Multilinguals Share Their ‘They Didn’t Realize I Could Understand Them’ Story
Research says that more than half of the global population speaks at least two languages. Being multilingual can open up a world of possibilities—it can help you communicate with more people, understand more cultures, get more jobs and much better salaries. One slightly negative consequence of speaking more than one language is that you can sometimes find yourself understanding private conversations.
For instance, people who assume others only speak one language can be in for a rude awakening. Here are some hilarious and even shocking stories of multilingual individuals catching people saying things they probably shouldn’t have been saying loud enough for others to hear. A word to the wise: never assume others don’t speak your language, and you’ll save yourself a whole lot of face.
#1 Bacon Actually Goes Quite Well With Chicken
#2 Matchmaker, Matchmaker
I was solo traveling in Morocco. I’m 22 and speak Arabic well enough to understand conversations—basic words, phrases, etc. I was trying on clothes at a small shop and there were two women helping me choose what to try on. They started talking about me in Arabic, saying how I would be a great wife for one of their sons. They were going on and on, and as I was leaving, I responded in Arabic, “No thank you, but I appreciate your help.” They were stunned.
#3 She Showed Them Difficult
I’m African American. My dad was in the military, stationed in Korea from his late teens to mid-20s. He picked up on the language, and as a child, he taught me. It was like our secret language to talk around my mom with, and she hated it. Anyway, I went to a college that had a large Asian population. While some of my friends and I were in a study room, a group of students came in and asked us to leave so they could use the room (in English).
There was no time limit or no sign-up for the room, so we didn’t have to leave. I explained that we were here first and that they could find a different room. They then started speaking Korean and said something along the lines of, “Ugh, of course, the black girl is being difficult, they’ve been here for a while now, so they need to leave. Maybe we can lie and say the professor reserved it.” I responded, in Korean, “Call me names in English so I can punch you in the face.” Their faces turned bright red and they couldn’t say anything; they just looked at me in shock.
#4 The Universal Language of “Women Problems”
I was a high school student in Toronto, but I speak Slovak, which is similar to Czech and Polish. I was going to school on the subway in the morning and two good looking women started to talk in Polish right next to me. I usually like to strike up conversations with fellow Eastern Europeans. Unfortunately, they started talking about how one of them had a burning “lady parts” problem.
With nowhere to move on the packed subway and no headphones, it was an awkward thing for me, at 15 years old, to hear. It got a little worse later when they started to talk about more serious women problems. Now, I have no issues with that type of conversation nowadays of course, but 15-year-old virgin me was a bit mortified.
#5 Accidentally Overhearing A Sweet Exchange For A Change
#6 Skin Color Does Not Determine One’s Language Skills
My dad is a very white guy with an equally white Irish last name. However, he was born and raised in India. He speaks a variety of languages (Gujarati, Hindi, Konkani, English, Portuguese, etc.) One time, he was at an airport and sitting across from two young Indian women. One was saying to the other in Hindi: “Look at that fat old white guy over there.” My dad got up, walked over to them and greeted them in Hindi, proceeding to make small talk about their flights and days. From his telling, there was a mix of shock and absolute embarrassment coming from them. He smiled and walked back to his baggage.
#7 They Lost The Job For That Assumption
#8 Be Careful Who You Call An Old Hag
#9 You Never Know Who Is Listening
#10 Language Can Be Fun And Games
#11 Just A Little Fat
#12 Unsolicited Opinions
My significant other is a tattoo artist who can speak Bulgarian, Turkish, English and German. One day, we were in line at the supermarket and two guys behind us were laughing. They were saying, “Look at her arm. Those tattoos. Disgusting. How can you tattoo a naked woman on yourself?” In Turkish, my significant other turned around and said, “Thanks, man.”
At first, the guy asked her to repeat because he didn’t even register that she was speaking Turkish and assumed he misheard English. That’s when she said, “For the tattoo opinion.” It was funny from there. The guy apologized and said he has never felt so much shame in his life. This was in a small town outside of Dublin city, so I can understand why they didn’t think there would be any Turkish speakers around.
