TowerI have the uncanny ability to mangle the language of any country I happen to be visiting. This trait is only slightly more pronounced than my ability to mangle English.

Late at night on the streets of Paris I was completely lost in a desolate part of the city. A car stopped, a man got out and, hoping to explain my paltry understanding of the language I said: “Je parles Francais,”  accidentally leaving out the all important “n’ and pas.”

“You speak French!” He exclaimed in beautiful English, intuiting that indeed I did not.

Searching through Mexico City for a folk art shop we read about, we discovered it just as the owner was locking the door. “Are you closé?” I said, pronouncing the “e” as an “A” and somehow thinking that might turn it into Spanish.

“Yes, we are closed!” the store owner said, not bothering to hide his disdain. My traveling companion had turned in another direction, bird360pretending not to know me. She continued pretending this for a while after the store owner was gone.

In Nicaragua: When trying to explain our pleasure in being with our hosts my wife and I explained that we sweat good. I’m sure they were pleased to hear it.

I traveled to Japan when one of my books was published there. After a long and exciting day I hopped a train from Fukuoka, a beautiful city on the Sea of Japan, bound for Tokyo.

I was bone-tired and on the train I noticed a woman in a similar state of exhaustion. Despite fatigue I wanted to get every photo I could on this trip so I raised the camera and “click.” Her eyes opened, looking straight at me and I bowed politely.

I had been told that if I wanted to tell someone I was a photographer, I would use the word for photograph, shashin, and put the suffix –ka at the end. Shashin-ka, I am a photographer. Of course, any word you put the suffix –ka at the end of, is what you become!

rawfish2I had just a few words of Japanese in my head, and when I bowed I said to her: “Sashimi-ka.” Her eyes opened wide and as she began to laugh, she said in halting English: “You are raw fish!”

We both laughed and she went home to talk of the raw fish that took her photograph.

In Kyoto a young interpreter took us to a beautiful, peaceful, elegant, simple, and most importantly, quiet, Zen temple and garden. Our words are not the only way we communicate. In Japan some bodily functions are more acceptable than others. While in America, a sneeze is acceptable in public while the passing of certain odiferous gasses accompanied by a somewhat staccato sound is not — in Japan it is the opposite. I have allergies. Thus, when standing in the Zen Temple, surrounded by people sipping green tea and contemplating, I sneezed … loudly … twice. My interpreter was suddenly several feet away looking in another direction. I knew this technique.

Somehow I muddled through.

I am in good company. John F. Kennedy once told Germans that he was a jelly doughnut and there are stories of a recent president and a certain vice-presidential candidate mangling a language they might have referred to as American.

In telling these stories over the years each person who hears them seems to have one or two of their own. Please feel free to enlighten us in the comments, I would love to hear your stories!

photos: The Eiffel Tower at night, a boy and his pet bird in Mexico and an exhausted woman on the train to Tokyo.

Billy Howard

Billy Howard

Billy Howard is a commercial and documentary photographer with an emphasis on education and global health.

  1. Delightful, Billy. Just like you!

  2. My father never let language be a barrier to his curiosity and pleasure at finding himself in a “foreign” culture. He relied on “the kindness of strangers,” mangled Spanish and French. A smile in Japan carried him to Nara and Kyoto. He said he could never “get his mouth around” German, but his best friend in Frankfurt was the assistant fire chief — he gave Dad rides in his firetruck!

  3. Keith Graham

    Having been in this situation more than a few times, I feel a lot more empathy for people who travel to the U.S. or move here from other countries and have trouble with our language. The International Concourse at the Atlanta airport is particularly pathetic in recognizing the needs of foreign visitors. And let’s don’t even start talking about the silly “English Only” movement, endorsed by people who are totally clueless about their own cluelessness. Americans, even when we try, are poorly educated about other languages. Kids need to learn languages at early ages, and they need to be taught in ways that will allow them to engage in conversation — not a strong suit of our language-teaching methods. That kind of education not only makes sense if we understand the world we live in but also if we want to do business in that world.
    Having said that, I’ll add this: I took Spanish for five years, three of them under a teacher named Pete, aka Pedro, Gallegos. He drilled us on vocabulary and grammar. But he also taught us the art of pantomime. A smile and a bit of pantomime can get you through quite a few situations.

