It's a blessing and a curse to know multiple languages. At least when you travel you can communicate with people in that country. However, sometimes when THEY don't realize you know their native tongue and they can say some pretty hurtful things...
Ouch. Content has been edited for clarity.
They Learned Their Lesson
“My other language I speak is Hungarian, which is really obscure and not related to any other language beyond vague grammatical ties to Finish and Estonian, and there are less than 15 million native speakers (of which just under 10 million live in Hungary proper). So Hungarian speakers will often just assume it’s a ‘secret language’ when outside Hungary that no one else will understand, because 99% of the time it’s true.
That said, there are enough Hungarians in some places like San Francisco that it’s best to not assume this, and I overheard people quite a lot the summer I worked there. I remember for example hearing a couple arguing on a Saturday night in the grocery store, in the tone that normally you’d be having that argument at home but they assumed no one else understood them. I’ve overheard hugely emotional goodbyes and confessions in train stations and airports that likewise should have been at home. You really just sort of cringe and turn the music up loudly on your mp3 player because telling them to stop would just be more awkward for everyone involved.
My mom and dad had the best story like this though when they were in Austria for their first Christmas as a married couple. Apparently at the table next to them at Christmas Eve dinner in a restaurant, there was a man by himself who had a German Shepherd. He was letting the dog literally eat the food off his plate and all sorts of things like that.
So my mom spent the entire dinner complaining about this guy letting his dog do all these things in a restaurant in Hungarian. At the end of the meal, as he got up, the man came over to their table and said in Hungarian the polite way of wishing someone a happy Christmas holiday.
Props to that guy, and props to my mom for telling this story to us as kids to not rely on our ‘secret language’ too much in public!”
He Walked By And Gave Them A Look That Stopped Them In Their Tracks
“Back in 2010, I was at the Hmong New Year in St. Paul/Minneapolis with my family. The event is pretty big and there used to be literally thousands of Hmong people there, as it’s an event where we basically celebrate our heritage. I am Hmong (Southeast Asian), but I look like I’m Hispanic, just to give you some background. Anyway, I had to go to the bathroom, because you know, I’m only human and all.
When I went to go wash my hands, these two older guys (probably about 35-40) come in and as soon as they see me, they say something (in Hmong) along the lines of, ‘These darn Mexicans thinking they can come to our New Year. Maybe we should call the cops to take him back home to Mexico, hahahahahaha.’ Well, in comes my cousin by sheer luck, so I ask him in Hmong, ‘Hey, where did you guys go? Last time I saw you guys was at the ball tossing area (it’s this weird courting activity that involves throwing a tennis ball/softball while flirting).’
We end our very short conversation, and as I was exiting the bathroom I made absolutely sure that I gave the most judgmental look ever to those two men. It worked like a charm, and you could tell by their facial expressions that they knew they messed up.”
This Nurse Had To Gently Remind Her Patient That The Patient Isn’t Always Right
“So I am Venezuelan, born and raised, and Spanish is my first language. However, I learned English at a really young age, so when I speak it I don’t have an accent. Also, I look white. As in, my skin is fairer than most of my American friends, and I’m somehow always the palest in the room.
Anyway, I work as a nurse, and if the patient and family speak English to me, I don’t assume they know Spanish and usually will just work in whatever language they are comfortable. This is Houston, and there is a surprisingly large number of people who look Hispanic and don’t speak any Spanish.
Once I had a gentleman in his 30s and his family asked me to clean him up (give him a bed bath). He was completely able, just a bit weak, so I thought it was a little odd, but nonetheless figured it was a good chance to change his linens, clean him up, and make sure his skin was intact.
I cleaned him down from head to toe, washed his hair, changed his sheets, put lotion on his feet, gave him a new gown, compression stockings, and safety socks. There is one area I draw the line, however. If the patient is completely awake and able, I will hand them a moist cloth to clean their own private parts with. I’m not even asking them to reach around, just do the front!
I did such with this gentleman, and he looked at the cloth and set it down next to him. He picked up his cell phone, called his wife (who was right outside the room) and asked her to come in. Then he proceeds to tell her, in Spanish, ‘Clean me up because this lazy girl doesn’t want to do it.’ Wife cleans his private parts and then leaves me to finish everything else, which I do.
When I let the family know I am done and they all come back in the room, I very politely tell him, in Spanish (this is the first time they are hearing me speak Spanish) ‘I apologize for leading you to believe I was lazy and did not want to clean you up. Just remember you’re going to have to learn to do it because I’m not coming home with you when you get discharged.’ Both the patient and his family were too shocked to reply. I just told them, in English, ‘Press the call button if you need anything else,’ and left. It was a nice quiet night from them.”
