There might not be anything more satisfying to a multi-linguist than busting some smart alecks that think they are being sneaky by speaking a different language they think no one around them understands. The level of embarrassment is priceless.
(Content edited for clarity)
Don’t Assume Anything
“I must have been 10 or 11 years old. We had taken a big family trip to Disney World (my immediate family plus my aunt, uncle, and cousins). On the way back we had stopped outside a McDonalds for dinner and my little cousin was misbehaving and just not eating. There are these two 30ish black guys a few tables down from us and my aunt kept telling my little cousin that the guys would take him away if he didn’t eat. She was telling him this in Vietnamese and when the two guys were done eating, they walked over to her table and said ‘Hello’ in almost perfect Vietnamese. My aunt was so mortified, she almost started crying. We all thought it was funny because my aunt deserved it for being a racist (there were plenty of white people in the McDonald’s too but she was going for a maximum ‘scare’ factor).”
She Thought The Two-Timing Was Simple
“I’m Italian and even though I can’t speak Spanish or Portuguese fluently I can understand pretty much everything. When I was in the US I was dating this Brazilian girl for about 2 months and I never mentioned I could speak or understand Portuguese. But because of the Latin roots, I assumed she would have at least guessed that I was able to understand it a bit.
Anyway, one night she came over to my place and she needed to use my computer. She went on Skype to talk to one of her friends, they were speaking in Portuguese.
I was sitting next to her watching TV and her conversation with her friend was pretty much about me, her, and some other dude she was dating at the same time and that she was gonna spend the night at his place later on.
I didn’t flinch a bit, just sat there for the whole conversation and once she was done, I looked at her and told her in her language how good the movie was that I was watching.
That was truly priceless, I can’t even describe it, her jaw dropped, there was silence for a couple of minutes, then I said (in Portuguese) to get her stuff and leave.
She just left and never said a word.”
Embarrassing The Rude People
“I was at a Las Vegas buffet with my parents, aunt, and uncle when I perpetrated a perfect cross-cultural beatdown on an older Japanese couple sitting at the table next to us. My aunt and uncle are pretty large, and had an appropriately large pile of food on their plates, as did the rest of us. We’re all whitebread Americans and I’m sure the couple had no idea that I had been studying Japanese for 3 years, and my dad had taken enough Japanese to pronounce things that I passed to him on a napkin.
While we were chowing down, I overheard the couple saying things like, ‘It’s so disgusting how much they eat’ and ‘No wonder those people are fat,’ while casting furtive glances at us. I discreetly passed my dad a note telling him that I was going to say, in Japanese, ‘This food is so delicious and plentiful!’ and that he should respond ‘Yes, it is delicious!’ loud enough that our neighbors would hear.
We execute our plan to perfection and the couple instantly turn white as sheets, drop their forks and bolt simultaneously from the restaurant without saying a word. If I had wanted to be more of a jerk, I would have asked them to pass the salt, but our technique worked so well that they probably committed seppuku in their hotel room anyway.”
“I make it a point to learn enough of the local language where I work but I never tell my staff or anyone I work with. I pretend to be the dumb foreigner only knowing English.Well one time in Mexico, I was with my boss who did not speak a word of Spanish (he is Chinese, I’m white).
We were negotiating a pretty large contract with a company and in the room, they would keep side baring in Spanish on us. They would talk about my boss call him a stupid chink and overall just plain rude conversation. The best part was they dropped what their lowest price would be.
So I used that data to be a total boss in negotiations. I came out of the negotiations 15% below what we wanted to spend and had a very happy boss. As they saw us to the door, I jumped in the car and gave our driver directions to our hotel in Spanish. Both of them looked like they wanted to pass out at the time.
Another time in Asia, I was standing at the elevator when 2 of my staff were insulting the client I was with, calling her a fat slob and a pig and a typical ugly American. I walked past and whispered, ‘She is Canadian.’ They both came to my office a few hours later in tears thinking they would be fired.”
Revenge Served At A Wedding
“When I was in high school, I babysat for a professional translator who was brilliant with languages. She tutored students in Cantonese, Mandarin, English, Spanish, Italian, Greek, and French.
