bill." I texted that we should tell the driver so my friend just said: "These girls will pay half of this, before they leave." He got the hint and didn't open the doors before they paid. Also another time I was in an airport with my aunt. She had broken her leg so she was in a wheel chair, but because we were going to a beach holiday, we decided not to cancel it. Now my aunt has lived in Germany and speaks it fluently, I've lived there too so I understand it well, but I'm not fluent. We speak Finnish, something just to pass the time when flight attendant asks us to go on the plain first. This middle aged man turns to her wife and says in German: "I don't think disabled people should be allowed on planes." My aunt, who is a true badass, asks me to stop, I was pushing her wheelchair, turns to the man and says in perfect German: "I'm sorry sir, but I broke my leg and didn't want to cancel my holiday plans. You are being incredibly offensive towards handicapped people and I feel sorry for your wife. Have a nice flight." He turned red, couldn't even say anything to us and just looked away. His wife looked mortified.
I was in an elevator going back up to my apartment after working out some two years ago and I had a man bun at that time. There were 6 other guys in the elevator speaking Arabic so I just listened as I usually do. Then, one of the guys goes, "Haha. Look at this guys hair. It's ridiculous."
I turn around and respond, "You want to say that again?"
The five other dudes proceed to die of laughter with one of them screaming, "I knew you were Arab! I knew you were Arab!"
I ended up laughing along side them to their one friend who felt super awkward.
When I started working at McDonald's at 16, none of the other employees realized I could speak a fair amount of Spanish. A few of my coworkers would talk crap about me in Spanish and I pretended for a few weeks that I didn't know what they were saying.
Then one day a manager told me she was worth me than me because she was bilingual. So I told her (in Spanish) that I was actually trilingual. The looks on their faces when they realized I spoke Spanish all along was priceless.
I'm from the US and when I was 11 my family went to France for a couple weeks. My dad was a very smart man. He graduated college when he was 18 and had a love for languages. He was fluent in French, Spanish, and German and he lived in France for a year or two. He came back to the US and taught French for a few years before getting his JD and PharmD, He was constantly trying to teach us French whenever he could when we were little. He kept in touch with his French professor from college and when we were in France we stayed with them in St. Hilaire de Riez. They had a small party with some of their friends and everyone sat around talking and drinking wine. As much as he tried to teach us French, we could only do as much as ordering food and reading restaurant menus and such, so everyone was talking in English except for one man's wife that was there and didn't speak English. The hosts were translating most things for her. At one point, the man says something in French like "Americans don't value things like learning foreign languages." Not knowing my dad spoke French. My dad looks at him and in French replies something along the lines of "You're right, lots of Americans aren't introduced to foreign languages until they are older and already out of the prime time of their life to start learning." And that this was why he started teaching his kids French as early as possible and even why he brought his kids to France, hoping that we'd gain an appreciation for another language and culture. I didn't know what the guy had said or what my dad had said until after we left, but I remember the look on the guys face and how he was clearly apologizing repeatedly. The host laughed too and explained my dads history with French and his education. To say the man was embarrassed would be an understatement. Friday will be 13 years since my dad passed away at 55 years old. He was such an awesome person and loved by everyone he met. He would never take offense to something even like that guy. He was from a tiny southern town in the middle of nowhere and grew up with nothing and worked his ass off to get where he was in life. Cancer is a b**ch:(
Some guys on the subway started talking about their 백마타는꿈 (Dream of Riding the White Horse aka fantasy about f***ing a white girl) right next to me (mixed Korean/American but totally white looking). I waited until I was about to exit, then tapped their shoulder and suggested a few clubs for them to go to and try out next time. Told them they better be good at English though because everyone knows, white girls can't speak Korean. I might have heard an old man laugh behind me as I exited the train.
I was at a hotel bar in NY and a Russian couple were sitting a few chars down from me talking about what they should do for the evening. So I suggested that they go to Rockefeller center to see the tree (it was a couple days before Christmas) and try and find some carolers/christmas music performances to listen to.
They were shocked an American could speak Russian and they were super pleasant people. They bought me a drink and talked about their impressions of NY for 20 minutes or so before they went out for the night. I was able to give them some advice and they gave me an ego boost by complementing my Russian.
I went to a psychiatric emergency ward once and asked for help and if they were comfortable to speak English.
I understand Danish but have a hard time making myself understandable in it and didn't really feel like an idiot at a crucial time of my life.
I stayed there for 4 days without anyone realising I knew what they were saying about me right in front of me.
2 of the nurses thought I was cute.
1 doctor thought I was lying all the time.
A patient thought I was a spy for the staff.
A lot happened in those 4 days
It made my stay way more enjoyable then it should have been.
My friend and I both come from Spanish speaking families, and we would speak in Spanish when we didn't want people to know what we were talking about. One time we were in my kitchen with my mom and my idiot friend started asking me in Spanish if I wanted to go outside and smoke weed.
