There is always a risk of errors when one attempts to learn a new language. Mistakes are inevitable. That is why the tools we give missionaries are so important to make their journey to bilingualism much quicker and easier. May all our blunders be harmless and hilarious!Winter 2016-17
Ruth emigrated from Germany and, as a new citizen of America, was learning English. Wanting to make her father in law’s favorite desert, Apple Pie a la Mode, she went to the grocery store for ingredients. Upon her arrival at the store, she requested the clerk’s assistance. She got the words almost right, but asked for the ingredients for Apple Pie on the Commode. Weeks later, with much laughter, she realized her mistake and finally understood the puzzled look on the clerk’s face.
I have really come to appreciate the difference between “learning” a language and “using” a language. All this “using” has produced an even higher amount of language funnies!
I wanted to buy a notebook (sà-mòot), but asked for a brain (sà-mǒng). I asked our new helper to wash the mattress (têe non), instead of saying sheets (pâa bpoo têe non). She had no idea what I meant!
In Nepali the word for marriage is bibaha, closely related to the word babachar. So today I’m pretty sure the reason people kept laughing at me was because I kept saying I was going to my first adultery—and asking what kind of gift you bring to an adultery. The joys of learning a new language!
—Jamie, NepalWinter 2015-2016
The Thai language has five tones – high, middle, low, rising, and falling. We made many mistakes by simply using a wrong tone which completely changes the meaning of a word. For example, khaaw (rising), khaaw (low), and khaaw (falling) are three different words meaning “white”, “news”, and “rice” respectively. A couple of our known blunders include saying, “I ate the dog,” instead of “I fed the dog,” and saying, “The bicycle defecated,” instead of “I rode the bicycle.”
—Jeff, ThailandSummer 2015
Last month was full of more language and culture learning. Oh, the mistakes I have made! I called a doctor a dog (twice), told Puja I was going to sell drugs (instead of buy medicine), and somehow ordered 19 to-go boxes of chicken and rice. I still have no idea how I messed that up!
—Rachel, ThailandSpring 2015
The other day I wanted to say: [ɑxɑli t͡sɛli mɑle movɑ] “New Year is coming soon.” But instead, I said: [ɑxɑli t͡soli mɑle movɑ] “New wife is coming soon.” Wife and year are two words you don’t really want to mix up!
—Emily, Republic of GeorgiaWinter 2014-15
I went to a shop down the road and asked for rice. Trying to tell the shopkeeper that I was cooking for the dogs, I said, “Ma kuku pakauchhuu.” She kept laughing and laughing. I didn’t know why.
Then I was with my Nepali teacher, and I said I was cooking for my family. “Ma pariwar packauchhu.” He explained to me that I just said I was cooking my family. That means I also told the shopkeeper I was cooking my dogs. No wonder she couldn’t stop laughing!
—Jamie, NepalFall 2014
Mollee was watching an Indonesian lady make tortillas. As the lady was rolling out the dough, Mollee attempted to ask her if she was planning to roll them out with oil or flour. Mollee’s question (in Indonesian) went something like this, “… are you going to use flour or mosquitoes?”
—D.C., IndonesiaSummer 2014
Despite the fact that I asked for a product to kill my family when I thought I was asking for something to kill ants, by God’s grace, I passed my exams for this semester! Family is ‘famille’; ants are ‘fourmis’. Not really that close, but by all the red question marks my teacher puts on my paper, I get the feeling I say a lot of things that I don’t intend to say.
—Becky, FranceSpring 2014
We try to help with the villagers medical needs if possible. Most medicines require you to take it with water, and as water is a key to a healthier lifestyle, we always encourage the person to tengani (take it) madzi (with water) pafupi pafupi (lots and lots). One day while shopping in town, we were passing out tracts. I gave one to a man and told him tengani madzi pafupi pafupi (take it with lots of water). He gave me a peculiar look, but took it anyway.
