Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Bloopers Can Be Fun ~ International English #4

This is post #4 on the subject, International English.
It can be fun hearing the bloopers made by people learning a new language or using phrases unknown to them. But as writers, if we want to include a snippet of local language in our writing, we need to be sure we get it right.

I read recently on a website of a student in Northern India who was asked, "What do you do?"

"Main chata hoon," he replied carefully in Hindi, meaning to say, "I'm a student." He later discovered he had actually said, "I'm an umbrella." Chatra is a student; chata is an umbrella.

When my daughter was new to Venezuela, she was making her way through a crowd of people. She kept saying what she thought meant, "Excuse me," as she tried to pass people. In South Africa this would mean, "Please make wayI need to get through." She later learned she had been moving through the throng saying, "What's the matter?"

If a South African or British writer sends their heroine for a leisurely stroll along the pavement, this is good for her health. The pavement in South Africa and England is the paved area alongside the road, reserved for pedestrians. However sending her for a stroll along the pavement in America could have dire consequences as that's where the cars drive in the States.

So if we're writing about another culture, we need to make sure we not only have the correct word but that we use it in the right way.

I asked around for some more examples of easy mistakes that can be made when using English. Here are four examples.

Ruth Ann Dell in South Africa said:" When we visited friends in England, they were astonished when we talked about turning right at the robot. They couldn't see any robots on the road. We had a good laugh as we explained that back home in South Africa we called traffic lights robots"

Barbara Strohmenger in Germany shared this: "A funny thing is the wrong use of become by Germans; the German bekommen means to receive, but some think it means to become because it sounds similar; so they say I become a gift instead of I receive a gift.

Karen Shaw Fanner, formally of Zimbabwe and now living in England says: "In Africa just now means in a while, at some point. In the UK just now means immediately, right this minute. How to really annoy people in England is to tell them you'll do it just now and leave it an hour!

And one from myself, an English-speaking South African: "I nursed for many years in a paediatric ward in Krugersdorp, South Africa. Although as a Christian I don't believe in "luck", and I often prayed with parents when their little ones headed for surgery, I nevertheless fell into the practice of saying, Good luck! I'll be praying. If the patients were Afrikaans, I would translate this and say, Geluk! Ek sal bid, which I thought was Good luck! I'll be praying. One day a colleague overheard me, and with a broad grin asked me why I was congratulating the parents. Turns out that although Geluk sounds like Good luck it actually means, Congratulations! So I was sending my small patients off for surgery with the words, Congratulations! I'll be praying."

So, writers, be careful of the words you use, especially if you're trying to use a snippet of foreign language to add flavour to your work. You might just be adding the wrong flavour which could leave your readers with a bad taste. Make use of your Internet friends, and find someone who lives in the country you are writing about, or who fluently speaks the language you wish to quote.

How about you? Do you have an amusing story to share of the wrong word being used as a result of a different language or culture? If so, please comment below. Perhaps I can include them in another post for us all to enjoy.

FURTHER READING:  
What in the World Do You Mean? 
The Cultures and Greetings of Christmas Around the World


SHIRLEY CORDER lives on the coast in South Africa with her husband, Rob. Her book, Strength Renewed: Meditations for your Journey through Breast Cancer has created a multitude of friends and contacts across the world.

Please visit Shirley through ShirleyCorder.com where she encourages writers, or at RiseAndSoar.com where she encourages those in the cancer valley. You can also meet with her on Twitter or Facebook.


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18 comments:

  1. Shirl, another great International English post. These are great bloopers and show how important it is to know what you're saying. :)

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    1. Yes Karen, and it's not anything any of us can afford to ignore unless we plan to write only for internal organisations. As soon as our words are on the Internet, they're global.

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  2. Hi Shirley. When I first arrived in Belgium I used the Afrikaans expression "verskoon my" whenever I bumped into someone. I thought I was saying "excuse me". I later found out that what I was saying sounds like "verschoon mij" in Dutch, which translates as "clean me". I got some strange looks.

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    1. LOL! What fun, Paul. Thanks for sharing. I'll remember this one.

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  3. Shirley, I love all the pitfalls in translations! I studied Swedish for many years and learned it quite well. (By the way, 'quite' in the UK is not so great as 'quite' in the States.) But I'm talking US English now, so I learned Swedish really well. When we moved to Stockholm I was so afraid of making a mistake I clammed up in public. Swedes love to speak English, and do so perfectly, so there went my Swedish. I mostly spoke English. Here's one funny glitch in the Swedish language: the word 'gift' as an adjective means married. 'Gift' as a noun in Swedish means POISON! Hmm.

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    1. Oh my goodness! Beware of the "gift" at Christmas time, right? Thanks for sharing Sara!

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  4. Great post, Shirl! I had a lot of problems with English words when I first moved to South Africa. Not what I expected when I arrived thinking we all spoke the same language, but instead there were so many differences in the vocabulary. Now it's a lot easier to switch back and forth, but every once and a while, when I'm back in the states, I get an odd look and realize I've used the wrong 'English' word!

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    1. Thanks Lisa. Yes, it's surprising the "every day" words that are different. Like turning on the tap - and the Americans say "Huh?" :-)

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  5. Fun post, Shirl. When I was learning Tok Pisin (Melanesian Pidgin) I made my teacher laugh when I asked for his sister (susa) in my coffee instead of sugar (susu). :) When we came home we often used common pidgin words and sayings and got some funny looks from people who didn't have a clue what we were saying. :)

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    1. Oh that's fun, Marcia. Yes we used Chilapalapa, a pidgin combination of the Rhodesian languages years ago. Those of us who grew up there in those days still use the odd word especially when speaking to one another and get blank stares!

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  6. I love language bloopers. As an ESL teacher sometimes-expat, I have heard and said my share.

    My favorite (listening) blooper is when my Czech teacher asked me what I see in an airport. "People," I said. Her jaw dropped open. "Tourists," I said more sheepishly. She stared, aghast. "Baggage." Then she laughed. Turns out she hadn't asked about the airport (letis'te') but about what I see in the lednic'ka (the fridge). People...tourists.

    Prepositions are notoriously tricky, and sometimes I just leave them out entirely. This has caused me many times to phone and announce grandly, "I am the main train station!"

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    1. LOL! I loved your comments and bloopers, Melinda. Thanks for a good chuckle!

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  7. Great post! Something I want to add about a previous blog post: When I was in college, I learned that people who live in other countries speak British English. Some of the differences are funny and some are embarrassing. And sometimes people can be offended. I'm glad I have an understanding of some of the differences, as it can be helpful when trying to figure out what someone is saying.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Debbie. Yes, as one living in one of the "other countries" I have been on the other side. As a writer mainly published in America, I've had some narrow escapes!

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  8. What a fun post! The English expression "Excuse me" is translated two different ways in Portuguese. One means essentially "Forgive me", the other "With your permission". In language school we were laughed at the story of the attractive young woman on a crowded bus who lost her balance and ended up in the lap of a man. Instead of saying "Forgive me", she said "With your permission". Hmm. It now strikes me that that could be the fun beginning of a romance novel.

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    1. Thanks LeAnne, I loved your example, and yes, I can see that as a fun start to a romance novel!

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