You Know What Happens When You Assume…
“Cable Guy here. Being a white guy, most people don’t realize that I know how to speak and write in Spanish. I run into so many situations where I can run under the radar and just do my job without someone knowing that I can understand them completely. Every once in a while, I subtly let them know that I can understand them.
I was doing an installation at a house where the family ‘only spoke Spanish’ and the order requested for a Spanish speaking tech. I showed up at the door, the husband opened the door, and automatically assumed that I couldn’t speak Spanish. His English was near perfect and he greeted me, showed me around, and noted where he wanted everything. He let me do my work as he walked into the other room where his buddy was, and automatically started talking trash about me.
‘I can’t believe they sent a freaking white guy who can’t speak Spanish. I specifically told them to send someone who can speak Spanish so I didn’t have to deal with this bull. He’s going to be lazy and not do the job right. I bet the butthole is going to expect a tip after doing a lousy job and I’ll have to fix it myself. The dude went on and on the entire time I was there.
At the end of the appointment, I was so mad. I didn’t show it, but he thought it was funny to talk trash in front of me with a smile on his face while acting like he wasn’t saying anything about me. So I looked at him, told him in Spanish, ‘Your installation is done. If you have any questions you can call the company yourself and they’ll be able to get someone who speaks Spanish to help you.’
He looked at me with a shocked expression, so I continued, ‘Next time you should ask if the person can speak Spanish before talking trash.’ His buddy hit the floor laughing as I left the customer standing there feeling like an idiot”
“It Was A Low Blow”
“I live in South Korea and have pretty decent Korean skills. I found an English-speaking dentist advertised on an expat website because it’s the kind of complicated situation where you would rather have treatment options explained in English. I didn’t let on that I understood Korean though.
They had just put in the gooey mixture mold to get an impression for making a crown and I heard the dental assistant ask, ‘Is she Indian? Don’t they have a caste system in India?’
‘How can they live like that?’ she continued. The widespread opinion amongst Koreans is that Southeast Asians are beneath them, so I also picked up on the disgust in the her voice. The dentist proceeded to inform her that I was from India and it’s a terrible way to live and there are so many people living there.
To which I respond by spitting out the mold and going off with the dentist about how unprofessional it was to speak about clients while they are in the chair having treatment. He tried to apologize and make excuses and told me to understand his situation, which I figured out was a common Korean response when they do something wrong, to which I replied:
‘Please understand my situation. I am a South African, and 4th generation Indian descent. Living in Korea for 5 years, everywhere I go people stare at me and insist that I must be Indian and that I couldn’t possibly be African and talk about me like I’m invisible.
I told him that he should not advertise to the expat community because he doesn’t deserve their business. At this point, pent-up anger at this kind of repeated incident came rushing through and for a usually passive aggressive personality, I got mean. I told the dentist that while his dentist assistant thinks she can judge me in my presence and thinks she knows who I am, I speak better Korean than his assistant can speak English and probably earn more than her. This was a low blow aimed at how Koreans value monetary status and feel that it gives social standing and that would shock them since they thought I was someone from India that could not have these things.
I then asked him why he hired people like her. This was followed by more groveling and apologies and deep bows. I finished treatment—I didn’t have a choice there—and left by saying I would inform all the expats I knew about that incident.”
He Was Ready To Show Them How “Cultured” He Truly Was
“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. 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. They had a small party with some of their friends, and everyone sat around talking and drinking. As much as he tried to teach us French, we could only order food and read 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 guy’s face and how he was clearly apologizing repeatedly. The host laughed too, and explained my dad’s history with French and his education. To say the man was embarrassed would be an understatement.”
This Woman Couldn’t Take All The Teenage Background Noise Anymore
“My family and I were flying to Greece from Houston to visit family, and two groups are also on this 10-hour flight: student ambassador middle/high schoolers, mostly girls from the US, and a youth male Greek soccer team. And of course, they were all sitting by us with their chaperones at the other end of the plane.
The boys are hitting on and flirting with these girls about 2-4 years younger than them. They moved seats so they can sit with the girls, and they were so loud and obnoxious the whole plane was honked off (except apparently the crew who did nothing about it).
The boys were also talking amongst themselves in Greek. My mother speaks fluently from years of Greek school, and many a summer raised in the Peloponnese hillside.
