When you’re standing near someone who is speaking in a language you don’t understand, do you ever wonder if they might be talking about you? I used to tell myself that I was just being a bit paranoid but it turns out that I wasn’t so paranoid after all. From intimate confessions to rude comments to thinly-veiled threats, bilingual people have overheard plenty of things that others assumed no one else could understand. If it’s really something you shouldn’t be saying, it’s best not to say it, whether or not you think the people around you don’t understand.
Like the saying goes, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t try to hide it by speaking another language. I think that’s the saying.
32. It’s Too Early For This
I speak English and French and I live in Quebec. Everyone knows how some french Quebeckers don’t take too kindly to the English. So I’m at a café ordering in English because I’m in between classes and screw it, it’s 7:30 a.m. and latte is pretty much the same in both languages. The cashier looks at me like I had vomit all over myself and walks over to her manager and says in French, “Take care of that Anglo, when will they understand that it’s French in this province?,” at which point I turned bright red and I said in French, “Pardon? Can I not order a coffee without having to have a political debate? Would you not serve travelers or immigrants?”
Free coffee for a year.
31. Calling Them Out
I’m Asian and I live in France, so my French is pretty fluent (spoken, at least). I was visiting some friends in London last summer and on the tube, there were a group of 5 French tourists standing around and pretty much complaining about EVERYONE else in the tube, saying that Brits are so ugly, dissing how they dress, really petty stuff. I was already side-eyeing the crap outta this group but pretty much kept to myself and my friends.
Then the tube started getting really crowded, and we had to move in nearer to said French group. I accidentally bumped shoulders with one of the guys in the group and he proceeded to groan loudly then turn to his friends and made a racial remark. His group started laughing and looking at me. At that point I saw white and COMPLETELY LOST IT.
I turned around and addressed his whole group calling them out on their ignorance and racist garbage, telling them off for being the exact stereotype of tourists that ruin the reputations of the decent people out there, and assuming that no one else can speak their language while traveling around in Europe, for Pete’s sake. Ended by saying if you don’t want to see any other races or ethnicities you should probably stay in that hole you call a home and not travel abroad if you’re gonna act like a massive jerk.
Everyone was looking at me at this point. My friends were like “what the heck” and trying to get me to stop. I just said loudly in English to everyone else that this group of French people were making racist statements and deserved to be called out. They all pretty much turned red and one of the other people in the group mumbled a quick apology and they got off the tube at the next stop.
30. Good Looking Out
One time a friend was over in my dorm. His friend phoned him and he answered his phone in Chinese. I didn’t think much of it; he was fluent and I figured it was one of his close friends. I was playing a video game and on Ventrilo, so while he was speaking a few feet away, I was cueing in to laugh at a joke or call out a boss pull.
Well, a few minutes later, someone whispers to me in-game and is like, “Just so you know, that guy is telling his friend he’s about to score with you in Chinese.”
Yeaaaaah. We never hung out much after that.
29. An Astute Observation
I was at the airport last week when there was a huge queue at the customs part of the airport, where we all have to verify passports/all that other jazz. There was a line specifically for people who needed extra help, and it was practically empty. My two muscly jerk friends (I think it was a joke) walked into that queue, and an attendant hurriedly rushed over and said “you’re not in need of extra assistance,” and this little old Chinese lady behind me in the queue, bless her, muttered “yeah they are, in the head,” in Chinese.
28. Caught Red Handed
I was on the subway in Korea and these 4 high school boys were standing behind me, talking to each other like, “Look at her, she is so pretty. She has really nice hair! You should talk to her, NO WAY DUDE, my English is awful, you first.” I turned around and just smiled and they freaked out and kept whispering like “Oh god, did she understand? No way, she couldn’t have. Did she?!”
It was really funny, made my day.
27. Serves Him Right
I used to go to lunch with my assistant manager to a Mexican restaurant next door to where we worked. My assistant manager is Cuban and would usually have small talk, in Spanish, with the waiters. One day, he tells them about how he is the manager and I’m his assistant. This conversation gets more interesting when he tells the waiter about what a lousy worker I am. This is when I interrupted to say, in Spanish, that he, my assistant, is lying and I let them know that I speak Spanish. The waiter laughed his butt off and my assistant manager was very embarrassed. Ah, good times.
26. Your Ignorance Is Showing
I was in Brussels on the tram one morning when these two American girls with heavy southern accents began to talk really loudly about the city, how European guys are like when intimate, how they think Belgium is ugly and small and crowded and whatnot and generally trash talking Europe. After a while they went, “Hey, do you think anyone here speaks English?,” and a guy who’s getting off the tram said “We all speak English here,” and left.
