Multilingual People Share Their “They Didn’t Know I Spoke Their Language” Stories
In today’s world, almost everyone is either an immigrant, has dual Citizenship, or can speak more than one language. It should be safe to assume then, that if you speak a language (any language!), there’s someone around who can probably speak it, too. But that hasn’t stopped people from trash-talking others, assuming they can’t understand. So what happens when someone does understand? These people share their best “they didn’t know I spoke their language” stories.
Don’t forget to check the comment section below the article for more interesting stories!
#1 Have Some Respect
#2 He’s Cute
I speak French, but not fluently, although I am a French/American citizen. I was at my first girlfriend’s house for the first time eating dinner with them. We go upstairs afterwards and her little sister comes in as we are selecting a movie to watch. They’re Canadian and speak French at home a lot. The girl comes in and starts talking about how cute I am and so forth to her sister. And then her sister banters back about how she agrees and then turns to me and asks me in French if I agree. I responded in French that I appreciated it. Cue bashful run-up to her room.
#3 Too Shy to Say
When I was in school (I was 12ish I think), I went on a French exchange. I wasn’t very confident in general or in my speaking ability, so I mostly just stayed quiet around my exchange partner and her friends. While we were walking to school with her friend, I listened to their conversation and she told her friend I was stupid and didn’t speak any French. It was pretty hurtful, but due to the aforementioned lack of self-confidence, I didn’t say anything and just never spoke to her again after the week was over.
#4 Here’s the Stapler
I was working at a front desk with two co-workers who were related. They were speaking Spanish and one of them was talking about how she thought I was weird and act too professional all the time.” She then asked, “Where is the stapler?” in Spanish. I picked up the stapler and without looking at her I extend my arm to pass it. She then asked if I speak Spanish and understood the whole conversation. I told her I speak fluent Italian and took Spanish classes in school.
#5 I Have Cancer
My mom’s friend and her aunt were on a bus. A very sickly looking woman sat in front of them. They just started talking between themselves and said something along the lines of “That lady looks like death.” She turned around and in Polish said, “I have cancer.”
#6 How Can He Eat That?
I was at the mall eating McDonald’s when I was a teenager. A bunch of old Italian guys were hanging around the food court and one asked, “How can he eat that awful stuff?” in Italian while looking at me. I looked up and stared at him. I said, “Because I’m really hungry” in Italian. All of his buddies started laughing.
#7 We Can Handle the Heat
I was picking up food from a local Mexican place. The lady at the counter asked if I wanted salsa and I said no. The guy behind me said in Spanish, “Those gringos can’t handle real Mexican sauce.” I turned and said in Spanish, “My wife is Mexican, we make our own.” The guy didn’t say anything. On my way out I heard his friends laugh.
#8 Dumb, Fat American Tourists
I was waiting in line with my sister to take a boat tour in California and ahead of us was a group of about six German-speaking people. The wait to board the boat was long and they got to talking. At first, it was about how nice the weather was, and then it turned to how annoying Americans can be, especially fat, dumb, tourist Americans.
They cracked a couple of jokes having to do with American stereotypes. While this was happening, the line started moving and people started boarding the boat. But the group was too wrapped up in their own jokes to realize it. So I finally turned around to them, and in fluent German asked if they were part of the tour and if they were getting on the boat. They stopped dead in their joking tracks and said yes. So I replied that they had better get a move on, because the dumb, fat, American tourist standing right behind them wanted to get on the boat too. They all looked really embarrassed.
#9 Pretty Woman
I’m a white guy who has been living in Singapore for the last two years. I speak fluent Mandarin. I hear a lot of people talking about me, but one of the cutest moments was as I was walking out of the train, an older lady looked up at me in shock and said, “Wow, handsome man,” to her friend in Mandarin. I replied, “Wow, pretty woman,” as we walked by each other. It couldn’t have lasted longer than a few seconds. The last thing I saw was her blushing and her friend laughing at her as the doors closed.
#10 Do You Not Like What I’m Saying?
I’m Mexican but I studied my college degrees in the U.S. When I was studying abroad in Germany, I only spoke English to my German classmates. Four months in, we were waiting for a train at a station and a group of young South American tourists were being loud and just waiting beside us. I could understand every word they’re saying and they suddenly start talking smack about our group.