#13 Gracias, Boo
I was in line to renew my license at the DMV. Two Latina girls were behind me talking about my pretty blue eyes in Spanish. They turned three shades of red when I turned around and said, “Thank you.” They shouldn’t have felt embarrassed because it wasn’t like they were talking bad about me, but I guess they were just surprised I understood what they were saying.
#14 He Got All Their Secrets Without Them Knowing
#15 Caught In A Lie
My husband is bilingual. He’s from Colombia, so he speaks Spanish fluently, but grew up in the U.S and has been here most of his life. He also has a really fair complexion. Most people think he’s just Caucasian. Anyway, we were in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico looking for a place to eat. We got to a restaurant and he asked, in English, how much it would cost for the all-you-can-eat tacos option.
The guy at the door said, “It’s $15.” His friend next to him then said to the guy in Spanish, “I thought it’s $12?” And the first guy responded, “Yeah, but they don’t know that.” My husband, of course, understood everything. He told them, in Spanish, that they’re lying rip-offs and that we’d be going somewhere else. The guy’s expression was priceless.
#16 Either Way, That Poor Bird
#17 Way To Go, Dad
My dad speaks five languages: English, Afrikaans, French, Italian, and German. He immigrated to the UK in early 1995 when a lot of other South Africans were doing the same due to embedded racism of a fledgling nation. He was on the underground in London when he overheard two guys speaking about a pretty woman on the train in Afrikaans.
According to dad, they were being incredibly rude and using quite graphic descriptions of what they wanted to do to her. My dad decided to speak up, telling them to screw off and refrain from speaking about people that way as they don’t know who is listening.” The two guys looked horror-struck and shut up immediately. The lady turned to my dad at her stop and said, in fluent Afrikaans, “I bet they couldn’t do half those things anyway. Big talkers rarely have much to brag about.” My dad just laughed in shock and watched her get off the train.
#18 Keep Your Child-Rearing Advice To Yourself
I live in Austria, but my dad is from Brazil. All my Austrian aunts and uncles married Brazilians. My grandparents from my mother’s side opened a factory for our family company in Brazil. That’s why everyone was there, but mom and dad eventually came back to Austria. My siblings and I were raised multilingual, but we lived most of our lives in Austria.
Once, when I was around 10, my mom and I were on a tram in Vienna with my little brother, who was around two at the time. He started crying really loudly, then one Brazilian lady started speaking really loudly and in an obnoxious tone. She said something in the lines of, “Well, these European folks don’t know how to treat their children with love, how can someone be so cold and unaffectionate to a child as to let them scream without taking them out of the stroller and holding them?”
I was getting worried we were doing something wrong. I wanted to comfort my brother and get him out, but my mom stopped me and really loudly said in Portuguese, “Leave him, it is too dangerous to take him out of the stroller while we are standing here and the tram is moving.” You could see the women’s faces go from red to white and back to red. We just started laughing and my brother ultimately calmed down.
#19 Brother Learns His Lesson
A long time ago, my brother had a habit of making remarks about people in Spanish whenever he got annoyed. I told him it wasn’t cool, not because he shouldn’t be talking Spanish in public, but that he shouldn’t be using it in such an underhanded way. If he had a grievance that he needed to get off his chest, he should tell them in a language they are likely to understand. He kept doing it anyway.
One time, we were leaving a major retailer and the store greeter asked to see his receipt before he could exit with the bagged merchandise in the cart. He had a hard time finding where he put his receipt and he got frustrated. He switched to Spanish and said some variation of “this old hag” and the store greeter immediately called him out on it in Spanish.
He was like a deer caught in the headlights. I was so happy she did it. He made a weak attempt to reassert his right to be frustrated at the situation, but you could see he was very embarrassed at having been caught talking trash in Spanish. I love my brother, but I’m glad he stopped doing that soon after. It was a good lesson learned.
#20 When A Guatemalan Looks Asian
#21 It Turns Out She Would Have Said It In Any Language
#22 What One Guy Will Do Just To Have A Girlfriend
I lived in Japan when I was little and retook Japanese in college so that I didn’t sound like a child when I spoke. To solidify my new language skills, I went to my “hometown” for about six weeks a summer during college. It was a small town so most people remembered me or my family, but some people I stayed with were new to the area.