25. I’ll Take That Offer
In high school, my dad and I went backpacking through the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. We were in this small town named Lone Pine, which is about 4 hours north of L.A. There were tons of German and French tourists there who had been visiting the redwood forests. I speak both English and French fluently and I overheard these two French girls talk about me in a convenience store.
One of them nodded in my direction and said, “What about that one?,” to which the other one replied, “He seems kind of dumb, but he’s cute, so yeah.” I thought I would try my luck and approach them about it. In French, I said, “So, I’d like to take you up on that offer if you’re up to it.” They were clearly pretty embarrassed, and just walked away giggling.
24. Learn To Appreciate Her
I was on an Amtrak with my boyfriend who was watching West Wing, and as it was 8 AM, I just didn’t have it in me to really enjoy it, so I opted to read my book instead. We were sitting at one of the tables with two benches opposite one another, and there were two French ladies in their mid-60s sitting across from us. They were having a great conversation in French, and then I heard one of them go (essentially): “Oh! The boys in every country, they are all the same. You put a pretty girl next to them, a girl they think will stay there, and they’d rather watch a screen. You take the pretty girl away and they go chasing after her, saying they never want to look at anything else.”
I just started cracking up and they were really embarrassed and started apologizing profusely, but I thought it was hilarious. Boyfriend sat there looking confused, smiled awkwardly, and kept watching West Wing. I spent much of the rest of the train ride chatting it up with the French ladies.
23. It Was Priceless
So I went into a Russian store with my friend. We both know Russian but are Americans, and he’s married to an American woman. As we walk in, he’s talking to his wife in English. There’s a Russian couple already in there shopping (it’s a small store) and as we walk around she starts complaining to her husband about “Those horrible people, why are they even in here.” She threw out a few swear words and just wouldn’t shut up. Then, right as we walk past them, my friend says to his wife, in flawless Russian, “I’ve got to go honey, this shrew in the store won’t shut up and I’m starting to get mad.” The look on her face… Priceless.
22. A Wild Ride
I speak French and Portuguese and live in Brazil. One day I was walking home and this car stops next to me and this guy asks some directions in Portuguese but in a heavy French accent. I try to tell him where the place he wanted to go is, but it’s kinda complicated, he doesn’t understand. The place was near my home, so I ask him if he wants me to get in the car and take them there and he accepts.
Now I know this is awkward (and dangerous) but, hey, I trusted him and he trusted me. There is kindness, after all. Thing is, besides him, there is this old couple in the car, and as soon I get in, the old guy (not the one who asked directions) started screaming, in French, something like this: “HOW DO YOU LET THIS THIEF GET IN OUR CAR? THIS IS DANGEROUS, YOU DON’T KNOW WHO HE IS, WE ARE IN BRAZIL, YOU ARE INSANE!”
Nevertheless, the guy started his engine and followed my directions, and all the way the old guy keeps yelling in French: “YOU ARE PUTTING US ALL AT RISK, THIS GUY (looking at me) CAN BE A HOMELESS MAN” and so on… There is this one point when I say for the guy driving the car to turn left, but he doesn’t understand it because the other one is screaming, so I repeat and he doesn’t understand again. Then I say in French: “Tournez à gauche” (turn left).
Then a few seconds pass and the nice guy, the one who’s driving, asks me in French if I speak French, I say, “Yes, a little.” The other guy, the one who’s complaining, turns white and stops yelling immediately. I tell him to stop the car (in French), because the place (hotel) they want to go was right there and my house was the other way.
That was a fun day.
21. Never Assume
I overheard a bunch of French tourists in Nepal discussing, in graphic detail, the digestive problems they’d been having for a few days (i.e. “I CAN’T TELL IF IT’S A FART OR IT’S POOP”). After a while, they turned to me and my friends and asked, in English, where we are from. My friends answered, in French, “We’re from the same place you are, and he (me)’s from Quebec.” Their look of embarrassment was just delectable; the awkwardness was palpable (more so than their poop).
20. The Cow Says…
One of my Israeli women friends told me that when she was pregnant riding a subway in New York, she asked (in English) to squeeze in on a bench seat next to two women. One of the women said to the other (in Hebrew) “Let the cow sit down.” After she sat down, my friend then said in Hebrew “The cow says ‘thanks’.”