I don’t blame them at all they were just bored at the train station trying to pass time but I smiled and looked at them. One of the guys looked back and said in Spanish, “Do you not like what I’m saying, idiot?” I responded in Spanish, “It’s been a long time since someone insulted me in my language.” The guy has a speechless look on his face and all his friends looked at me. We had a laugh and soon after that both our groups sat together and had a nice time talking, their English was good enough to have small chat with.
#11 Not an Idiot
In Prague, I asked a lady something in English and her English was too poor for her to understand. I can not speak Russian but have learned a bit of it and Czech is pretty close. Her grandmother was with her and the lady I was talking to said I was an idiot asking stupid questions, so I said in rough Russian, “I’m not an idiot, I’m sorry I cannot speak Czech.” She went red.
#12 Bad Barbeque
I’m Japanese and live in Japan, but I went to college and law school in the States so I’d like to think I speak fluent English. I was in a small city outside the 23 ward which has a pretty prominent language school, so there are a lot of foreigners in the area. I used to bartend there when I was younger and one of my coworkers from that time had opened a small barbeque restaurant in the area, so I decided to stop by and congratulate him.
There was a couple of American guys, probably in their early 20s, just completely trashing the place saying it wasn’t authentic and that they did it better in Texas or wherever they were from. So after I had finished talking with my ex-coworker, I turned around and told the two American men that if they wanted authentic barbeque, they should just go back home to America, no one is subjecting you to this restaurant.
#13 Not Selling Raffles
I was promoting a wine event and I went up to an English couple on vacation in Portugal. They said something along the lines of, “Here comes a Portuguese, trying to sell us raffles or something stupid.” They didn’t say much when I explained the event to them in English.
#14 Merry Christmas
When my mom and my dad were enjoying their first Christmas together, they were in a small village in Austria in the early 80s. For Christmas Eve when they went out to dinner, there was a man in the restaurant with a dog sitting at the table (like, the guy was putting food on the plate in front of his dog, dog was eating it, etc). My mom proceeded to spend a lot of time telling my dad how disgusting and unsanitary this was of the guy to do etc, and when guy and dog finished their meal he just went up to my parents’ table, said “kellemes karacsonyi unnepeket kivanok,” and left. In Hungarian, this is the polite way of telling a stranger you wish them a merry Christmas.
#15 Detroit is Dangerous
I speak Dari, one of the two official languages of Afghanistan. On a trip, I overheard two Afghans. One was telling the other to be careful, Detroit was more dangerous than Kabul.
#16 German Dungeon
I was touring some old dungeons in Germany. It was just me and my family, and an older German couple. They were kind of dissing my country the whole time, thinking we couldn’t understand them. We got to a room where they locked people by their feet and the German man said to his wife and the tour guide in German, “This is where you should go if you can’t speak German.” I turned to him and in perfect German replied, “Then it’s a good thing I can speak German.” The look on his face was priceless.
#17 No, I Won’t Buy Your Expensive Sausages
In Catalunya, in a market, a seller spotted us as tourists immediately and tried to sell us his dried sausages more expensive than to the Catalan person before. I told him in Catalan that it is not fair to ask us French people to pay more.
#18 Rich Little White Girl
My friend’s mom is from Vietnam, but her dad is from the States and is white. For whatever, reason my friend looks like a typical white brunette girl, but speaks Vietnamese with her mom’s side of the family all the time and is fluent. So, one day, we got off school. We went to a Catholic high school and walked over to a nail salon a few blocks away to get our nails done. The ladies running the salon were speaking Vietnamese, and according to my friend were talking smack about us the entire time we were there.
They were talking about how rich we must be and how, “These little white girls can probably sleep with whoever they want and get ahead.” I was completely oblivious to this the entire time, but as we were about to pay, my friend told me all the terrible things they were saying, so we didn’t tip them.
We started to leave and one of the workers said something about how the rich white girls couldn’t even afford to tip. My friend turned around and yelled at them in perfect Vietnamese about how if they expect their business to stay open, they shouldn’t talk badly about their customers in front of their face. I didn’t understand a word of it, but the workers were in utter shock and sheepishly apologized to both of us.
#19 Have a Good Day
My Father’s Story. We were at a Chinese restaurant and my youngest brother, who was about three, knocked over and broke his cup. The manager and waitress were talking very rudely about my brother’s behavior in Mandarin. As he was paying the bill, my dad, who served an LDS Mission in Taiwan and continued to use Mandarin in his work, told them to have a good day. They went very red.