—Mary, MalawiWinter 2013-14
In Oaxaca, Mexico, we were planning the church Christmas party. I was making a list of the people who would bring the punch ingredients. I meant to ask, “Who will bring the tejocotes?” (a type of fruit), but I said, “Who will bring the tecolotes?” (a type of owl). The next Christmas, I didn’t make the same mistake, but I did ask, “Who will bring the guayaberas?” (a dress shirt), instead of guayabas (a type of fruit). The third year, being afraid of what I might put in the punch, someone else made the list!
This blooper was made by my friend, a native Kenyan who took me to the market to help me learn to shop. Wanting to practice her English, she said, “Your hair is growing tall.” Tall??? It threw me for a minute. Then I remembered that in Swahili, the word refu refers both to things long and to things tall. As a child, I had to learn which word to use when. And now I had to explain the difference to her.
—Katie, KenyaSummer 2013
During our first year in Thailand, we lived next door to my Thai language teacher, who made it a point to converse with me. One day I was giving food scraps to the dogs, and she asked me what I was doing. I thought I replied, “I’m feeding the dogs.” Therefore, I was a bit surprised when she erupted in laughter. She then politely explained to me that I told her that I ate the doctor!
We asked our language helper for the two statements: 1.) “That is a shovel.” 2.) “That is not a shovel.”
I felt very certain he didn’t understand my instructions because the two statements sounded identical. I challenged him by confidently saying, “You are saying the same thing.” What was I doing, correcting my language helper when I knew so very little about his language?
I felt so foolish when I realized that though the two statements did have identical sounds, there was a difference in the stress placed on one of the syllables.
— Charlie, GhanaWinter 2012-13
The missionary’s audience was a little perplexed as he told them the disciples were all on a “rock” in the middle of the sea. The audience wondered why the disciples were there and how they even got there. It was even more confusing when the missionary illustrated that Jesus Christ is our “boat” that never moves. They were curious to know how the motionless boat represented Christ. The message was clarified when the missionary realized he had confused the word “dunga” (boat) with “dhunga” (rock).
—Justin, NepalFall 2012
In Nepali culture, as in many cultures around the world, children are often a conversation piece. You often hear compliments such as “kasto ramro chhori!” which means, What a GOOD girl! given to the parents. However, an untrained foreigner who attempts to reproduce this compliment could easily offend the other parent by saying, “kasto ramro chori!” which means, What a good THIEF!
—Justin, NepalSpring 2012
We finished our first semester of Hebrew a few weeks ago. We are enjoying a break but are also looking forward to getting back to our studies. We now know enough Hebrew to be dangerous, and if we’re not careful, get into conversations past our understanding. The word for the phrase see you later is “lehitraot,” but I didn’t say it right. What I said was the word for pasta; it’s so easy to get some strange looks!
While visiting a church in the U.S.A., a missionary told of one occasion when he was preaching a sermon (possibly his first) in Japanese. “Sin will ruin your life; you must forsake your sin!” he cried, only to see bewilderment on the faces of the congregation. After the service, a kind Japanese man explained, “I think you meant to say sin; but the way you pronounced the word, it means wife!”Fall 2011
An American missionary was preaching in Romanian on the subject of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Vividly describing how the people shouted praises as Jesus rode into town, he failed to realize that he had mistaken the word Magyar (Hungarian) for măgar (donkey). The Romanians, of course, enjoyed a few laughs over the idea of Jesus being carried around on the back of a Hungarian.
—G. SutekSummer 2011
Years ago a missionary in Indonesia wanted his worker to cut the grass. However, he kept telling the man to get a hair cut. (Rambut means hair, and rumput means grass.) After three hair cuts and a nearly bald head, the error was detected.
Another blooper from Indonesia is the frequent misuse of the words kalapa and kapala. Kalapa means coconut and kapala means head. Though it is quite okay to drink coconut juice, it is not good to request head juice at a restaurant!