19. Give Me The Discount
I’m Pakistani, but I look white/Arab. I have very pale skin, light-colored eyes, etc.
Most other people who speak Urdu, Hindi or Punjabi assume I don’t understand. I was in a mobile shop looking for a charger. I overheard one of the guys working say in Punjabi, “Just charge her £10 extra. She won’t know.”
I told him quite calmly in Punjabi that I’d like it for £10 off, thank you.
18. Move Along
About 10 years ago I was on a night train going from Rome to Naples. These 2 criminals were discussing robbing me while I was sitting in the same cabin with them. I told them I spoke Italian and that if they wanted to rob me, I wasn’t going to make it easy for them. They actually apologized, told me they thought I was German, and moved on down the car.
17. Smart Tourists
My brother speaks Mandarin Chinese fluently. He had already lived in Taiwan for seven years when this little episode happened. This was many years ago, when it was very unusual for a Westerner to speak Chinese.
He and I were in a taxi in Beijing one night. We gave our instructions to the driver in English and chatted together only in English, so the driver of course naturally assumed neither of us spoke Chinese.
A few minutes into the ride the driver offered us a cigarette. We waved him off politely. He then said, according to my brother, “Only weaklings don’t smoke.”
Along the way the driver would point out places, saying, in a mock-friendly voice, things like, “That’s where foreign idiots are given the bad and spoiled food they deserve.” My brother would report all of this to me with bemusement. At the end of the ride, the driver tried to overcharge us. My brother for the first time spoke Mandarin, pointing out the correct amount on the meter and telling the driver he was making note of his name and taxi license number. The driver’s eyes got huge with fear, he literally jumped out of the taxi and ran to open my brother’s door, apologizing in a desperate voice and bowing over and over, trembling (no, bowing is not part of Chinese culture).
My brother said the driver probably figured any guy who spoke Mandarin would have the connections to make his life misery. We just shrugged it off, had a good laugh.
16. I’ll Distract Them
I’m Indian, but living in California most people think I am Mexican. Getting ready to board a plane to Hawaii, and TSA is checking bags again at the gate for “random searches.” My dad jokingly exclaims in Hindi that we are all going to get “randomly” searched to get ready to run. The guy in front of us starts chuckling, and then gets stopped instead of us. He turns around and says in Hindi, “You guys go on without me, I’ll distract them!”
15. This Guy Speaks Spanish
I was at a Mexican restaurant with a bunch of my girlfriends and one guy friend. We were at the bar and my guy friend overheard the bartender joking with another worker saying, “Let’s get this gringo inebriated.” He looked at them and responded, “This gringo speaks Spanish, but if you’re paying…”
14. Watch The Trash Talk
I was standing in line at a Subway on my university campus when I see these two Arab guys standing in the same line and generally just trash talking about everyone in the line thinking no one spoke Arabic. Little did they know that I have lived in the Middle East for about 10 years and learned fluent Arabic while I was there. When the time came to trash talk me, luckily for them, they just commented on how nice and spiky my hair is. Turned to them and thanked them for the compliment. Needless to say, they were shocked and shut up for the whole rest of their wait in line.
13. Where’s McDonald’s?
When we were 19, my two best friends and I were studying in Spain and decided to take a side trip to France. We were traveling light and trying to save money, as poor college students tend to do, and had stuffed our carry-on bags with lots of granola bars and snack foods to sustain us for the weekend. Apparently, we were also obviously American. At the security check, the conversation between the workers went something like this: “Look at this bag! Always eating! Can they not even make a flight without food? I think if they stop eating, they die! Why else would they be so big?”
The best part was the looks on their faces when my friend looked at them and said, in perfect Spanish, “Thank you, can you tell us where our gate is? And where we can find a McDonald’s? I’m so hungry!”
12. No Pool For You
I worked at a pool a while back and I’m extremely white-looking but also very fluent in Spanish. A family came in at one point asking about memberships/if we had day passes. I could tell that English wasn’t their first language, but I always feel awkward jumping into Spanish in these situations because of my appearance and I don’t want to come across as presumptuous. Anyway, I explained to them very nicely how membership works and that no, sorry, we didn’t have day passes but I could recommend some pools that do.
At this point, the wife turns and says to the husband, “This guy’s just trying to make it more difficult,” (presumably because she thinks I’m racist), “Let’s try another pool.” Incredibly uncomfortable for me, but not as uncomfortable as it was for them when I gave them directions to the pool with day passes and wished them a nice day and good luck in Spanish.