#20 Fat American
When I lived in China, I went to an international school so I would frequently use English with my classmates even though I spoke and understood Chinese. One day, I was walking with a classmate when I overheard these old Chinese ladies talking about how it was obvious we were American because we were so fat. We were both average-sized–neither fat nor thin. My friend doesn’t understand Chinese so I decided to ignore it since we were just passing by.
Later, we were at the fruit stand and the ladies come around looking to buy fruit. I’m standing in front of whatever they were trying to look at and any time they’d try to move around me, I’d shift subtly so they couldn’t. I hear one of them start huffing about how she can’t get by, and in Chinese, I respond with “I’d move but as a fat American it’d do no good.” The ladies just looked at me then started laughing and were like “Oh, the fat American has good Chinese!”
#21 You Didn’t Teach Your Family to Speak Italian?
I was a freshman in college and was meeting my new boyfriend’s grandparents for the first time. They were very Italian. He told them I was also Italian. You’d think they would have used some common sense. Anyway, we’re all at the dinner table when the grandparents start speaking to each other in Italian about how I am the devil that is going to ruin his college football career, and how they need to tell his mom to force him to get rid of me.
How can I be Italian with my hair color? I must come from a terrible background if my parents are allowing me to spend the night in his parent’s house for the weekend, etc. The family looked uncomfortable. They didn’t speak a ton of Italian, but they knew it was all about me.
There was an awkward pause where the grandma smiled nicely at me and I said, in perfect Italian, “Perhaps you should be sure that the person you are speaking so highly of doesn’t also speak the language that you are using. That’s very rude. If you want to speak of my upbringing, I suggest you take a look at yours. By the way, my nonna and papa taught us to speak their language. You didn’t teach your family? Surprising.” I smiled nicely and went back to eating. The look on their faces was PRICELESS.
#22 You Have to Ask
I was in Poland for a holiday with two friends. We were standing outside a bar and I said to my friend (in Dutch): “Those girls over there are really hot, should we ask them to join us?” One of the girls turned around, and said in almost perfect Dutch: “You won’t find out if you don’t ask.” Que my friends laughing and me standing there flabbergasted.
#23 Watch What You Say
For an assignment in school I had to shadow a Hawaiian tattoo artist. This guy was old school, still using turtle shells and tapping the ink into skin. He and his apprentice were speaking in Hawaiian to one another, often mentioning me and the other shadow-ee. Hawaiian speakers are pretty rare so I don’t blame him for assuming we didn’t speak their language.
We would ask questions and write down the answers, so I ended up asking him a question in Hawaiian. He and the apprentice didn’t stop tattooing, but they briefly gave each other a very subtle “oh” look, and then said in Hawaiian, “We’ve got to watch what we say now.” They were good guys, but a lesson was definitely learned.
#24 You Aren’t Getting Tipped
I’m a Canadian. I was with an English group in a very french town in Northern Quebec. The waitress was talking bad about us being anglophones the whole night to her coworkers and the bartender. She was doing it fairly loudly, which I found weird in a bilingual country.
When she came around with the bills, I put on my best Québécois accent and said in French, ” I hope you aren’t expecting a tip from these stupid English people, because you sure as hell aren’t getting one,” and told the group we were leaving. She chased us out of the restaurant screaming at us in French, I flipped her off and we left.
#25 Hablo Espanol
I was long term subbing a low-income Hispanic school. In my first-grade class, a kid leaned over to another kid and started making fun of me in Spanish then I said “Hablo Espanol” and they started crying.
#26 Watch Your Mouth
I’m Brazilian but extremely white and I do look like an American when travelling abroad. I speak Portuguese, English, and Spanish and I can understand some French. The most memorable moment of understanding what people are saying when they believe you don’t happened to me in Portland (OR) when I lived there.
With all that rain, I became even more white and I was wearing my Pittsburgh Steelers cap. There were these two Brazilian girls speaking Portuguese in front of me in a line of a Blazers game, and they were being extremely rude to everyone, saying that everyone in America was fat, ugly and full of themselves.
So, one of them looked at me and said to the other one, “Well, this one is not fat or ugly, but probably is full of himself with this cap.” I just replied, “Thank you for your compliments, and watch what you’re saying.” They apologized and got out of the line.
#27 Five-Star Passenger
I was Uber driving and I picked up Yangervis Solarte, third baseman of the Padres. He had tried to get an Uber Select or an Uber XL and none were available so he ended up in my tiny Chevy Sonic. Him and his brother squeezed in my backseat for a 30-minute ride.
