In this age of cultural diversity, never underestimate the power of language. Most people are often fluent in three or more languages and interestingly, you never know who is bilingual no matter where you are in the world.
Beware of the “outside thoughts and voices” which often are so interesting that you might be tempted to toss in a few cursing words to make it juicier right and then. Often, when you least expect it, an unsuspecting passerby will reply in your mother tongue and remind you that the world is smaller than you think. The cheaper flights and cheap rooms don’t get booked by aliens.
You may try to come up with an explanation, but more often than not, the shame becomes unbearable eventually and you walk away.
We have compiled some of the best “They didn’t realize I spoke their language” moments from bilingual people and they are simply hilarious.
Most of these stories are a bit negative, here's a lighter one. My mum's a linguist and speaks about 15 languages fluently and as such, I picked up a couple along the way. Most of my childhood was spent in Germany so I have a firm grasp of the language...which doesn't really seem to match my appearance. I'm a 6'3, 220lbs, black man, who speaks German. Now this isn't too uncommon a sight in Germany, but in North America, I'm a f***ing unicorn. So I was standing at the bus stop one day in the heart of downtown Toronto and there were these two 60-something year old German ladies who were not having a good time. They were trying to find the Art Gallery and were fed up with the fact that they were having such a s**tty time navigating because their english-speaking children had left them alone for the day. I didn't have anything particularly important planned for that day, so I turned to them and said something to the effect of "You know, our city has a lot to offer if you know where to look. Would you two like me to show you where the Gallery is, and a couple places you can get lunch along the way" They nearly fainted. They were sooooo happy that they found someone who spoke German and couldn't stop taking pictures with me to show their family 'the guy that saved their day'. I walked them to the Gallery and gave them a bit of an impromptu walking/bus tour along the way. That was the day I gained two Omas.
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 s**t 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.
Atrus2k -ViaMy cousin is a big white guy who studied for 2 years in Japan during college. He worked for one of the head of Honda America for a few years. When the head guy learned that he spoke Japanese, he would make sure my cousin was in all the meetings and phone conferences with the Japanese branch. My cousin would listen to everything the Japanese would be saying to each other and report it to his boss during breaks. As such the boss looked like a psychic to the Japanese because after break he would address their concerns without being prompted. The boss made mad bonuses every quarter and always funneled a bunch of that to my cousin.
Muizaz88 -ViaI 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 of his face was priceless.
Zhongguo -ViaI recently went to Japan for my first ever international trip and was totally prepared to have to struggle through all my day-to-day interactions in Japanese but was surprised at how widespread even a basic understanding of English is over there. Everyone assumes you won’t speak any Japanese at all so they stick to as much English as they’re comfortable with or you basically just play charades.
At a restaurant in Kobe, the waitress was practically fluent in English so we chatted a while and it came up that I’m studying Japanese so we had a little small talk and she was impressed. Then the owner came over to talk but wasn’t as confident in his English so he had the waitress translate. He was asking all these questions about where we’d been so far, where we were staying, how we liked everything, if we’d been down to Kobe Port yet, etc. It was simple enough that I understood 100% without her translation, and the waitress could tell. Finally, she says to him, in Japanese “By the way, he understands what you’re saying.” His eyes practically bugged out of his head and he got SUPER excited and asked if we wouldn’t mind waiting 30 minutes for him to close up and send everyone home.
So, I wait, he closes everything up and we all end up hanging out that night. He drove us around the city, bought us drinks, even drove back to the AirBNB. Japan is amazing.
I'm American, but can read and speak Russian on an intermediate level. A few years ago while visiting St. Petersburg, I was buying tickets for the hydrofoil to Peterhof. All the signs at the ticket booth were in Russian, and I could read the ticket prices. The ticket agent assumed I didn't know Russian, and tried to tell me the ticket cost three times more than the stated price. I looked her right in the eye and said in Russian, "I see on the board here that the ticket I want is (x) rubles." Her jaw dropped, and the ticket agent sitting next to her started laughing her ass off.
AlreadyTaken001 -ViaAmerican 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.
TheAfricaBug -ViaFlemish guy here. Working as safari guide in Kruger area, South Africa.
One time, my boss asks me to go pick a family of 4 up at the Klaserie reserve gate, do an afternoon game drive with them, and drop them off again afterwards. This was very uncommon; normally we only do game drives with people that book a room in our own lodge on the reserve.
So I pick them up, introduce myself and go over the rules, all in English. They reply in English, or at least: the dad does, and normally I can pick up straight away if it's someone from France, Belgium, Holland or Germany. But his English was Oxford English. So I thought; English people. Off we went!
10 minutes into the game drive I hear them speak in Flemish, and not only that, IN MY OWN DIALECT. Side note; every Flemish town has a dialect, we can hear what region/province other Flemish people are from, and if from the same region, we can often even pinpoint the exact little town or community they are from.
Oooh I was going to have fun with these folks! Found a few nice animal sightings, spoke English all the time, but then one sentence to the next, switched to their exact dialect. I thought; now they're going to be surprised! But nope... we all kept chatting in Flemish now. Only 20 minutes later, the daughter, maybe 10 years old, goes "wait a minute; he speaks Flemish!"
After all had a good laugh, I asked them where they were from. They literally lived one street away from me. It's a small world, folks!
Said something like "You need to be careful when talking s**t about someone in your native language, there might always be someone who understands you" in German while I was in Italy. A woman who was walking by responded "Like me for example".
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, started saying really rude things, about him and my dad being stupid. My dad (fluent in Farsi) comes over, and rips this assh*le 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. Dad speaks Turkish as well, and proceeds to rip him a third assh*le.