At some point, while all 3 of us are just sitting there reading, sleeping, trying to watch the tiny TV at the front of the plane, and listen over these kids constantly talking, my mother jumps up, goes over to the group, and says:
‘These boys are calling you fat and stupid. They also think American girls are so easy. By the way, he (she points at the one guy who was the most all over this one girl) is 18. They have girlfriends waiting for them in the terminal. Now shut up so I can sleep.’
They all shuffled back to their appropriate seats completely silent. Best flight ever after that. I love my mom.”
He Couldn’t Wait To Have The Last Word On These Morons
“While I’m Spanish, I don’t quite look like the stereotypical Spaniard: light skin color, blondish, green eyes. When I was living in London, I got into several situations where people assumed I didn’t know the native language due to my looks. The top one was on the train back home. I think there was a football game (Chelsea – Barcelona), this couple was going to the stadium, and I was standing just beside them. The train had a hard stop and I accidentally fell a bit over one of them. I apologized in English as I didn’t realize they were Spaniards too.
They started talking to each other saying ‘this freaking fat lard nearly smashed into 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 piece of trash.’ His face went pale as the doors were closing, which was enough satisfaction for a week.”
He Had The Perfect Comeback For Their Insults
“I’m an 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.”
She Shut Down These Idiots’ Lies In A Heartbeat
“I was living in Amsterdam as a nanny, and I was taking Dutch classes. After about 6 months I got pretty good at understanding the language, including the slang, even though I couldn’t produce it verbally very well yet. Well, I went to meet up with some guy friends of mine (who were Dutch college-aged males) and they all started talking to their buddies in Dutch (RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME) about all the intimate acts I’d performed on them, and how I had a 4 person fun time with them (with 3 guys and 1 girl, I don’t even know how that would work but I’m sure you guys can come up with an answer for me). I immediately told them to never talk to me again and they repeatedly attempted to apologize via text, but I never spoke to them again. I had no other friends for a while, but getting rid of those losers was worth the loneliness.”
“The Old Guy’s Jaw Dropped”
“I’m half-Latino and half-Japanese. My Japanese mother only spoke Japanese to me growing up, spending every summer in Japan with my grandparents also helped with my fluency.
I look way more Latino than I do Asian. When I was 18 I had a part time job as a tour guide for Japanese tourists in San Francisco. Everybody meets in the hotel lobby and so I went to the lobby but not everybody was there yet.
So I usually hang around with the hotel staff while I wait. I wear a name tag so it could maybe look like I work at the hotel. This old man spilled his coffee and he started waving at me and saying excuse me in Japanese and pointed at the mess. His wife said in Japanese to him, ‘Don’t do that, that’s rude’ and he said back, ‘Those guys are usually the janitors, don’t worry about it.’
Before I said anything, the hotel clerk that was talking to walkie-talkied someone to clean it up.
So finally everybody showed up and the other guide started introducing herself, and then I walked over there and began my self-introduction in Japanese. At that point the old guy’s jaw dropped with confusion and his wife slapped his head.
That always stuck with me. It was hilarious.”
She Made Sure These Gossiping Ladies Were Put In Their Place
“My stepmother grew up in Japan and speaks fluent Japanese. She looks Italian and white. She has an olive skin tone, and since she is only a quarter Japanese, she doesn’t look like she is from any east Asian-speaking country.
One day she and some of her friends went to get their nails (both hands and feet) done at a salon for some ‘girl time.’ The ladies who were doing the work were speaking fluent Japanese and were mostly gossiping about men and other things, until they got to the feet part of said procedure.
My stepmother’s friend is a little overweight, and she doesn’t have runway model feet. Well, the ladies who work at the salon started to make fun of her in Japanese. Laughing and giggling, enjoying themselves in someone’s else’s misfortune and looks.
My stepmother said she let this go on for too long. It was about 5 minutes of them talking trash before my stepmother replied In Japanese. Her comment to them:
‘I didn’t realize that we needed to look like princesses to get service here.’
The ladies stopped and looked at my stepmother with extreme guilt. They apologized in English and were silent the remainder of the time my stepmother and her friends were there.”
Her Last Words To This Moron Were, “Have A Nice Flight”
“I was in an airport with my aunt. She had broken her leg so she was in a wheelchair, 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. Anyway, when the flight attendant asks us to go on the plane 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 boss, 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.”
Little Did This HR Manager Know, But This Interviewee Had The Upper Hand
“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 on his face was priceless.”
No One Disses Her Husband
“My family is Cuban, but we look very white. In 2007, I was on a cruise with my parents, and we were sitting next to a Venezuelan couple on the open-air deck ordering food. The woman was looking at my parents, and loudly said in Spanish:
‘He’s so OLD! Why would a young woman like her marry him? Do you think the child is theirs?’
