Once upon a time, there was a fresh-off-the-boat young Frenchman moving to the U.S. of A. with 3 suitcases, $200 in his pocket, a French accent and a never-warm-enough jacket for the rough Midwestern winters. Moving or traveling to a different country can be as exhilarating as it can be mortifying when it comes to mastering the intricate meanderings of language learning combined with the ability to detect false friend subtleties, which will consequently give you a feverish headache from thinking too much about it and a big case of embarrassing redness once you finally understand what it is you just said.
We’ve all been there, we’ve all done it. Language mistakes! And somehow, for some strange reason unbeknownst to me, it always ends up turning and twisting my original thoughts into some sort of naughty idea with dirty undertones and connotations. My all-time 2 favorite mistakes English-speakers make when speaking French are when a woman says “Je suis pleine” for “I am full” after a big French meal, which literally translates to either “I am sloshed” or when referring to an animal “I am pregnant”. Good fun! Simply saying “Je n’ai plus faim” (“I am no longer hungry”) works very well. The other example, which will continuously make me giggle until the day I die, is when an English-speaker says “I want to introduce myself” when meeting someone for the first time. When said in French, usually something we don’t really say anyway, the English mind automatically translates it to “Je veux m’introduire“, which means “I want to insert myself”. You cannot not laugh at this, it’s too good for words! “Je veux me présenter” is perfectly proper in this context. The ultimate lesson here is that one cannot expect to avoid making mistakes when being
inserted introduced to real life situations and colloquialisms – the other lesson though is to never use the false friend “introduire” for “introduce” ever again when meeting someone. Just ‘cuz!
My own personal issues with these funny embarrassing moments came mostly from words that sound similar. If they sound similar, their pronunciation is obviously similar. Unfortunately, the mouth and tongue muscles involved in these pronunciation exercises failed me occasionally. I always meant well, but it came out wrong. I had the right words in mind but my tongue said otherwise. So other than the fact that I was known for ordering a “booger” instead of a “burger” – and if you add adjectives such as “juicy”, the person you’re talking to is in for a treat! – I was also famous for what is now known in my inner circle as “the grandparents story”. When meeting people for the first time, basic questions such as who you are, where you’re from, what you do, and why you moved become trite questions after a while. It gets a bit complicated when questions go more in-depth requiring other type of information to divulge along with an extended vocabulary to be quickly at hand without any notice. So when describing what my parents do, where they live, who my family and grandparents are, I ended up proudly saying that “my grandparents are retarded, and they’re just thrilled and happy about it!”. I said it once, four times and then all the time thinking that I was saying “retired” and that I was doing my grandparents justice explaining to a floor of American listeners that retirement is perfectly OK and you shouldn’t have to work until you’re 85.
Americans are always sweet and funny in these delicate situations when they don’t know if it’s a joke, a mistake or actually true. The reactions I saw were the same across the board as people inadvertently tilt their head to the side with compassion and express a drawn out “Aww” – an exclamation of pity sprinkled with warm feelings of appreciative sweetness. It wasn’t until I questioned these reactions that I understood my mistake. Why would people say “Aww”? My grandparents aren’t working… there’s really nothing to it. And you have to agree, “retired” and “retarded” look a bit the same and they are only separated by a small degree of pronunciation differences. So whether you want to order a juicy burger or talk about your retired grandparents, I want to know what your most embarrassing funny foreign language mistakes triggered the biggest reactions.
The Sweet Life of “Retardment”