Tim Foolery

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Fun with Language – When One Letter Makes a Difference

I spent this past weekend in Vienna and while I didn’t exclusively speak German, I did push myself to speak the native language as much as possible.  I spoke German almost exclusively while on the Austrian flights though – a flight attendant even commented that my accent reminded me of her grandparents, who lived along the German border.

I studied German in College for about two years.  I find that the Austrians are pretty easy for me to understand – they speak clearly and slowly and if I know the vocabulary, I can get by pretty well.  A couple of times on the trip, I struggled with a few words I didn’t know, which reminded me of a Thanksgiving trip to Mexico, a few years ago.

We were heading to dinner in Polanco – a swanky district in Mexico City.  We took the subway from our hotel to the restaurant and as we were sitting down to eat, I decided I really wanted to wash my hands. I needed to wash the subway germs off before I ate dinner…so I asked the waiter.

I took three years of Spanish in High School. I don’t practice Spanish as much as I do French of German.  I told the waiter that I’d like to wash my hands before dinner — “Me gustaría lavar mi mono antes de la cena.”

The waiter looked at me quite quizzically.  He looked around our dinner table, obviously confused.  He responded with “El baño esta ahi….donde esta tu mono?” I was very confused…but then the waiter switched to English and repeated his previous statement “The bathroom is over there…where is your monkey?”

I misspoke.  Mano is hand Mono is monkey.  This poor waiter, who seemed genuinely confused by my first question, which was actually “I would like to wash my monkey before dinner.”

He was a good sport about it and didn’t make me feel foolish.  We did joke about bringing a monkey to dinner later on in the evening.  One simple letter dramatically changes the intent of the sentence.  Why indeed would I need to wash my monkey before dinner?

What language snafus have you made?  Did you have any truly awful interactions or were they just a little embarrassing?  Share your language struggle stories below!

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