11. She Likes Me Fine
My wife and I have adopted two kids from China on two separate occasions. We had some time to wait before the first one so we learned some basic Mandarin to help with our trip and connect a bit with our daughter’s birth culture.
While there, a day or so after we got her, we were in the Walmart (yes, Walmart) in Zhengzhou, when a younger woman walks by, sees a large American guy with a pale redheaded wife carrying a Chinese toddler in a sling, doubles back and with a fake smile says, “ni bu xihuan ni de mama, ma?” which works out to “You don’t like your mom, do you?”
My wife spins around and, in Mandarin, basically says, “Oh yes she does.” The look on that woman’s face carried me through the day.
10. Y’all Got Detention
When I was in middle school, there was a group of kids (like 3 or 4 of them) who would sit in the back of the class and speak in Creole. Chatting and laughing, but nobody could understand what they said. The teacher would tell them to stop speaking in Creole since she couldn’t know if they were saying something offensive, which was usually met with them saying something to each other in an obviously mocking manner and then the whole group breaking out in laughter.
So one day, this guy shows up in the class. He says that he’s training to be a teacher and he’s gonna be shadowing the class that day. So he’s sitting in a chair in the corner of the room, jotting things down in a notebook. Of course, the Creole-speaking kids were chatting away as usual.
So the guy gets up out of the chair and walks over to this group of Creole-speaking kids, who all sat nearby me so I could hear them pretty clearly.
The guy leans over to them and very calmly says, in plain English, “Yes, my junk is huge, and no, your hot teacher ain’t gonna touch yours. By the way, I’m your new English teacher, and y’all got detention.”
9. Turn The Other Cheek
I’m half Japanese, half Scandinavian– I was raised mostly by my mom (Dane/Norwegian), so I grew up speaking Scandinavian languages pretty comfortably. But you probably wouldn’t guess it, looking at me–I’m short, dark haired and ethnically ambiguous. I’m living in the USA currently, and I kind of just blend in and look like a melting-pot American. As such, Americans and foreigners alike assume I can’t speak any other languages.
Anyway, recently, I was sitting on a train platform, and I overheard a couple of guys conversing in Norwegian. From what I gathered, they were both grad students at a nearby university, working on research. Normally, when I hear Danish or Norwegian, I am overjoyed and introduce myself so I can get some well-needed practice with my speaking. However, these guys were in a really heated conversation, basically complaining about classmates, fellow researchers, etc. I figured I would leave them to it and mind my own business.
I had been sitting beside them, but at one point I stood up to get in the queue forming to board my train, which was pulling into the station. I’m standing a few paces in front of them, and one stops the other abruptly mid-sentence and says, “MAN, she looks nice.”
I turn around, and they stare back a little guiltily. One mumbles, “Oh, she understood?” “No way.”
I respond, “Thanks very much” in Norwegian, with a wave and a wink as I step forward to board the train.
The expression on their faces was an awesome mix of surprise, confusion, and excitement.
8. Dirty Lingerie
When I was in high school, I was working retail in the women’s department of Marshall’s. One day, my boss sends me to clean up lingerie, because corporate says we have to hang everything on fragile plastic hangers and people never put stuff back. So I’m sitting on the floor when this young Hispanic couple and their three kids (oldest was maybe 6) come into the department.
The kids are ducking around the aisles, giggling and making hand puppets out of the little disposable nylons they got from the shoe department, but they’re not being rude, messing anything up, or running into people so I don’t care. While they’re doing this, their mother is looking at undergarments, asking her man what he thinks, and he’s telling her all sorts of dirty things in Spanish. The most tame comment was “Mmm, those would look good on you….but they’d look better coming off.” or something along those lines. I’m trying to look like I’m ignoring them, because he obviously doesn’t think the girl kneeling on the floor understands.
As they made their selections, the oldest girl came up to me with her nylon puppet and asked (in English) “What are you doing?” and I responded “Oh, I’m just picking up all the clothes on the floor so they don’t get dirty.” at this point, the mother looks at the girl and says to her, in Spanish, “Don’t bother the nice lady, she’s working.” Without thinking, I said to her in English, “Oh no, it’s really no bother! She’s okay”
The look on the Mother’s face when she realized I caught every dirty word. They booked it out of the section soon afterwards.
That’s one of a few of those moments I had at that job. But my personal favorite.
7. Elevator Chit-Chat
My grandfather comes from the island/country of Malta, a very small land mass with not too many people. The language they speak there is called “Maltese”.