She had married a Chinese man she met in Hong Kong while she was studying languages; he was from a successful family and so, before they married, they took a few weeks to visit his extended family, taying at a relative’s house for a week or something, then moving to the next relative. A lot of the relatives were very upset about their darling male heir marrying this western girl, so he basically begged her to say nothing and that once they were married, they could return to Canada and ignore his family’s nonsense.
So she bites her tongue for an entire month of hearing aunts, cousins, and basically every female relative in this guy’s family smack-talking her in Chinese under the assumption she can’t understand what they’re saying.
Then they all gather for the wedding, this massive extended family that cares so much about their image, and are all terribly disappointed in her… and she starts exchanging vows in flawless Chinese.”
“I was on a plane from Hong Kong to New York, and for some reason, this white girl didn’t think me or my family spoke any English at all as we were conversing throughout the flight in Cantonese. The woman, who is sitting on the opposite aisle with her friend, constantly tells her throughout the entire plane ride that my little sister, who is only 2, was, ‘effing annoying and I hope that stupid chink baby dies of SARS.’
As we exited the plane, I turned to them and asked in perfect English, ‘So where are you two lovely girls from?’ with a smile. They both turn pale and frantically pushed ahead to leave.”
Being A Trilingual Has It Perks
“I’m fluently trilingual (English, French, Portuguese) and you would not believe how many people think they can get away with talking smack about everyone around them just because they’re not speaking the same language as the majority. People even try this in French in Toronto (French is one of the national languages, idiots, we all need to study it in school at the very least).
At one point I was waiting for a streetcar in Toronto after school and listening to 2 ladies very loudly insulting the pants I was wearing (a cool tie-dyed pair I’d gotten on a trip to Brazil). I was trying to figure out a clever way of confronting them when my best friend (also a fluent French speaker) ran across the street to meet me and overheard a snippet of their conversation. She very loudly, and in French, complimented me on my pants, and we proceeded to have a loud, French conversation about how some people are morons. Particularly funny as the streetcar was full of kids from our (French) high school, who were all giggling to each other. The look of horror on those poor women’s faces was excellent.
I spent the summer in Brazil, and on my own, I could pass for a native (albeit pale) Brazilian. On the train home one night, I got to hear two backpacker types going on about the local girls, and commenting on my chest. A little while later, the one guy (who apparently had been in the country longer) was having trouble answering the other ones question about local transit. I saw my opportunity and jumped on it, answering in perfect Canadian English. Was fun to see them go wide-eyed and mumble apologies.”
“In Jerusalem, a very high percentage of Orthodox Jews ages 18-23 are American students who come to study for a year or three. People who first arrive sometimes take a while to recognize them or even understand just how many English speakers there are.
Anyways, this guy is on a bus and the two girls sitting behind him start talking trash. ‘Ugghh. Look at this Israeli guy. He’s trying so hard to look like an American.’ ‘Yeah, he’s wearing a Hilfiger shirt and everything.’
It goes on for a few minutes, he ignores them. His phone starts to ring, playing ‘Jingle Bells.’ ‘OMG! So hilarious! Stupid Israeli doesn’t know what that song is!!!’
He answers the phone, ‘Yeah, I’m just sitting on a bus in front of two girls making fun of me, how about you?’ Needless to say, the girls shut up and got off at the next stop.”
Mom Was On A Warpath
“When I was living in Rome, people would talk smack in English and I would overhear them (I look Italian enough that people always assumed I was a native speaker of Italian, at least).
I was walking back through the city center after dinner; it was maybe 10:30, 11 at night. There was an American family of four about ten feet in front of me: mother, father, two girls that couldn’t have been more than 13 and 15, respectively. The mother was yelling and complaining about everything and everyone in the vicinity, and finally, she snapped at the older daughter to hand over her digital camera because the mother couldn’t find hers. When the girl wouldn’t do it, she kicked her daughter in the back of the knee.
At this point in time, I slowed my pace to keep an eye on the situation. She kept spewing this torrent of abuse at her family and I just couldn’t take it. When we reached the piazza where I was splitting off, I turned around, looked straight at them and said in obviously non-accented English, ‘Good luck with her.’ The two girls heard me and grinned; the mother didn’t and demanded that the daughters tell her what this terrible Italian stranger had said to them.