They start making fun of the car and I said, “Me amo coche”, which roughly translates to, “I love this car,” and he started laughing. Coolest dude ever though. We spent 30 minutes talking about playing in the majors, best and worst cities, his family and home town. He definitely was a five-star passenger.
#28 That’s Not Gonna Happen
I’m an American traveling abroad in the Middle East and went on a date with an Arab guy. He asked me if I spoke Arabic, but since I’m not comfortable speaking it, I just said no. I can understand most things, though, and can speak if pressed. Dinner was great, we got along well, and then went to smoke shisha at a local cafe. The owner, who was my date’s buddy, asked who I was in Arabic.
He smiled at me sweetly, squeezed my hand, and told his friend in Arabic, “An American who I’m going to sleep with later.” I kept a stupid, docile smile on my face. When the owner took my order, I told him in Arabic, “and one tea for the American who he will not sleep with later.” The look on both of their faces was priceless. Needless to say I ended up taking a cab home.
#29 I Could Understand Everything
A bunch of Chinese guys were talking about my friend in a very indecent manner. They were talking about how her body looks. She was right behind them. She tapped on one of their shoulders and said something along the lines of, “I could understand everything you said and you’re all ugly,” in Chinese.
#30 Spanish Cashier
So. I’m an American, living in the United States and I speak fluent English. I did take Spanish in high school and while I didn’t really retain much, I can still take a pretty decent gander if I want to. I work in a landscape supply store and most of my customers happen to be Hispanic. Sometimes, they will talk to each other in Spanish while buying materials and I can kind of get the gist of what they’re saying.
One time, two guys came in and started discussing what materials they were getting and how much. By the time they came up to me, I had already rung them up for what they had been talking about getting. They were really surprised that I understood them and tried talking to me in Spanish. I had to tell them my Spanish was limited so they tried teaching me a few new words while they finished their transaction.
#31 Don’t Even Try It
I was 18 and working at a car wash. I didn’t let them know I spoke Spanish. In traditional Mexican style, some of my coworker’s sense of humor was great but pretty mean. They were like my older brothers and I was a tiny little blonde-haired blue-eyed preppy kid from the suburbs. They didn’t realize that meant I took four years of foreign language in school.
Anyway, I kept my head down and didn’t let on until one day, I heard them plotting a prank on me. So as I was hopping in a customer’s car to move it onto the conveyor, I casually shouted over my shoulder “Don’t even try it, or you’ll regret it,” in perfect Spanish.
#32 What We’re Doing Tonight
I was on a subway car in Toronto when a French couple were chatting about innocuous stuff when the husband started chatting to his wife about what he wants to do to her. It’s graphic. She had a toque in her hand, but unknowingly dropped it. So, I saw my chance. I pick up her hat and tell her that she lost it in French. Both of their faces went white. She just meekly thanked me. I stood up, got off the subway and felt a sense of glee at having ruined their evening.
#33 Two Can Play That Game
I’m Eurasian (look fully white though) and live in Hong Kong where the predominant language is Cantonese. When I was 10 years old, I joined a basketball team as the only girl and certainly the only “white” person. Basically, these boys were complaining (in Cantonese) that they had to play with a girl and that girls can’t play basketball. Cue surprise and embarrassment when this white-looking, tiny girl busts out in perfect Cantonese, “You know I can understand everything you’re saying right?”
#34 I Can Explain in German
I’m an American who is fluent in German. This past fall, I was studying abroad in Bologna, Italy. I was shopping for food and a German tourist comes up to me and asks if I speak English. I say yes I’m American. He asks, “Do you know if I can drink in the street, or are there laws against it?”
“I’m not sure, I drink outside all of the time and have never had an issue but to tell you the truth I don’t know if it’s illegal.” He says thanks, then turns to his friend and says in German, “I have no idea what she just said.” So then I say, in German, “I can explain it to you in German if you think you’d understand it better.” He was surprised but we laughed and had a good conversation in German after that!
#35 Do You Have Any Grape Juice?
I studied Mandarin in college for a few years and ended up travelling to China for a summer. I was in a small corner store one day and there were two women working. I’m a 6’4″ American man and I heard one of them say, “He is so big!” The other woman said, “Shh… He can hear you!” The first woman said, “No, he doesn’t speak Chinese.”