Anyways my grandfather and his dad were in London England where absolutely nobody has heard of Maltese let alone speaks it.
They were in an elevator together when a women walked in, and my great grandfather said to my grandfather (in Maltese) “This women’s face is so ugly she could stop a clock”
My grandfather laughed, but when the elevator got to the lady’s stop upon exiting she turned around and said in perfect Maltese “WELL YOUR MOTHER WAS UGLIER”
Moral of the story; never assume the random lady in the elevator can’t understand you.
6. Creeps On The Train
I was on the train in Brisbane on my way home from work, and there were some (male) French tourists on there, plus the usual gaggle of schoolgirls from the local Catholic schools.
The guys started talking and pointing to some of the girls (clearly kids in uniform) and saying some disgusting things. Along the lines of extremely inappropriate.
Bear in mind these girls are like, year 8-9 (so like 13-14 years old) and definitely under age.
I was getting increasingly pissed off at the comments and turned to them and yelled: Honte à vous, vieux pervers rampant! (Shame on you, creepy old perverts!)
I’ve never seen someone look so shocked in my life. They got off at the next stop, but not before practically melding into the walls.
5. Driving A Hard Bargain
Ohhh the fun I’ve had being able to speak Indonesian. My family and I, like most Australians, go to Bali in Indonesia quite a bit. I learnt the language for 12 years, and was fluent enough to pass tertiary entrance exams. The Indonesians just aren’t used to tourists making much of an effort to speak their language so, as a consequence, they say a LOT.
My two favourite moments would be from my first trip. We were being driven from our hotel to a really popular restaurant. We were being driven by three young guys. They were happily chatting away, blissfully unaware that I understood every word. One of them cracked a joke about my mother (they were very much just cracking a joke. No real ill-intent) and when they all laughed I laughed REALLY LOUDLY. They stopped immediately and said in Indonesian “How long have you been learning Indonesian?”. Was a pretty quiet car ride after that. The other time would be at the markets. I was buying some crappy jewelry from a small stall by the side of the road and I made a point of bartering in English for a change. In the middle of our transaction she turns to her daughter, who was sitting next to her in the stall, and says “Make sure you never barter much when the young ones are alone. They’re easier to make more money”. To which I said “Could you please repeat yourself but slower?” And her face!! It was magical! I had never seen someone so shocked. Her daughter ended up giving me the things for their cost price and we chatted and hung out quite a bit too. All in all, victories all around.
4. Subway Gossip
This didn’t happen to me, but I still think it’s a good story.
Every Afrikaans woman I know living in England, including my sister and mother, love to gossip in Afrikaans to their fellow Afrikaners. Once a family friend was riding the Underground with her daughter, and she was criticizing literally everything about a man sitting opposite them, his hair, his clothing, his weight etc. Now, he says nothing the entire journey, doesn’t even look at them, but when the train stops, he stands up, walks past them, smiles, and tells her to enjoy her day.
In perfect Afrikaans.
3. Don’t Be Rude To Those Who Handle Your Food
I was in Monaco on a school trip for my French class with some California students. We were ordering food at some small local place when the California students in front of me were trying to order in English only. They were pretty rude and demanding saying things like, “Oh my god I just want some ICE. Ugh these people are so dumb.” The French cook was just looking confused and after a lot of bickering the California students walked off. Then when I went to order I tried to order in French (not very good but after 6 years of studying French in high school and elementary school). I think I said, “Puis j’avais de..” when the cook cut me off and goes, “Dude, I speak English. Those girls were just over the top rude. What would you like?” I thought it was awesome.
2. Not That Effective
I was on holiday in Moscow, and in the subway I heard another tourist tell his mate, in my native tongue, “You know, when we speak Dutch, nobody here will understand a word of it. It’s kind of a code language here!”
To which I replied, “Yeah, about that. It’s not as effective as you might think.”
1. Changing Colors
I had gone over to a friend’s house to play cards. I knew a few of the people there, but not everyone. So we are all sitting on the floor, I’m getting ready to deal, and one of the guys playing says (in Hindi) to my friend, basically, “So where did you pick up the lady from?,” with a wink-wink, nudge-nudge in his voice.
I’m not even good with witty comebacks in English, so I just snapped my head up and looked right into the guy’s eyes with a “shut up” look (by the way, this works better than witty comebacks or badly-pronounced expletives in a foreign language). My friend told him, “She speaks Hindi. And we work together.” I have never seen a brown guy turn that bright red.