Monthly Archives: March 2013

Lost in translations

Laughing lady

Wonder what amused her? Image of Kuala Lumpur lady courtesy of anuarsalleh, Wikimedia Commons.

Living in a cosmopolitan area like I do, I often meet people who have emigrated here from other countries in the Middle East, Central America, South America, Asia, Africa and other parts of the globe. It’s fun to meet people like this.  I love to hear their backstories about the country they came from, learn a bit of their home culture and discover why they chose to emigrate here to the U.S.

A few months back, I was helping a friend at a business conference oriented toward Asian-Americans, and I got into conversation with my fellow attendees over lunch. Some of them came from countries such as South Vietnam and Korea, and I asked them what was the most difficult thing to learn about America. For many, it wasn’t just the culture; it was the language.

English is a difficult language to learn and has many pitfalls, especially if one is learning English as a second language. I admire anybody who takes on the job of speaking, writing and reading English, especially when they’ve had the the nerve to make the drastic change of moving from one country to another.

Even a native-born speaker like myself has the occasional slip. I’ll say something to a friend and realize too late that what I said could be taken the wrong way. And while the friend dissolves into laughter, I’ll start giggling myself while protesting, “Wait! Wait! I didn’t mean it that way!”

Maria von Trapp, in her book The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, talked about how hard it was to learn English and how funny situations arose when she used the English idioms she learned. She quoted a hilarious story where she and a bishop were trying to go through the same door, and each was determined to let the other go first, out of politeness. Finally, Maria had to say, “P-lease, Bishop….scram!” It worked. The bishop’s advisors were scandalized, but luckily the bishop had a great sense of humor.

But I guess any language can have its funny pitfalls. Case in point: German. I speak some German, having learned it at school. One of the first things I learned was not to use the words “heiss” (hot) and “kalt” (cold) when talking about how I felt in hot weather or cold weather; you have to use the words “warm” or “kühl” (warm or cool). If you use “heiss” or “kalt” in German when you’re referring to yourself, you’re making references to your love life, and people start snickering.

Blog readers: Know of any other pitfalls in English or other languages?

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