The ability to speak two languages should be celebrated. Think twice before you judge someone who speaks any broken language, we know the people in these stories will.
Here are 30 stories from people who didn’t realize someone could understand what they were saying.
The Underground Doctor
My grandparents were Romanian Jews living in Europe during WWII. Post-war they fled to America via Italy, and lived in Italy for several years. Now, they largely spoke Romanian, but my grandpa could understand Italian as well. My grandma had a variety of serious health issues throughout her life and at this point (they were probably in their twenties) she had to be taken to an Italian doctor. Thinking they spoke only Romanian, the doctor told his nurse (about my grandma) ‘she’s a Jew, let her die’. Needless to say, they decided to go with another doctor who was able to save her life. She lived into her 80s.
Not me but my moms friend. Her and her aunt were on a bus. A very sickly looking woman sat in front of them. They just started talking between themselves and said something along the lines of ‘that lady looks like death’. She turned around and in Polish said ‘I have cancer’.
I speak french, but not fluently, although I am a French/American citizen. At my first girlfriends house for the first time eating dinner with them. We go upstairs afterwards and her little sister (2 grades below us) comes in as we are selecting a movie to watch. Well they are Canadian and speak french at home a lot. The girl comes in and starts talking about how I am cute and so forth to her sister. Then her sister banters back about how she agrees and then turns to me and asks me in french if I agree. I responded in french that it I appreciated it. Cue bashful run up to her room.
Excuse Me I Speak German
I was touring some old dungeons in Germany. It was just me and my family, and an older German couple. They were kinda dissing my country the whole time, thinking we couldn’t understand them. We got to a room where they locked people by their feet and the German man said to his wife and the tour guide in German ‘This is where you should go if you can’t speak German’. I turned to him and in perfect German replied ‘then it’s a good thing I can speak German’. The look on his face was priceless.
I was waiting in line with my sister to take a boat tour in California and ahead of us was a group of 5-6 German-speaking people. The wait to board the boat was long and they got to talking. At first, it was about how nice the weather was, and then it turned to how annoying Americans can be, especially fat, dumb, tourist Americans. They cracked a couple of jokes having to do with American stereotypes. While this was happening, the line started moving and people started boarding the boat. But the group was too wrapped up in their own jokes to realize it. So I finally turned around to them, and in fluent German asked if they were part of the tour and if they were getting on the boat. They stopped dead in their joking tracks and said yes. So I replied that they had better get a move on, because the dumb, fat, American tourist standing right behind them wanted to get on the boat too. They all looked really embarrassed.
Only If You Don’t Ask
Happened to me actually, really funny in hindsight. I was in Poland for a holiday with two friends. We went outside a bar to smoke, and I said to my friend (in Dutch): ‘Those girls over there are really hot, should we ask them to join us?’ One of the girls turned around, and said in almost perfect Dutch: ‘You won’t find out, if you don’t ask.’ Que my friends laughing and me standing there flabbergasted.
Working at a front desk with two co-workers who were related. They are speaking Spanish and one of them is talking about how she thinks I’m weird/act too professional all the time. She then asks ‘where is the stapler?’ in Spanish. I picked up the stapler and without looking at her I extend my arm to pass it. She then asks if I speak Spanish and understood the whole conversation. I told her I speak fluent Italian and took Spanish classes in school. Another story. At the mall eating McDonald’s when I was a teenager. Bunch of old Italian guys hanging around the food court and one asks ‘how can he eat that?’ In Italian, while looking at me. I look up and stare at him. I say ‘because I’m really hungry’ in Italian. All his buddies started laughing.
You Never Know Who’s Listening
I was on a subway car in Toronto when a husband starts chatting to his wife in french about what he wants to do to her. It’s graphic. He’s going into details about moves, holes, smells. She had a hat in her hand, but unknowingly dropped it. So, I saw my chance. I pick up her hat and tell her in french that she dropped it. Both of their faces went white. She just meekly thanked me. I stood up, got off the subway and felt a sense of glee at having ruined their evening.