While I'm Spanish, I don't quite look like the stereotypical Spaniard: light skin colour, blondeish, green eyes... When I was living in London I got into several situations like that. The top one was on the tube back home. I think there was a football game (Chelsea - Barcelona) and this couple was going to the stadium and I was standing just besides them. Tube had a hard stop and I accidentally fell a bit over one of them. I apologised in English as I didn't realise they were Spaniards too. They started talking to each other saying "this f***ing fat c**t nearly smashed in the ground" and things of the sort for almost 5 minutes. When they left the tube and he looked at me one last time laughing I told him in perfect Spanish "enjoy the game, you little piece of s**t". His face going pale as the doors were closing was enough satisfaction for a week.
Oh I LOVE this one: So I was working at a dental clinic in Germany, and these 2 guys walk in and start speaking in arabic, not knowing that both I and my supervisor can understand it. The first guy (actual patient) is nervously telling his friend and this would never work, and his friend is telling him to shut up and play along, so the supervisor and I try to figure out what kinda game they're trying to play. Apparently, they were trying to lie about the patient's age to get his dental treatment done for free; (I dont know how that worked, I was just an intern) unlucky for him, his teeth told the truth (you cant fake being 16 when your wisdom teeth are ALL THE WAY out)
So me and my supervisor shut up about it, and I'm in actual pain trying to hold back from laughing as the friend is convincing the patient that we're idiots who dont speak arabic and cant understand their trick. Of course until i cant anymore and decide to discuss the case with my supervisor. Right there in front of them. In arabic.
I have never seen someone turn so many different colours so fast.
Famous story by my grandfather who spoke Arabic and French.
He was in Kuwait with his wife and 20 dollars to his name, applying for a job with a big hotel company I believe the Marriott. He interviews all in Arabic and he waits in the lobby to talk to the final guy for the job. Two of his previous interviewers walk past him and say in French “what’s he still doing here he didn’t get the job?” My grandfather then stands up and says “if I didn’t get the job why did you have me sit and wait here for no reason?” They look back at him and say “you speak French? You are hired”. One of my favorites!
The people at the Chinese food place on my campus spoke Chinese to the door exchange students. But even tho I spoke Chinese I just always spoke English to them since I have an accent when I speak Chinese. But one day I got all meat no rice since I had a rice maker at home. And when I was paying the lady says to the person beside her "fat ass wants meat no rice". And I responded in Chinese, "actually I have rice at home". They didn't charge me for the order and started giving me a bit extra whenever I go there
I'm a Mexican who speaks Hebrew fluently. I was actually in the US in a deli around the time when the World Cup was going on in 2014. I was wearing a National team jersey and had been watching with family. We usually paint the colors of our flag on our cheeks (tradition). The game was over and we were getting food. So my parents, brother and I walk into a booth. We sit and the people behind us (three middle aged women) start speaking in Hebrew saying: "look at these stupid Mexicans (which should have been a giveaway since the word for Mexicans in Hebrew is "mexicanim") being loud and thinking they own the place. Typical". Well, I turn around look at them and answer in Hebrew: "yes we are very proud of our country and the great job they are doing at the World Cup. If it bothers you, you can move". The look on their faces was priceless. I've never felt so empowered...until Mexico did a s**t job and got eliminated from the cup.
I'm half Chinese, quarter English, quarter Irish, and was born and raised in London - I don't look particularly British (or indeed Chinese), but I definitely look "foreign". In the wake of Brexit, I happened to be on the phone to my mother (Chinese) while on the train commuting into work, so I was speaking Mandarin. While on the phone to her, I overheard some little prick grumbling about "the f***ing Chinese in this country, Brexit borders immigrants Muslims Polish builders taking our jobs stealing our benefits rarararararagrgghhhh" or whatever - but the word chink came into it a couple times, too. Clearly this man had been emboldened by the vote to leave the EU and felt justified in airing his racism, feeling there were lots of like-minded others. English very much being my first language, I turned to him and just said, "you f***ing what mate?" in my clearly-from-south-London accent. At this point he immediately started to backpedal, and said I was "alright" because I was "one of us", whatever the f**k that meant. So I got called out for being a foreigner in my own country, which is both amusing and sad.
We had a large family reunion dinner at a restaurant and we were all sharing stories. My funny Uncle was telling us how he used to pretend he was deaf and his sister would translate. To prove it, he asked the waitress to get the manager. When he came over, my Uncle started signing to him...with made up and exaggerated gestures. My Aunt told him that the food was good and the server was excellent...all the while the manager just smiled and nodded. When they were done “talking”, the manager said in sign language, he spoke ASL and knew it was BS. We blew up laughing and my Uncles face turned beet red.
My family and I went to Sri Lanka for two weeks to see where my mom grew up and general beach stuff. For some reason we were like the only people in the hotel we were staying at aside from a wedding party that left a day after we got there.
A few days in there was another family staying there, I believe from Suriname and we were all chilling at the pool and decided to play a game of water polo against each other. Things got exciting and one of the daughters yelled out something in Dutch like "go for the big fat guy!", my Dutch dad replied "what big fat guy?", And everybody laughed.
Just a simple story but it was pretty sweet.
While sitting in a Starbucks in Brooklyn (not the trendy part of Brooklyn) a couple sitting next to me started saying pretty racist antisemitic comments ( i wear a yarmulke) in swiss german with a distinct lucerne region accent. The looks on their faces when I greeted them in the Lucerne dialect definitely made hearing their abuse so worth it :)