Her husband replies ‘No, he is probably her father. He’s too old to be the woman’s husband, and too ugly.’
My mother got very upset and just said, ‘Excuse me,’ in Spanish. The woman’s face turned white and she started apologizing profusely. While my mother was telling them off, my dad was laughing hysterically. For the record, my parents are about 3 years apart. My dad is only three years older, but he just looks ancient.”
Once He Corrected Them, They Paid Him Back In Huge Amounts Of Kindness
“The people at the Chinese food place on my campus spoke Chinese to the door exchange students. But even though I spoke Chinese, I always spoke English to them since I have an accent when I speak Chinese. But one day I got all meat and no rice since I had a rice maker at home. And when I was paying, the lady says to the person beside her, ‘fatty 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.”
When The Time Was Right, She Let Everyone Know How They Truly Hurt Her
“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 trash 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.”
This Father Had To Stand Up For His Son After These Harsh Words
“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, he started saying really rude things about him and my dad being stupid. My dad (fluent in Farsi) comes over and rips this butthole 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. My dad speaks Turkish as well, and proceeds to rip him a third butthole.”
These French People Learned The Hard Way They Can’t Get Away With Anything In Quebec
“My girlfriend and I live in Ottawa, Canada. I grew up speaking French my whole life, and she knows enough to understand others speaking. We were in a restaurant, which was relatively empty except for us and another very French couple at a table nearby (close enough to hear their conversation). Eventually, the other girl started talking about my girlfriend’s clothing, saying things like ‘mauvais choix’ (bad choice). I suspect they were visiting from Quebec and just didn’t realize that most people here speak a bit of French, but as we were leaving, I turned to them and said ‘bonne journée!’ (‘good day!’). The look on her face still pops into my head occasionally and it makes everything feel right in the world.”
The Student Should Never Think They’re Wiser Than The Teacher
“I was in Germany, and a middle school teacher asked me to come in as a guest for one of her English classes. The teacher introduced me, I said hello, and explained that I was from the U.S. and happy to be in their class.
The teacher said, ‘So do you have any questions in English for an American? What do you think an American is like?’
One of the kids near the front says in German, kind of under his breath but definitely loud enough that most of the class can hear, ‘fat and stupid!’
The kids laugh, and the teacher turns bright red. I don’t know what to do, so I just say, ‘Of course, many Americans can speak German,’ in German.
The kid almost pooped himself. He looked like a baby deer that had wandered onstage at a Beyonce concert. I thought he was just being a moron and had intended me to understand what he was saying. Apparently, he actually hadn’t thought through that an American in Germany in their language class might actually speak the language.”
“They Should Just Go Home To Where They Came From”
“I was with my French friend in a corner shop when he was visiting me in Manchester, UK. His English is really bad so we were speaking French. Two guys were behind us in the queue, and my friend told me he wanted to try and speak English to the guy on the till so I let him. He asked for something in broken English, and the till guy didn’t understand him so he asked him to repeat.
At this point, the guys behind us were getting frustrated and one of them said, ‘Freaking foreigners, they should just go home to where they came from.’ I turned around and told them I am home and he’s trying his best, and told them they were pricks. I don’t understand people like that at all. They go to Spain on holiday and speak English to everyone, and when someone visits their country and tries to speak the language it’s still not good enough.”
He Had To Speak Their Language And Show Them Who They Were Really Talkin’ To
“I’d go into a bodega with all my African American friends sometimes, and the people would start talking about them, not knowing Spanish was my first language. One time we’re getting breakfast and the guy says we’re ‘mal educado,’ literally meaning ‘bad education,’ which means more like rude or misbehaving, but no one was doing anything wrong. In Spanish, I just said be careful who you talk about in front of them. No more words were exchanged.
This is one of the worse habits of people who speak another language. Even my relatives do it and I hate it. My brother said some lady called him a monkey in Spanish while standing right next to them on the train. Ignorance is a disease.”
This Deaf Person Gently Reminded The Hearing That They Weren’t Invisible
“This one time the cashiers at a store realized I was deaf, so they started talking to each other about me when they thought I wasn’t looking. They also didn’t know I had my hearing aids and could lipread. Their comments weren’t anything too negative, it was mostly the typical comments about deaf people by people who were completely clueless about how deafness worked. When I brought my stuff to the checkout, I kindly reminded them that it’s a pretty bad idea to talk about somebody thinking that they can’t understand what you’re talking about, because the chances are that they do, in fact, understand what you’re talking about. The look on their faces was completely classic.”