Once in Oaxaca, Mexico, while teaching in a home Bible study about Sabbath observance, I meant to say “sabatistas” (those who worship on Saturday), but I said “sabanistas.” “Sabanas” are bed sheets. Someone said, “Yeah, sabanitas are the people that stay in bed on Sunday and worship God between the sheets!” My preaching may not have always been edifying, but it was entertaining!
Today I sent my very first text message in Chinese characters (with the help of an English-Chinese dictionary). But I was still admittedly pretty proud of myself until I was double checking the last word… 谢谢 (“xie xie” – thank you) and realized it was the wrong characters… 腹泻. Although also pronounced “xie xie”, it has a totally different meaning (loose bowels or diarrhea).
I wanted to tell my language helper that we were finished for the day. But instead of saying “ta so” (we are finished), I said “ta sio” (go away). Thankfully my helper had a sense of humor and informed me that my way of dismissing people was probably not the best if I want to have friends. At times, living and learning in the village is very frustrating, but God is very abundant in His grace.
Yesterday, one of my fellow students said to me, “Tu es belle.” I responded, “Oui, c’est vrai,” because I thought he was saying the weather was beautiful. He chuckled a little. I replayed the short dialogue in my head because his chuckle seemed out of place, and it was an unusual way to remark about the weather. As I thought about what he said, I realized he was telling me I was beautiful (I was dressed up for church). My response was, “Yes, it’s true.” That was a bit humbling, especially when at that point I didn’t know what to say. Do I say, “Sorry, I thought you said something else,” or do I just let him think I’m conceited?
I was helping to clean the kitchen after a meal in Peru, and called for a rag—or so I thought. The co-laborer to whom I was speaking stopped, looked at me quizzically, and burst out laughing. Since I had asked for a “tropa” instead of a “trapo,” she thought I wanted a “troop” of soldiers to help us clean the kitchen!
Lungandan, a tribal language of Uganda, has many short affixes which give an utterance its meaning. These often string together to form long words which are difficult to read; and correct placing of word breaks is very important. When reading a passage in church, a native who was a poor reader caused some laughter and irritation. He sounded out a few syllables, returning to the beginning and adding a bit more each time until he could read the entire phrase. It came out: Awo Yesu which means “Then Jesus;” Awo yesuna— “Then he is pinching himself;” Awo Yesu n’abaga—”Then Jesus is chopping;” Awo Yesu n’abagamba— “Then Jesus saith unto them.” At one point, some in the congregation wondered aloud if Jesus were a butcher rather than a carpenter. What must they have thought about why he would be pinching himself!Fall 2009
Timothy, just before attending BBTI, was visiting western Ukraine and had learned some Russian. His friends there asked him what he planned to do when he returned to the US. Not knowing the word for “institute,” he used the word for “university.” He thought he was saying, “I am going to enroll in (pastupayu) a university,” but he actually said, “I am going to buy (pakupala) a university.” They were completely speechless as they processed this new information—they had a very rich American friend!Summer 2009
After church while we were waiting to eat, some church leaders asked me if we had corn in America. I said, “Yes, but it is not a staple food like it is here in Tanzania.” They then asked me what our staple food was. I answered that there are many different types but my favorite was shoes. They looked quite puzzled. One asked me how we cooked that. “We boil them in water until soft and then mash them with milk and butter,” I answered. (VIAYU . . . VIAZA) (shoes . . . potatoes) Their faces were blank so I added that my second favorite was lantern wicks. This time I actually used the right word because it is the same word as for spaghetti. But, because the villagers have never seen spaghetti, they had no reference but lantern wicks. Realizing their utter confusion, I corrected my mistakes. We all had a good laugh.
