At our Hidden Meanings in Language Learning event (10 June 2015), we asked attendees to share their language learning stories with us. Here is a selection of the stories we received…
I was in a bakery in Vienna and asked to use the toilet. On opening the main door I was confronted with two other doors (one for the ladies and one for the gentlemen, naturally). One of these had ‘Damen’ on and the other had ‘Herren’ on. Standing there bewildered for a few seconds, I thought/rued, “German to AS level and I can’t even figure out which toilet I should use!”. I stood for a few seconds completely perplexed before remembering the name of my old German school teacher, Herr Tippler, with the ‘Herr’ meaning ‘Mr’. Mystery finally sorted, and embarrassment saved!
When studying Japanese, I found that Kanji could be a false friend. For example, I once read Japanese for ‘postage stamp’ as ‘cut hands’ in Chinese.
My first language is Cantonese Chinese, and when I was learning English, I always mixed up ‘gesture’ and ‘posture’. The meaning in Chinese is interchangeable!
I started learning the Cyrillic alphabet at work for no reason whatsoever. Turns out it’s dead easy and it has helped me out loads in Ukraine, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece. I do however write in Cryllic like a five year old!
It is common to find that changing one letter or sound in a word to change the meaning from something normal to something rude. I always get horror looks and hysterical laughs when I make these mistakes talking to other people!
I visited Toledo in Spain as part of a study abroad group and loved it so much that I decided to go back on my own. But the only way I knew how to get back to the bus station at the end of the day was by going down the giant escalators. I got lost and tried to ask how to get to the ‘electric stairs’ because I didn’t know the word for escalator! I tend to have to be very creative with my second language in order to get by!
When I went to Norway, I learned how to say “I speak Norwegian” when I really should have learned the negative version!
I used to think that sentences like “I knew he was a good man” sounded strange because it sounded like the man being referred to was dead. Then I understood that the tenses of matrix embedded clauses should be the same, and that’s why we say “he was…” although the person is still alive.