‘It was just good luck with her, Mom.’ The look of horrified realization on her face, that I had heard everything and judged her accordingly, was absolutely beautiful. Forget that horrible woman.”
This Escalated Quickly
“Ages ago I lived in Istanbul for a bit, and I’m your typical pasty Englishman. I’m walking through an area notorious for snotty nosed snobby women and at a restaurant, two girls at the table next to me spot my blue eyes, pale skin and start talking about me, trying to work out where I’m from, etc.
Then they decide that I don’t understand them (as I ignored them) and started referring to me as ‘Tombish’ (basically fatty). After finishing my salad and coffee I paid my bill, turned around to them and told them that I may be tombish, but I can lose weight. They’ll always be ugly, told them they were the children of easy women and that I’d defecate in their mouth. They were absolutely stunned, probably a combination of seeing an obvious foreigner swearing in fluent Turkish and the fact that the words I chose were really, really offensive.
I love swearing in Turkish.”
She Found It Funny
“My friend got into an elevator in Korea with a couple of North American guys. She’s Korean-Australian but doesn’t speak a lot of Korean. The two guys spent the whole elevator ride talking about how hot she was and what they’d like to do to her. Then one of them wondered aloud how funny it would be if she spoke English. She got off first, turned around and said, ‘It is pretty funny.'”
“Once, in a Walmart, a girl next to me was complaining about the admittedly very overweight women in front of us in the aisle in Spanish. Basically just calling her a fat, lazy cow. I kind of turned, raised my eyebrows, and said, in Spanish, ‘You’re not so skinny yourself.’ The look on her face was something I’ll never forget.
We often have customers at the store I work at speaking in Spanish or Portuguese thinking no one else will understand – I’ve always pretty much let their criticism of the product roll off my back, but once these two ladies were talking very loudly in Portuguese about how ugly and boyish my female coworker was – seriously out of line, it was way too personal.
I walked up to them and asked them as sweetly as I could to please leave and have a nice day. When they protested, I said I would be forced to call security if they didn’t exit the store. Some people are just jerks when they think no one will understand, it’s not that they’re bad people per se, just arrogant. No one expects the retail clerk to be trilingual.”
Fake It Until You Make It
“I’m an English teacher in Korea. The amount of Korean I speak is extremely minimal, only a few words and phrases. I teach elementary students, who at first thought I spoke no Korean, and they used to say things about me in Korean quite frequently. Some of it I knew they were talking badly about me, some I didn’t’ understand but still knew it was about me, some wasn’t bad but they were still talking in Korean so I wouldn’t know what they were saying. One day one of the students got up and asked to go back to his homeroom for a minute. I asked why and he replied in Korean that he forgot his book (I really wasn’t at all sure this was what he said, I was mostly guessing from context). I said sure, you can go get it if you hurry. The entire class simultaneously turns to face me with their mouths wide open. You can just see it dawning on their faces that, ‘holy crap, the teacher actually understands everything we were saying.’ So basically I have my entire class of students convinced I speak fluent Korean when I’m actually probably at the level of a 2-year-old.”
Not Quiet Enough
“When living in Germany, a friend and I were in little ice-creamery talking with each other in English. A pair of German teens said, in German, ‘Freakin Americans are so darn loud.’ My friend, being the guy he is, said in English ‘Freaking Germans are so darn annoying.’ The teens turn from their booth and ask in English ‘What did you say?’ to which my friend, in perfect German, replies ‘Sorry, I didn’t know you understood English.’ The dirtiest look I’ve ever seen was exchanged before they stood up, ice cream in hand, and left.”
Defusing A Situation
“I was taking the bus across town, and I have a bad habit of listening to others’ conversations. Anyways, I’m listening in on these two guys talking about their attitudes towards immigration (I live in Australia, and there is a lot of xenophobia). It was all a bunch of nonsense like, ‘oh, they don’t assimilate into our culture, they shouldn’t be coming into our country if they’re Muslims,’ etc. Eventually, they notice an Asian couple get on the bus, the couple starts talking in Malay. The two jerks go on about how that they shouldn’t have to learn their language and they should have to speak our language in public because they wouldn’t understand it if the couple was talking about them. This annoys me and I try to tune out of their conversation.
