Language Mishaps

When deciding on this topic for the blog, both Eric and I thought we had tons of stories, but when it comes down to writing these stories out, I drew a huge blank. The funniest language issue that comes to my mind is actually from when we were staying briefly in Incheon, South Korea, and needed to purchase bus cards to use public transportation. The poor Korean grocery clerk who had to witness Eric’s full-bodied mime of getting on a bus at nine o’clock in the morning deserved a raise for not laughing at the awkward foreigners. (By the way, we did get the bus cards, but we had to walk back up the street a few blocks to a tiny convenience store.) Anyway, what follows are a few snippets of language mix-ups from our time in Mongolia.

We took language classes our first two years in Mongolia, and one day, our teacher decided to try a different activity where she would say a verb in Mongolian and we were to act it out. We were all doing pretty well until she said, “шүдээ угааж байна” (brush teeth). Our Portuguese classmate and I began to mime brushing our teeth and look over to see Eric confidently going to town mopping the floor. He looks up in confusion as we burst into laughter. In Mongolian, mopping the floor is said, “шал угааж байна”, a difference of one similar-ish sounding word.

toddler language learning meme
Us (on the left) versus literally any Mongolian we talk to (on the right)

A lot of the time, whenever we tried to speak Mongolian to people we encountered throughout daily tasks, we were more often than not met with blank stares. Or, we were judged as being German or Russian based on appearance and spoken to in those languages. One of our American colleagues tried to greet a Mongolian colleague in the morning by asking if she rested well. The Mongolian looked at the American with a confused but polite smile and asked, “What language are you speaking?”

Most of our Mongolian language practice happened in taxis when we would come across a driver who was especially chatty. (Bless chatty taxi drivers for letting us practice our rudimentary language and being patient with us!) I remember taking a taxi to the hospital with T when she was only a few months old. It was a regular checkup, nothing serious, but she was quite small still, which drew the taxi driver’s attention. He began asking questions about the two of us and asked if T was born there. Well, being that I misunderstood, I said (in Mongolian), “No, I was born in America, but my daughter was born here in Mongolia.” He just gave me a weird look, and a few minutes later I realized my error and felt like a fool, which is pretty normal when learning a new language.

dragon vs dinosaur
(Replace “English” with “Mongolian”.)

More often than not, when we tried to make transactions on our own, we attempted requests and questions about cost in Mongolian and our only response was being shown a calculator. When my folks visited around T’s birth, my dad’s takeaway was that not many people spoke English, but everyone spoke “calculator”. Hey, if it works, it works!

The last incident that comes to mind was when we were going somewhere with an upperclassman and we accidentally swore in front of him. His English was very good so he explained that he was laughing because of what we said and that it was funny to hear his English teachers swear. Here is where I would say that we learned our lesson, but sadly, Eric and I can’t agree on the memory of what we actually said that was wrong so likely we will make this same mistake in the future. Many apologies in advance!

What are some of the language mishaps you’ve experienced (either in your native language or in a target language)?


  1. Bahaha!

    My favorite example was actually a mix-up with Kazakh and Mongolian.
    We were inviting friends to join us for my birthday hike, and I was telling them (in Kazakh) to remember to bring water…I said it over and over. Little did I know that the Kazakh word for water was the Mongolian word for milk…they all thought I was telling insistent on them bringing lots of milk.

    Another great one was when I told my language teacher that, “I shoot Duke everyday.”
    I meant to say that I saw him everyday.

    Also…there was this one time when (in Mongolian) I kept asking this man on the plane if he spoke English.
    He kept saying, “What?” I asked him about 5 times before I realized he was responding to me in English.

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