  4. Robert Lamb

    Loved your story, Billy. Alas, I, too, speak only Southern (and found no sympathy among the French for my ignorance).
    P.S. You’ve also mangled some grammar. Your closing sentence is an example of the misplaced modifier. The prepositional phrase “in telling these stories. . .” modifies the speaker, not the listener, and should be followed by a pronoun referring to you.

  5. Melinda Ennis

    I lived in England for a while, so I took French lessons to help communications with my many trips across the Channel. On a girl’s “Thelma and Louise” trip through Provence with my best friend, I was somewhat cocky about my abilities (at least to order food, drink and shop!). We went to a wonderful non-touristy place in Arles. After consulting with my friend on her order (she is a bit like Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally”–hold this, put this on the side, etc). So I laboriously placed her order of starters for entrees. I had been eyeing the gorgeous bowls of moules (mussels) and asked for them, but to be brought with one of her appetizers (she was eating as a main course). My friends food came out in course after course. Meanwhile, I drank copious amounts of wine waiting for mine. As the hour grew late and still no moules, I was barely able to slur to the waiter, asking about my order. I was able to understand “ferme” through the alcohol haze. The kitchen was closed. Apparently, due to my “fluent” French, the waiter thought I was sharing the food with my friend. No moules for me and a terrible empty stomach hangover in the morning.

  6. Billy Howard

    Alas Bob, I warned you in the first paragraph that I could mangle English. The story would not have been complete had I not done so.

  7. Robert Lamb

    Good point, Billy. Forewarned is, well, forewarned.
    My recent posting, “The Legacy,” contains a grammar glitch, too, but it wasn’t intentional, so I’m not tellin’.

  8. OK, how about in Mexico when I asked a waiter (in my extremely limited Spanish) for cucumbers and he laughed and said I ordered a small boy… pepino/Pepito…
    Just one of my stories……

  9. Well that’s just great Billy and Bob!? I had the idea that I was reading your contributions to “The Dew ” for their content and not for a “grammer” lesson. Next you will be expecting each reader to give you a grade. (A+ for content for you both)

  10. Robert Lamb

    Thanks for the compliment, but I can’t agree with you that grammar is relatively unimportant. Grammar helps language do what the writer wants it to do, which is to communicate, and every publication I know of has both writers and editors, not to mention proof readers. Look, for instance, at what the lowly comma can do to a sentence:
    Johnny said the teacher is a fool.
    Johnny, said the teacher, is a fool.
    What’s important, IMO, is to distinguish between a grammar Nazi and a grammar traffic cop.
    in communication, clarity is king, and bad grammar often says something very different from what was intended — as in the double negative.
    I tell my writing students to write not only to be understood, but so that they can’t be misunderstood.

  11. Oh, Bob is way too serious! What non-Americans call stuff is what gets me most of the time. Like fringe being bangs on a haircut and torch being a flashlight. When I lived in Holland the kids were having a giant Halloween party in the school gym. The gym was decorated to the hilt including baled hay which was strewn over the floor. The British lady in charge told me they were going to turn off all the lights and come in with torches! I was in a panic and could just see all the kids being burned to death if that hay caught on fire. To my relief, the lady and kids came in with a flashlights!

  12. Well, Billy and Bob, I love you both. Our children refer to us as “grammar nerds.” Together, your names comprise John’s nickname for Billy, “BillyBob.” Billy makes me laugh.

  13. Billy:

    Having grown up a military brat, I had lived everywhere from France to Thailand and various places in between. During my business travels I have also toured the globe. So I have picked up a phrase in almost every languages, which is unfortunate for my daughter. I can’t help myself but to try and show off at every ethnic eatery we go to by at least opening with the country-appropriate greeting. Of course the unsuspecting server is waiting for the arrival of my next words hoping to generate conversation. As my daughter sits with her “oh crap, is this guy really my father look,” I sheepishly tell the server that’s all I got and they usually turn away head towards the kitchen muttering in their native tongue what a bozo the guy at table 4 is. I can’t help it I tell my kid — it is a sickness. Loved your story!!!

  14. Have you ever went to comment on something, only to completely forget what you wanted to say after you entered your name and e-mail? LOL…

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