Eventually, due to my terrible habit, I tune into the couple’s conversation as I speak Malay. They were talking about general day to day things. Then one of the guys shouts, ‘Speak freaking English you Asian wankers!’ That was the last straw, for both me and the guy from the couple.
The Asian guy was built like a tank and ready to knock these idiots’ teeth out, whereas the idiots were skinny and very unintimidating. He got up to talk to them before I did. I got up just in time to yell out to the Asian guy, ‘Hey come on man, it’s not worth it. Just leave them be.’ I mean, I was going to give them an earful about how moronic they were acting, but if a fight broke out, the Asian guy would have knocked them out, which would only worsen these racist moron’s attitude towards foreigners. The Asian guy was pretty surprised to hear me speak Malay, but he recomposed himself and got off the bus with his girlfriend.
I felt pretty awesome telling these morons afterward that if they weren’t acting the way they were, that might not have happened and that if I, an Australian, hadn’t learned another language they would be bloody and beaten. They said thanks for dialing down the situation. I felt even more awesome telling them that I don’t need thanks from racist jerks like them and if there was a next time, maybe I would let them get their heads kicked in.
Felt awesome man.”
The Smart Aleck Gets Busted
“I was an English teacher in a very multiethnic city in China. It was a public university and many of the students, especially Han Chinese (the majority) had some resentment towards being forced to learn English when there are more Chinese speakers in the world.
On the first day of class, I decided to address this question as well as the struggle of learning a foreign language.
‘I know how hard it is to learn a foreign language,’ I explained. ‘I have been studying foreign languages since I was 12, often having a lot of trouble in my classes. Don’t hesitate to talk to me if you have an issue. That being said, this is an English class. I expect you to speak English. Also, I speak five languages. I will not tell you what they are, but I promise you that if you try to use another language in class I will still understand you.’
With that, a smart-aleck student stands up and in the Golok dialect of Amdo Tibetan says, ‘Really? Is that so? Then do you understand what I’m saying?’
At which point I looked up and, in a similar (Tsongon) dialect of Amdo Tibetan responded ‘Oh! Tibetan! So, where is your hometown?’
The kid went dead silent and sat back down. The rest of the class applauded.”
“I can speak Chinese and at one point I was dating a Chinese guy (I am white, not like it matters except in this story). We were pretty serious and had been together for about 3 years when we ran into a family friend of his mother’s at a restaurant and her daughter. My boyfriend introduced me to them, they seemed pretty nice, and we sat at a table close enough to hear them.
Suddenly this family friend starts ranting to her daughter in Chinese, saying how disgusting it was that we were together, that I had no right being with someone like my boyfriend, and that my boyfriend should have been ashamed of himself for being out in public with me. Her daughter told her that she didn’t have anything to worry about and that she wouldn’t do anything as embarrassing.
It stung like a bee, but I got through eating and when we left, we said goodbye to them, and I said goodbye in Chinese. As we walked away, this friend had the nerve to say ‘I don’t care if she understands, at least now we won’t have to hide how unwelcome she is around here.’ It was one of the worst moments of my life, and I will neverforget it.”
Yo Mamma Jokes…In German!
“I ran to the nearby grocery store because I’d ran out of cat litter. Grabbed a huge bag and then some tomatoes and avocados because they were on sale. Two teenage boys passed by and one mumbled, in German, ‘I wonder what kind of salad she’s planning on making with all that!’ They stopped snickering when I explained that his mom was coming over for supper.”
Avoid The Tourist Rate
“When I went back home for a holiday some of my friends from Australia came with me. We were at a shop buying stuff when the shopkeeper and his friend, thinking we were all tourists were discussing how much to overcharge us. I pretended to not understand until we got the register when he gave us a jacked up price. I spoke in my language and asked him to give the real price and not the ‘tourist rate.’ The look on his face was priceless.”