—Rodney MyersSpring 2009
Many words in Bislama are duplicated English words. For example lukluk is look and fatfat is fat. It is easy to make the mistake of thinking this applies to the majority of words. A missionary trying hard to do things the Ni-vanuatu way told the visitors arriving at his hut to come sitsit. Unfortunately, the Bislama word for sit is sidaon; sitsit means (to put it politely) go to the bathroom. Not quite what the missionary intended!Winter 2008-09
A newly arrived missionary in Costa Rica wanted to go to the market and begin learning Spanish. He looked up how to ask the price of things in his Spanish-English dictionary and found the words for “how” and “much” to be “como” and “mucho.” He walked around the market pointing at things and saying, “Como mucho.” Everyone laughed because he was actually saying, “I eat much.”Spring 2008
While preaching in an open air market, I was giving an illustration using clean water and dirty water. I held up the clean water bottle and said, “If I hit this water, it brings satisfaction.” Realizing immediately that hitting water is an expression meaning to drink hard liquor, I tried to correct myself before anyone had enough time to let it sink in — but it was too late. One by one, the crowd slowly lost it with snickering.Winter 2007-08
Not very long ago, upon sanguinely ordering a ‘coppie latte’ at the local Star Bucks, I was rewarded with that bemused look that has become as familiar to me as the back of my hand. Being accustomed to receiving such peculiar glances, I paid no heed, but Boyeun laughed. “Do you know what you just said?”
“Of course I do. Why?”
“You mean ‘cappie’. . . you ordered a bloody nose.”Fall 2007
Same Language, Different Country
A prospective missionary visiting Australia was speaking in a church, but his wife stayed in the hotel because she was sick. He told the congregation that his wife didn’t come with him because she was under the weather. He continued to say that she was perking up some. Actually, he told them that his wife was drunk and throwing up.Summer 2007
It was the missionary’s first sermon in Spanish. He excitedly told the people about Jesus’ grand entry into Jerusalem on a “burrito” (little donkey). He noticed the people looked slightly puzzled. After services, the veteran missionary informed him that it was the best sermon he had ever heard about Jesus riding a “pollito” (little chicken).Spring 2007
Elaine, a beginner in Spanish, was speaking to a church women’s group. She began by telling them that she was “embarazada,” which she thought meant embarrassed. After her talk, all the ladies hugged and congratulated her. Men have also made this hilarious mistake of saying “embarazado” (thinking it means embarrassed) and end up even more embarrassed because “embarazada” actually means pregnant!Winter 2006-07
Upon being “adopted” into a national pastor’s family, Michele began learning their complicated kinship system and made what she calls the “biggest language blooper of my short linguistic career.” Instead of addressing one of her new grandmothers (a nineteen year old girl) as “grandma Ata,” she accidentally said, “toilet Ata.” Everyone roared with laughter as Michele apologized with “sori navono,” very sorry.Fall 2006
It was 1965, and the American missionary at the First Baptist Church in Mexico City repeatedly asked the adults to go to their Sunday school class. There was much consternation until someone figured out what he meant to say. Instead of saying the word “adultos” (adults) he was saying “adúlteros” (adulterers). No wonder nobody wanted to get up and go to that class!Summer 2006
A national pastor in Mexico was complaining of a sinus infection, so the missionary’s wife gave him some sinus medication with specific instruction to put three “gotas” (drops) in each nostril. With wide eyes, he emphatically shook his head in refusal. She had said to put three “gatos” (cats) in each nostril!Spring 2006
The rice field workers had just freed the missionary’s jeep from the mud when he realized he had no money. In broken Korean, he said, “Come back tomorrow, and I will pay you.” The next day the rice fields were abandoned. After investigating, he learned he had placed his words in the wrong order, changing the meaning to “Come back tomorrow, and you will pay me.”Winter 2005-2006
A missionary preaching in Mexico City from the story of Hannah read where Hannah told her husband that she wouldn’t take the child Samuel up to the tabernacle until he was weaned. Instead of saying “destetado” (weaned), he said “destazado” (to chop up). It was even more hilarious when Elkanah responded, “Do what seemeth thee good; tarry until thou have ‘chopped’ him.”