They giggled to each other and I just went about my way getting the items I needed. When it was time to check out, I walked up to the counter, then decided to have a little fun with them. I said, in Mandarin, “Do you have any grape juice? I wasn’t able to find it.” The first woman’s eyes got really big and the other one just started to laugh. I thanked them then went on my way.
At a hot spring in Colorado after a long, relaxing soak, I was walking towards the exit with all of my belongings in my arms when a big yawn took over me. The woman in the closest spring exclaimed, “You should really cover your mouth next time, I thought you were going to eat me!” in Polish. Without hesitation, I turned to her and said “Przepraszam” (I’m sorry) and she laughed so hard out of embarrassment that we could hear her all the way to the parking lot.
#37 Looks Cute
I’m half Lebanese and half Indian and have dark skin. Sadly, I do not know any Hindi or many of India’s other languages but I do know Arabic. I was standing in the bus one day when these two Arab girls started saying that I look cute. I was too embarrassed to say anything but I felt good after getting off the bus. Sad to say this is one of the few times I’ve been called attractive.
#38 Not an Ape
I (an African American teenager) went to a Chinese restaurant and immediately the lady behind the counter looked up and back at her husband and shouted in mandarin, “One ape in the door! Go serve it.” It took me a minute to realize I hadn’t translated that incorrectly. When the husband asked what I wanted, I responded in Chinese, “This ape doesn’t want to give any money to your establishment,” and left. Won’t ever forget the look of terror, shock, and stupidity on his face.
#39 Happily Ever After
American here. I studied abroad at a Japanese university back in college. I did a lot of self-study and was more or less fluent in Japanese by that point. During my abroad semester, I was hanging around campus and overheard a cute Japanese girl talking to her friend about how attractive I was. I took the opportunity to thank her and now we’ve been happily married for five years with a baby girl on the way!
#40 Shouldn’t Tell Me Your Cards
I was in prison in the United States where a lot of people speak Spanish. Fortunately, I kept it to myself that I did as well. I was at the table playing poker to make a little money and to pass the time. A few Latinos were playing as well. They would tell each other their cards in Spanish then laugh like they weren’t talking about cards. Needless to say this gave me quite the advantage.
But things got a little more interesting when they started talking about my win streak. One mentioned to the other that he thought I was cheating and suggested that they don’t pay me what they owed (which is a good way to get into a fight in prison). So I calmly said to them in Spanish, “Si no me quieres dinero, tal vez no me digas cuáles son tus cartas.” Roughly translated, that means, “If you don’t want to owe me money, then you shouldn’t tell me your cards.” It was such an epic moment I’ll never forget the look on their faces.
#41 I’m Single
I was working in Spain in the ’90s. I am a tall, blonde guy so I stick out from the olive skin and brown hair. While I was in the elevator, two (apparently single) women walked in the elevator and were talking about my hair and how they were looking for “German guys” who looked like me (I’m not even german). On my way out of the elevator, I turned and said “I’m single” in Spanish. I am now married to one of the women in the elevator. It is a great story to tell our kids.
#42 What Are You Looking At?
My brother is white and speaks Mandarin. In a Chinese restaurant, one of the guys at a table next to us glanced at my brother and whispered to his friend in Mandarin, “What the heck is that white boy looking at?” A few minutes later, my brother ordered for our table in Mandarin. The look on the faces of the guys at the table was priceless.
#43 I May Be Tacky, But…
My grandma could speak Arabic fluently. One time, we were out and some women behind us in line were mocking her, calling her tacky, making fun of her bad dye job, etc. She turned around and said in Arabic, “I may be tacky, but at least I’m not stupid enough to assume nobody can understand me.” They were so mortified.
#44 Your Teacher Always Knows
On a school trip to Germany, I was walking through a mall in Koblenz with a friend joking about how the locals didn’t understand when I swore in English, “So I can say “F.., S…, B…, C… and nobody knows what I mean!!” A voice behind me said, “I know what you mean.” It was one of my teachers.
#45 Don’t Be Rude to Mom
My mom is deaf and I grow up with ASL so I’m very fluent. Many people actually think I’m deaf because I’m so fluent. Anyway, at a JCPenny outlet my mom and I were talking (well, signing) and the retail lady was getting impatient and said, “Can you hurry up?” Well, I heard that and let her have it. Don’t be rude to my mom, I’ll fight you.