Wow This is Embarrassing: English For Unsuspecting Foreigners

One of the biggest challenges for language learners is this subconscious gnawing fear of making a terrible mistake. Mistake so terrible that all people around you will remember it forever and remind you of the great embarrassment for years to come. This is one reason why most native English speakers do not bother learning any other language: to much risk of public embarrassment. As for us, folks with acquired knowledge of English, the practical necessity of speaking the global language is stronger than any fear of sounding like an idiot. Let me tell you of some shame-filled moments of my English life.

Growing up in Martinique, I got a chance to visit language camps in the summer and stay with host families in English-speaking countries. Of course, like many other naive teenagers who traditionally learn British English at school, I thought it was ok to ask for a ‘rubber’ from my host family. The difference between an eraser and a condom was learned the hard way (uh-oh, terrible pun).

I must note that most linguistic embarrassments spring from the fact that a lot of words in every language acquire hidden sexual innuendos or contain absolutely idiotic toilet humor, which is sometimes hard to grasp for an unsuspecting novice learner.

It has been many years since my ‘rubber’ experience, and the second biggest embarrassment happened recently, in a conference room in Australia, in the company of my colleagues. The American part of the team prepared a presentation on US political system, democrats versus republicans, and how Florida was a swing state that voted depending on the candidate. One guy from the team was a democrat, another admitted to being republican, while the third one kept avoiding the question, until I finally asked out loud: ’So, do you consider yourself a swinger?’

At least my colleagues can always count on me to ease any political tension in the conference room.

The French word ‘maîtresse’, which means both ’teacher for kids’ and ‘mistress’ (English transliteration of ‘maîtresse’), as far as I know, causes a lot of uneasy feelings in English, where it does not mean ’teacher’ in any context. Yes, your husband just spent the evening with his ‘maîtresse’, learning French. As for the word ‘embarrassing’ which I used a lot in this text, it causes quite some embarrassment for (male) learners of Spanish, where a similarly sounding ‘embarazada’ translates as ‘pregnant’.

Don’t even get me started on accents, slang, and dialects.


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