I’m Mexican but I studied my college degrees in the US. When I was studying abroad in Germany I only spoke English to my German classmates. One time we were waiting for a train at a station and a group of young south american tourists were being loud and just waiting beside us. I could understand every word they’re saying (except for some slang) and they suddenly start talking about our group. I don’t blame them at all they were just bored at the train station trying to pass time but I smile and look at them. One of the guys looks back and says in Spanish: ‘Do you not like what I’m saying a–hole?’ I respond in Spanish: ‘It’s been a long time since someone insulted me in my language’ The guy has a speechless look on his face and all his friends look at me. We have a laugh and soon after that both our groups sat together and had a nice time talking, their English was good enough to have small chat with.
Is That Right?
I was in South America, and had made friends with a guy who was living in Paraguay, but was originally from Jordan. He spoke like 5 different languages. I asked him if he could help me out buying a cell phone. So we are shopping around, we stop at one place with 2 middle eastern guys selling cell phones. They say some things in Spanish, then some things in Arabic, and then my friend just says, ‘lets go’. I asked him what happened and he said the guys said something in Arabic along the lines of ‘ohh we’ll screw these guys over’ To which my friend responded, in arabic ‘is that right? you’re gonna screw us over?’ I thought it was really funny.
I Don’t Understand English
We, as good Canadians do, went on a ski vacation to Quebec. While my dad was parking his car a tour bus backed into our van. After seeing the damage, my dad marches on to this tour bus and starts talking with the driver. The driver apologizes profusely to my enraged dad, but when my dad starts asking for his name, employee number, and insurance information, he starts pretending that he doesn’t understand English. My dad is fluent in French so without skipping a beat he continues questioning the driver en francais. The driver was super shaken up by this turn of events and his face turned red but surrendered his information in the end.
I (African American teenager) went to a Chinese restaurant and immediately the lady behind the counter looks up, and back at her husband and shouts in mandarin ‘1 Ape in the door! Go serve it’. Took me a minute to realize I hadn’t translated that incorrectly. When the husband asked what I wanted and I responded in Chinese ‘this ape doesn’t want to give any money to your establishment’ and left. Won’t ever forget the look of terror, shock, and stupidity that left.
I Flipped Her Off
Canadian – with an English group in a very french town in Northern Quebec. Waitress talked about us, being anglophones, the whole night to her coworkers and the bartender. She was doing it fairly loudly, which I found weird in a bilingual country. When she came around with the bills i put on my best Qubcois accent and said in French ‘I hope you aren’t expecting a tip from these stupid English people, because you sure as hell aren’t getting one’ and told the group we were leaving. She chased us out of the restaurant screaming at us in French, I flipped her off and we left.
I Don’t Speak English That Well
I’m an American who is fluent in German. This past fall I was studying abroad in Bologna, Italy. I was shopping for food and a German tourist comes up to me and asks if I speak English, I say yes I’m American. He asks ‘do you know if I can drink a beer in the street, or are there laws against it?’ ‘I’m not sure, I drink outside all of the time and have never had an issue but to tell you the truth I don’t know if it’s illegal.’ He says thanks, then turns to his friend and says in German ‘I have no idea what she just said.’ So then I say, in German ‘I can explain it to you in German if you think you’d understand it better.’ He was surprised but we laughed and had a good conversation in German after that!
Can’t Con Us
Two English teens on holiday in France started calling people wankers, and many other interesting words. I asked them to start respecting people and they turned red. In Prague, I asked a lady something in English and her English was too poor for her to understand. I cannot speak Russian but have learned a bit of it and Czech is pretty close. Her gran was with her and the lady I was talking to said I was an idiot asking stupid questions so I said in rough Russian ‘I’m not an idiot, I’m sorry I cannot speak Czech’. She went red too. In Catalunya, on a market, a seller spotted us as tourists immediately and tried to sell us his dried sausages more expensive than to the Catalan person before. I told him in Catalan that it is not fair to ask us French people to pay more.
