In a world that grows seemingly smaller each day, it’s more and more common to speak multiple languages. So why are people still assuming that the people around them can’t understand? Here, multilinguals tell stories of things they overheard when the other people in the room assumed they couldn’t speak the language. Boy, are we in for a treat.
Thanks to everyone who contributed! If you’d like to read more stories like this, check out the source link at the end of this article. Comments have been edited for clarity.
I speak French, but not completely fluently, although I am a French/American citizen. At my first girlfriend’s 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. And 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.
I lived off that high all year.
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 etc. 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.
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 and 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 older Italian guys hanging around the food court and one asks “how can he eat that crap?” 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.
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 tourist Americans. They cracked a couple of jokes having to do with American stereotypes (like everyone is dumb, fat). 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.
Not me but my mom’s 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’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. Four months in, 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 crap 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.
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 that talking crap in English isn’t going to be as discrete as they think. 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 no one 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 we 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 were a couple of American guys, probably in their early 20s, just completely trashing this place, saying it’s not authentic and that they did it better in Texas or wherever they were from. 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.
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.
My friend said he had no idea why they would assume he didn’t speak Arabic.
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.
The best story in this genre though is my mother’s, when she and my dad were enjoying their first Christmas together. They were in a small village in Austria in the early 80s, and for Christmas Eve when they 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). My mom proceeded to spend a lot of time telling my dad how disgusting and unsanitary this was of the guy to do, and when guy and dog finished their meal he just went up to my parents’ table, said “kellemes karacsonyi unnepeket kivanok,” and left. In Hungarian, this is the polite way of telling a stranger you wish them a merry Christmas.
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’m pretty poor with my French, but good enough that I can still listen in on other people’s conversations. 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 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 people with a disability he’s seen.
The little boy was asking his mom what happened, why’s that girl’s leg all messed up, why does she have to wear that brace. The Mom then starts talking trash about Americans 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 people with disabilities are just regular people, so win-win.
Not me, my grandpa.
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”. Well my grandpa understood this and was able to seek out a more underground doctor to save my grandma’s life. She lived into her 80s.
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’m not the multilingual in this story, but my friend’s mom is from Vietnam, and her dad is from the States and is white. 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 trash 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.
I was at a party a couple years ago and there were these two really beautiful 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 (just for kicks), 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”
The look on her face was worth not getting laid.
When I lived in China I went to an international school so would frequently use English with my classmates, even though I spoke and 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, even though that doesn’t matter at all. 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!”
Happened to me actually, really funny in hindsight
I was in Poland for a holiday with 2 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.
Wasn’t me but my dad.
We, as many 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 Franais. The driver was super shaken up by this turn of events and his face turned red but surrendered his information in the end.
Canadian – with an English group in a very french town in Northern Quebec. Waitress trash talked 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 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’m Brazilian, but extremely white and I do look like a white 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 unhealthy, ugly and full of themselves.
So, one of them looked at me and said to the other one, “bom, esse aqui no gordo nem feio, mas aposto que se acha com esse bon” (well, this one is not ugly, but probably is full of himself with this cap), I just replied “obrigado pelos elogios, e cuidado com o que vocs falam” (thank you for your compliments, and watch what you’re saying).
They apologized and got out of the line.
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 who I’m going to go to bed 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 who he will not go to bed with later”.
The look on both of their faces was priceless. Needless to say I ended up taking a cab home.
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.
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.
So. 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.
I was on a subway car in Toronto when a French couple were chatting about innocuous crap when the husband starts chatting to his wife about what he wants to do to her. It’s graphic. He’s going into details about moves, holes, smells. She had a toque in her hand, but unknowingly dropped it. So, I saw my chance. I pick up her hat and tell her that she lost 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 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!
At a hot spring in Colorado after a long, relaxing soak, I was walking towards the exit with all of my belongings in my arms when a big yawn took over me. The woman in the closest spring exclaimed “You should really cover your mouth next time, I thought you were going to eat me!” in Polish. Without hesitation, I turned to her and said “przepraszam” (I’m sorry) and she laughed so hard out of embarrassment that we could hear her all the way to the parking lot.
Two English teens on holiday in France started calling people all sorts of nasty names. 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.
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.
For those of you who are wondering, I learned Chinese through a mixture of things. I tested out of our Chinese program in our middle school and started learning on my own so that I could join the Air Force as some kind of interpreter. I was just about fluent by 9 or 10th grade in Chinese and two other languages. Still working on enlisting but that’s how that happened!
Family owned a business on a beach right outside of a French town. None of us spoke French, but a great friend of my was French and came to work with with us for years.
One of the local townspeople came up to order fries to go while their child walked into the candy/toy store part where my buddy was working. The kid asked for a toy in English and the parent responded in french “No, these are bad people they take jobs from the community and won’t hire locals.”