One of those families had a high school aged son who wanted to borrow me for his high school’s International Festival. No problem. I figured I’d go and let other high schoolers practice their English with me and do carnival games. However, the guy apparently did not get the message that I spoke Japanese and proceeded to introduce me to all his friends as his girlfriend.
I let him have his moment for the night (without leading him on), but on the train ride back to his home, he was talking to his friend in Japanese and I joined in on the conversation—also in Japanese. The embarrassment on his face was worth the lies he spread about us. I love being multilingual because of situations like that!
#23 It’s All Greek To Her
I am Greek but I study in Belgium. Greeks are notorious for talking about people loudly when abroad. The language is rare enough that most people, including me, usually feel comfortable doing that. The only problem with that logic is, there are so many of us around the world, it’s generally not a good idea. So I get on the tram one day and there’s this woman sitting across from me. She says to her friend, very loudly and in Greek, “What is that supposed to be, a boy or a girl?”
Some context for non-Greeks—we have a third, neutral gender that we use for objects, animals, or when talking about someone in a very rude and derogatory way. That is what she used, and in a very mocking tone as well. So I very calmly validated my ticket, and as I was walking away I replied, also in Greek, “It’s a girl. And it speaks Greek as well.” Her face was hilarious. She just made a mortified “Ah” sound and didn’t utter another word until she got off a few stops later. I love this story, but it kind of terrifies me as well. I avoid talking about other people, but I do tend to have very personal conversations with my Greek friends in public places.
#24 A Wisecrack Turns Into A Friendship
#25 That Behavior Is Not Too Surprising From A Mother-In-Law
My former in-laws speak Italian. I went into the marriage not knowing Italian, but I picked it up pretty well. My mother-in-law had a bad habit of talking to her family about me in Italian while I was sitting right there. Every one of them spoke English, so it wasn’t as if she had to speak it to be understood. I put up with it, and it became interesting to hear what she had to say about me to the family while I was there.
I got out of the marriage due mostly to her son’s treatment of me, but her actions didn’t help. One day, she called me. She was going on about how I was a terrible wife and mother. So I remarked, “You know, I actually understand Italian. I understood everything you said about me when you thought I didn’t know.” She went quiet and cut the call short. It was wonderful.
#26 One Language Short
#27 Trading Insults For Free Lunch
#28 A Happy Memory
#29 Everyone Ended Up Being A Good Sport
#30 The Old “I Don’t Speak Your Language” Trick To Get Out Of A Jam
I had to act as if I didn’t speak a language. I was going back home after having studied for a while in Uppsala, Sweden and during the time I spent there, I learned quite a bit of Swedish. Anyways, to go back home, I had to buy a train ticket to Arlanda airport from Uppsala central to get to my flight which was really early in the morning.
However, the first train that arrived at the station was a different train which I did not buy a ticket for. I worried that I would be late to the airport, I still took the train thinking that they almost never check the tickets. Well, they did a ticket check that day. The controller asked me in Swedish to see the ticket, so I handed it to him. He looked at me and said in Swedish, “Wrong ticket.”
I decided to pull a dumb tourist move and point to my passport, then say in a bad French accent, “Sorry, I don’t speak Swedish.” I explained that I thought the ticket I had was the right one to go to the airport. He immediately gave me my ticket back and said that it was okay, but to check next time. I got off without any fine or anything like that because I faked not being able to speak Swedish. I still feel bad about it today.
#31 That Is One Happy Aunt
My family is Italian, I don’t speak the language but I have a pretty good understanding of it after listening to my dad and nonna over the years. We went to Italy to visit family and my great aunt was talking about how she was so happy to meet us. She asked me if I could understand her and when I said yes, she broke into a huge smile and gave me a hug. It was so sweet.
#32 There Are Still Kind People In The World
#33 All’s Well As Long As They Get Their Wine
I married a Chinese woman who speaks Cantonese and Mandarin. I speak fluent Japanese. While in Japan, we went to a restaurant in Roppongi. The waitress approached us and began her evening script of the menu, specials, drinks, etc. However, she was speaking directly to my wife. I guess since my wife was Asian, and I was not, she assumed that she spoke the language.