My grandma could speak Arabic fluently. One time we are out and some women behind us in line are mocking her calling her tacky, making fun of her bad dye job. She turned around and said in Arabic ‘I may be tacky, but at least I’m not stupid enough to assume nobody can understand me’. They were so mortified.
I speak fluent Hungarian, and the thing about the language is it’s so obscure that Hungarians will always assume when abroad that no one else can understand them. As you can imagine, this can backfire spectacularly- I grew up in the USA, and I’ve heard marital spats at Walmart that frankly never should have left the living room, serious goodbyes between lovers that were awkward to hear, all sorts of things like that.
It was Christmas Eve and I was in a small village in Austria with my parents. When we went out to dinner there was a man in the restaurant with a dog sitting at the table (like, guy putting food on the plate in front of his dog, dog eating it, etc). My mom proceeded to spend a lot of time telling my dad how disgusting and unsanitary this was of the guy to do etc, and when guy and dog finished their meal he came up to our table, said “merry Christmas” in Hungarian, and left.
I’m not the multilingual in this story, but my friend’s mom is from Vietnam, but her dad is from the States and is white. For whatever, reason my friend looks like a typical white brunette girl, but speaks Vietnamese with her mom’s side of the family all the time and is fluent. So, one day we got off school. We went to a Catholic high school and walked over to a nail salon a few blocks away to get our nails done. The ladies running the salon were speaking Vietnamese, and according to my friend were talking badly about us the entire time we were there. They were talking about how rich we must be and how, ‘These little white girls can probably sleep with whoever they want and get ahead.’ I was completely oblivious to this the entire time, but as we were about to pay, my friend told me all the terrible things they were saying, so we didn’t tip them. We started to leave and one of the workers said something about how the rich white girls couldn’t even afford to tip. My friend turned around and yelled at them in perfect Vietnamese about how if they expect their business to stay open, they shouldn’t talk badly about their customers in front of their face. I didn’t understand a word of it, but the workers were in utter shock and sheepishly apologized to the both of us.
When I lived in China I went to an international school so would frequently use English with my classmates even though I spoke/understood Chinese. One day, I was walking with a classmate when I overheard these old Chinese ladies talking about how it was obvious we were American because we were so fat. We were both average sized–neither fat nor thin. My friend doesn’t understand Chinese so I decided to ignore it since we were just passing by. Later, we were at the fruit stand and the ladies come around looking to buy fruit. I’m standing in front of whatever they were trying to look at and any time they’d try to move around me I’d shift subtly so they couldn’t. I hear one of them start huffing about how she can’t get by, and in Chinese I respond with ‘I’d move but as a fat American it’d do no good’. The ladies just looked at me then started laughing and were like ‘Ooh, the fat American has good Chinese!’ No shame.
This actually just happened a couple of days ago. I’m an American traveling abroad in the Middle East, and went on a date with an Arab guy. He asked me if I spoke Arabic, but since I’m not comfortable speaking it, I just said no. I can understand most things, though, and can speak if pressed. Dinner was great, we got along well, and then went to smoke shisha at a local cafe. The owner, who was my date’s buddy, asked who I was in Arabic. He smiled at me sweetly, squeezed my hand, and told his friend in Arabic, ‘An American whore who I’m going to sleep with later’. I kept a stupid, docile smile on my face. When the owner took my order, I told him in Arabic ‘and one tea for the American whore who he will not sleep with later’. The look on both of their faces was priceless. Needless to say I ended up taking a cab home.
I’m an American, living in the United States, fluent English. I did take Spanish in high school and while I didn’t really retain much, I can still take a pretty decent gander if I want to. I work in a landscape supply store and most of my customers happen to be Hispanic. Sometimes, they will talk to each other in Spanish while buying materials and I can kind of get the gist of what they’re saying. One time, two guys came in and started discussing what materials they were getting and how much. By the time they came up to me, I had already rung them up for what they had been talking about getting. They were really surprised that I understood them and tried talking to me in Spanish. I had to tell them my Spanish was limited so they tried teaching me a few new words while they finished their transaction. It was a nice time.