My buddy interrupted her and said no that my family was great people and he did not appreciate her telling her kid flat out lies (all in perfect French) woman turned beet red and waited outside for her food.
My buddy told my dad what happened and before he got her food ready he grabbed the stack of tapes we had from local kids we hired stealing from us and even breaking in over night. My dad offered her the tapes so she could be queen gossip of the town (he never would have gave them to her) and explained very nicely how we had to bid on the business and have a business plan, and that there were 5 offers, 4 from the city and only one from the town who only offered 12k for the building, equipment and the 3 acres of property it sits on.
She was kind of shocked at how it all worked. We gave her the fries for free for the hassle of listening to us, but apparently she told the story and we started getting local business for the first time in over a decade.
I’m Austrian (we speak German), but grew up bilingual. Me and a friend used to play this game where we would chat with Austrian guys in a bar, pretending to be Americans on a trip through Europe. Sometimes it was hilarious – we usually convinced them we didn’t speak a word of German and when they grew comfortable they’d usually start talking about us – who was hotter, whether or not we’d be up to a night of fun… Some guys talked about their girlfriends wondering if they’d get away with screwing an American they’d never see again, others were worried we’d be too much to handle 😉 It was genuinely funny most of the time. The best one was when I asked a guy to say something in German, and he responded with “Ich glaub du bist sterreicherin” = “I think you’re Austrian”. It took everything I had not to start laughing.
I was in prison in the united States where a lot of people speak Spanish, fortunately I kept it to myself that I did as well. I was at the table playing poker to make a little money and to pass the time and a few Latinos were playing as well. They would tell each other their cards in Spanish then laugh like they weren’t talking about cards. Needless to say this gave me quite the advantage! But things got a little more interesting when they started talking about my win streak. One mentioned to the other that he thought I was cheating and suggested that they don’t pay me what they owed (which is a good way to get into a fight in prison). So I calmly said to them in Spanish, “Si no me quieres dinero, tal vez no me digas cules son tus cartas.” (Roughly translated means “if you don’t wanna owe me money then you shouldn’t tell me your cards”) It was such an epic moment I’ll never forget the look on their faces. For those wondering they did end up paying me.
I’m always amazed that people are rude (and foolish) enough to assume that someone doesn’t speak their language and just blatantly talk about them right in front of them.
When I was in school (I was 12ish I think), I went on a French exchange. I wasn’t very confident in general or in my speaking ability, so I mostly just stayed quiet around my exchange partner and her friends. While we were walking to school with her friend I listened to their conversation and she told her friend I was stupid and didn’t speak any French. It was pretty hurtful, but due to the aforementioned lack of self-confidence I didn’t say anything and just never spoke to her again after the week was over.
I was working in Japan for six months last year and went on a weekend trip with my then-boyfriend to an onsen (hot spring) town outside of Tokyo. We stayed at a beautiful hotel and the first night my boyfriend and I separate to go into the sex-segregated onsen. I’m used to onsen by this point so I get naked and shower, etc., but, when trying to cover up a bit with the little modesty towel, I realized it’s too small and doesn’t really cover me all the way as I’m pretty tall and busty. It’s not like it’s a big deal though, so I basically just stop trying and wrap it around my hair and walk outside. I’m a confident woman, comfortable with being naked, so it’s not like I was showing off, but I had my shoulders back, not hiding myself away. In the onsen there are three tourists grouped together, talking in Mandarin, and one woman soaking quietly in the corner.
Note: I speak fluent Mandarin Chinese but am not Asian.
As soon as I walk in the Chinese women all look me over and one murmurs to the others something akin to “Her breasts are so big. Are they fake? Look at her strutting around like that. Westerners, bah!” But I pretend not to hear or understand her and get in the water.
Another note: I am quite ethnically ambiguous.
“Where do you think she’s from? She’s so dark.” another asks, “Brazil? Mexico?”
“Israel,” the other says “or maybe Iran.”
“No way. If she were from the Middle East she would be more modest!” They all laugh, nodding.
Finally I open my eyes and say in Mandarin, “I’m actually American. And I can understand everything you’re saying about me too. An onsen is a place to relax, so please speak more quietly. Thank you!”
The women were all super flustered and start going on about how I must have misunderstood and blah blah and suddenly the other woman, who I totally thought was Japanese, suddenly lifts up her head and says in Mandarin.
“I’m Taiwanese so don’t play dumb; this girl didn’t misunderstand anything. You were being very rude. You should apologize.”
The women just kind of murmur excuses, get out and go inside but me and the Taiwanese women end up having a really nice conversation! I thanked her for standing up for me and she told me she felt she had to because she’d had the same thing done to her by Western tourists and knew how crappy it feels.
Since then I’ve always confronted people who thought they could get away with talking rudely because the person can’t understand them. Gotta look out for each other!