My wife was very confused. When the waitress finished her speech with, “What can I start you with today?” my wife had no reply. The waitress began to look confused and ashamed as if she had done something wrong. That’s when I chimed in with, “My wife is Chinese, but I’d like to know what’s on your wine menu tonight, please.” Then everyone had a good laugh.
#34 Lies Can Cost You When You’re Caught
I’m an extremely white American man. I was stationed in Korea a few years ago. I went into a store that was slightly “off the beaten path.” My buddy came with me and he was in a different section of the store. He found something he liked and asked the shopkeep how much it was. The shopkeep said, in Korean, “Well, you’re an American, so $65.”
I looked over and saw a sign on the wall that said the exact item he wanted was $40. I approached the shopkeep and asked him, in Korean, how much it cost, to which he replied $40. So I responded, in Korean, “Why are you charging him $65?” He got rather embarrassed and apologetic, offered to sell the item for $35. He also gave us each a soft drink for free.
#35 A Touchy Subject In Germany
#36 He’s Not Just Some Little Black Kid
At my old job, a couple of Mexican guys came in with a fuel injector but they didn’t know what it was called in English or Spanish. I asked them what car it was for and they looked at each other, saying in Spanish: “This little black kid doesn’t know anything about cars, ask him to get a manager.” I promptly replied to them in Spanish, “I am the manager and I was asking what car is it for,” then back to English I said, “That’s called a fuel injector, sir.” They were all surprised and trying to be chummy with me. I gave them that nice smug smile back.
#37 You Never Know Who’s Got A Deaf Sister
Two deaf people were in my store signing insults at me. My sister is deaf. I know American Sign Language. After I got their money, I kindly told them to get out and ended the conversation with the one sign everyone knows. It’s really unfortunate to see people use ASL to speak negatively about someone else.
#38 Gringo Taxes
#39 A Serious Case Of No Dignity
I’m a French-American living in Orlando. One time, I was in line at Disney and my friends and I were placing orders, but the staff kept saying they were out of what we were ordering. We ended up looking at the menu for a little bit before placing another order. Some Parisian guy behind us said, in French, “I don’t think these dummies could take any longer if they wanted to,” so I abruptly turned around and said, in perfect French, that it was pretty unfortunate that they ran out of what we wanted and that he shouldn’t talk like that in front of his daughter.
He just looked shocked and we left. As we were eating, this guy sent over his daughter to tell us he was sorry and that he didn’t realize that they were out of what we wanted! It was obviously not her fault so we were okay with her, but what kind of father sends his daughter to apologize for him? To a group of teens no less.
#40 The Moral Of The Story: Don’t Scam People
I lived in Riga for a short while and went out almost every Friday to meet girls. Riga has a lot of visitors from the UK and I’ve spent a chunk of my time in the US, so I generally speak English in the center. I feel more comfortable using it. However, I also speak Russian. One time, I was drinking an adult beverage in a bar and some cute Russian girl came up to me and started speaking English. She invited me to have an adult beverage with her and her friend. I didn’t really have anything else going for me that night, so I agreed.
What followed is an hour of them trying to make me buy them a Dom Perignon bottle. They also talked to the bartender (who knows me fairly well) about how they were going to rip me off big time and that I was a foreign idiot. I ended up buying them four adult beverages totally out of decency. It was a lot of fun for a while, I’ll give them that. Eventually, I got really tired of it all and my friend hit me up, so I just switched to Russian, thanked them for a nice evening and left. Their faces were red from embarrassment and anger. Oh well. Don’t scam people.
#41 How To Lose A Customer Real Quick
#42 Leave The Store Before You Start Bragging About Shoplifting
#43 The African Diplomat
In India, I was in an elevator and there were two women inside. Later, an African man stepped in. The two women started making fun of his skin color and his country, in Hindi. They exited on the next floor. A moment later, the guy started talking to me in Hindi. He said he has been living in India for five years and is a diplomat. He said that people say bad stuff like that about him in many places where he goes.
#44 Switching Languages For Safety
#45 He Deserved That Slap
My friend was sitting on a bus in Barcelona and was speaking Swedish with our friends thinking that nobody could understand him. He commented on a girl’s body sitting in front of him in Swedish, and when she suddenly stood up, she slapped him and said, “I’m Swedish, idiot.” I won’t even defend him because what he did was indefensible. He really is an idiot.