The City Of Detroit
I speak Dari, one of the two official language of Afghanistan. On a trip I overheard two Afghans. One was telling the other to be careful, Detroit was more dangerous than Kabul.
It Was Worth It
I was at a party a couple years ago and there were these two really good looking Asian girls. I started chatting one of them up and we seem to be having a good time. Anyways, the party keeps going and we split momentarily (I grabbed myself a beer and her friend came over to talk to her). I hear them speaking in Korean and the one I was talking to was explaining how she thought I was really cute. Her friend starts talking in Korean ‘that’s not a good idea. Don’t go after him. He’s not that good looking. He just wants to sleep with you. Blah blah blah’ (the usual protecting your friends line, which I have no problems with minus the not good looking part). Now at this point, I’m OK with that and I just try to enjoy the party. However, later on I overhear the same girl again speaking in Korean how much of a lowlife I am and I’m a horrible person with some added vulgar swear words (remember, this person has never met me before today). She was basically describing me as if I was the enemy of all women, how I live in poverty, and trying to label me with as many negative things she could think of. Obviously the girl I was talking to is listening to her friend and is clearly no longer looking at me with interest. Before leaving the party I go over to them and I try asking for her number, which she politely refuses to. I turn to her friend and speak in perfect Korean ‘Thanks so much for telling your friend about me. It was really nice getting to know you and I’m glad you know so much about me, even though we’ve never met before’. Look on her face was worth not getting laid.
The Turkish Jeweler
I speak Turkish. We visit Turkey every summer to see my family, but I don’t look Turkish, so people are often shocked when they find out I can speak the language. Last year, I went to the markets. In most tourist-y places, the stallholders will try to sell things at a higher price to foreigners. So, I’m looking at some jewellery in this market and the two stallholders are chatting to a customer. They mention to the customer that everything is 10 lira. After that customer leaves, the stall holder looks at what I’m about to buy and tells me in broken English that its 20 lira. I nod, realizing whats going on and spend a few more minutes looking at everything before telling the stallholder in perfect Turkish ‘you should really figure out whether someone knows the language before trying to scam them,’ The look on her face was great. Things like that are way too common and I feel bad for the people that don’t know whats happening.
Go Back Home To America
I’m Japanese and live in Japan, but I went to college and law school in the States so I’d like to think I speak fluent English. It’s always pretty funny when foreigners realize I speak English because there are so many bilinguals in Tokyo that you’d think they’d learn by now. Anyways, I have two stories. First is when I was drinking in a pretty small town in Niigata prefecture. It’s not known to get too many foreign visitors except in the winters when ski/snowboard season picks up, but this was in the spring so I was actually quite surprised when I walk in to an izakaya and a foreign couple is sitting at one of the tables. I was alone so they seat me at the counter and I order a couple of yakitori and a sake. As I was waiting I could hear the couple behind talking about how none of the things that came were what they ordered/expected and that its so difficult since none seemed to speak English. Now the Izakaya we were at was like a hole in the wall, no pictures and the menu was handwritten in Japanese so I could understand how difficult it would have been. Anyways, I come over and to their delight I translate the menu for them and help them with their order. I ended up sitting and drinking with them that night and still message each other on facebook!
Second time isn’t the same type of feel good story. Anyways, I’m in a small city outside the 23 ward which has a pretty prominent language school so there are a lot of foreigners in the area. I used to bartend when I was younger and one of my coworkers from that time had opened a small bbq restaurant in the area so I decided to stop by and congratulate him. There was a couple of American guys, probably in their early 20s just completely trashing this place saying its not authentic and that they did it better in Texas. So after I had finished talking with my ex-coworker I turn around and tell the two American men that if they wanted authentic bbq they should just go back home to America, no one is subjecting you to this restaurant.
The Secret Code
My husband is American born and raised, but grew up speaking German with his family. He wanted our kids to be bilingual so speaks only German with them. My kids and I were at Chincoteague Island in Virginia where a lot of Amish people like to vacation. We were in line at an ice cream parlor behind a group of about 20 Amish, including 7-8 teen girls. My daughter is used to speaking German to me as if it’s a secret code, and said, ‘Look at what they’re wearing, those dresses and bonnets. And look at their hair, so thick and shiny! They all look pretty.’ The girls turned en masse and looked at her in surprise, which in turn surprised her, and I told her, ‘They clearly understood everything you just said!’ She looked embarrassed, then shrugged and answered that she didn’t say anything she wouldn’t have said to their faces. It was still a new experience for her.
I’m a white American. I speak Spanish almost fluently. So I used to work in retail at the local shopping mall, and I noticed this couple and their grown daughter shopping in my section. The parents didn’t speak English and their daughter was acting as their interpreter in the store. So after a while of them being on my radar, I noticed that the daughter was gone, and from the way the parents were talking I gathered that she’d gone to the bathroom. The wife was looking at sweaters and couldn’t decide between the green one or the white one, and the husband was ready to leave, but wanted to wait on the daughter to do the transaction at the cash register. He was looking pretty impatient, so I went over and told them (in Spanish) that I spoke Spanish and could help them if they needed it. I then helped the wife pick out her sweater, took them to the register, and conducted the entire transaction in Spanish. They were extremely grateful and really friendly people. The daughter finally returned and tried to apologize, but I told her everything was fine. They left and my manager came over and said she’d seen what I’d done, very surprised. I said, ‘I told you I spoke Spanish when I was hired, did you not believe me?’ And she said, ‘No, I thought you were lying to get the job!’ We laughed and I went back to folding sweaters.
I’m Brazilian, but extremely white and I do look like an American when travelling abroad. I speak portuguese, english, spanish and I can understand some french. The most memorable moment of understanding what people are saying when they believe you don’t, happened to me in Portland (OR) when I lived there. With all that rain, I’ve became even more white, and I was wearing my Pittsburgh Steelers cap. There was these 2 brazilian girls speaking portuguese in front of me in a line of a Blazers game, and they were being extremely rude to everyone, saying that everyone in america was fat, ugly and full of themselves. So, one of them looked at me and said something to the other one in spanish (well, this one is not fat or ugly, but probably is full of himself with this cap). To their amazement, I replied (thank you for your compliments, and watch what you’re saying). They apologized and got out of the line.
Was walking with my polish friend and all of a sudden we see this gorgeous girl walking through the hallway. I say to my friend, ‘Wow, she’s beautiful’ in Polish to my friend and the girl turns around and responds with ‘thank you’ in Polish.
Disabled People Are Regular People Too
I’m an American but my Dad and his family are from Switzerland so I’ve had to learn some languages other than English if I want to keep up with my grandparents and cousins conversations. I’ve got pretty poor with my French but good enough that I can still listen in on other people’s conversations. But, I was never expecting to be able to use this skill or surprise anybody’s secret conversation since I live in Texas. But lo and behold, one day I was out shopping with a couple friends – one who also speaks French and German. I’m disabled from an accident that deformed my left leg – it’s pretty obvious and people do tend to stare but that doesn’t mean I’m going to go around covered up in pants all the time. It’s too damn hot here! At lunch we overheard a mom talking with her son at the table next to us. The boy was about 7 or 8 years old and was totally fixated on my leg and the leg brace I wear – just typical kid curiosity and I was probably one of the few disabled people he’s seen. The little boy was asking his mom what happened, why that girl’s leg all messed up, why does she have to wear that brace. The Mom then starts talking badly about American’s and tells the boy I probably lost it in the war while killing a bunch of helpless people. She then goes on about how American’s are unhealthy, dumb, and should stay out of other people’s business. My friend had gotten up to go to the restroom and came back and just casually asked how the meal was – in French. I answered her back and the mom looked mortified as it dawned on her I had heard the whole conversation. I wasn’t rude but I did take the opportunity to tell the boy – who was legitimately concerned. I explained that I was injured in an accident but I’d be okay. So, I got to surprise someone being a jerk and got to show a little boy that disabled people are just regular people, so win-win.