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Travel Language Fails: How Not to Speak A New Language

One of my favourite parts of learning a language abroad has been those moments where it all goes a little wrong. You know, those wonderful travel language fails; the stories that you’ll enjoy retelling long after your trip has finished.

It’s an unfortunate habit of mine that I’m always finding ways to speak Spanish badly, or embarrass myself in front of new people.

Such as when it was pointed out to me that by mispronouncing the word papás (parents) in Spanish without sufficient emphasis on the final ‘a’ meant I had been referring to my parents as potatoes.

I had been learning Spanish by that point for EIGHTEEN MONTHS.

Or, more embarrassingly, that time in China when I need some cream for a yeast infection, and had to visit a pharmacy to obtain the necessary medication.

Not knowing a word in Chinese, I resorted to an intense game of charades – to no avail – before falling on just repeating the word ‘VAGINA’ loudly until an unfortunate male shopper knew enough English to help me out of my predicament.

travel language fails
“Facepalm” by i_hate_sult (Flickr) licensed under CC Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

BUT, I’m pleased to know that I’m not the only one who has the occasional – or fairly regular – language fail when I’m travelling.

I asked other bloggers to make me feel better about my own ridiculousness, and give me their most awkward faux pas. My favourites are below.


Lesson one: never use the verb “coger” in Latin America – Esther, currently travelling in South America

I majored in Spanish and I did my exchange in Granada, Spain. I was well aware of the fact that I learned “Spanish” Spanish and not any of the many different Latin American versions.

Unfortunately, this became even clearer when I got laughed at sooooo badly when I told my friend from Buenos Aires that I was leaving to catch the bus by saying “Voy a coger el autobús”.

In this part of the world, the verb ‘coger’ means ‘to have sex with’. I should’ve used the verb ‘tomar’ instead, it seemed.

I’ll never forget the way he fell off of his chair because he was laughing so badly.

Extreme bug killing techniques – Nikki of Nomadic Nikki

My husband and I were going to go hiking in Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica.  We were so excited, because Corcovado is considered “one of the most biodiverse places on Earth”.  

However, my husband read that there could be mosquitoes and insects, so he went down to the tiny little store near where we were staying in Drake Bay, and with the help of a kind woman who was patient with his very limited Spanish, he bought insect repellent for the hike.

However, while we were hiking the following day, he kept complaining that his skin was burning and turning red.

We found out later that instead of buying insect repellent, he bought a spray that’s meant to kill insects like ants and roaches around the house. He had essentially been spraying himself with Raid.

Know your madams from your “madams” – Aman

I had a few big fails in China. The biggest one was when I addressed ALL the older women with the Chinese word for “prostitute,” because it literally translates to “madam”.

I would use it to address my Airbnb host’s mother, waitresses, any random women I asked for directions, and every other woman who had the misfortune of meeting me.

And I did it for a month before I realized what I was doing!

Be careful what you try and get on a jumper – Lauren from Last Words for The Road

I had recently moved to Madrid and as I was learning more of the language, I thought I could deal with talking to store clerks.

So, one day as I entered a store, I really fell in love with one of the sweaters they were showing in the window. It was bright pink and had a word on it that I couldn’t really understand. I just figured it was something in Spanish but the lettering just looked nice.

As I asked the store clerk where I could find the sweater from the window she didn’t understand me at first. Dragging her to the window and pointing at what I wanted, she then started to laugh at me and told me that sweater wasn’t for sale.

As it turned out, the sweater read REBAJAS which is Spanish for SALES and she probably saved me from walking around Madrid promoting myself in the streets for the wrong reasons…

Try not to insult the King – Anne from Travel The Globe 4 Less

On a crisp, spring day we headed into the Atlas Mountains with our driver, he navigating torturous bends with vertiginous drops, whilst I distracted myself from visions of careering off the road to our deaths, by dredging up distant memories of University French by making conversation.

All was well until we pulled in to a dusty courtyard where we were to take mint tea with a local Berber. It was a chance to witness the hardships of remote mountain life.

Trying to surreptitiously cover our noses to mask the strong odour of pig and cow dung from a makeshift pen, we were hustled awkwardly into a bare stone room, overlooking the valley.

The only adornment was a portrait of the King peering down at us in regal glory, a regular sight in Morocco. I was startled by how young he was and make to remark on this fact. Oops, a slip of the tongue and the King was ‘très jaune.’

Anyone familiar with basic French will know that I had just dropped a clanger, ‘jaune’ being the word for yellow, whilst ‘jeune’ was what I should have said. Obviously very similar words, but a world apart in meaning.

Our driver looked at me equal parts horrified and confused, while my husband whispered my mistake. Hushed silence descended, and after what seems like ages, the Berber and driver started chuckling and I exhaled a nervous sigh!

There are some words that you really just shouldn’t confuse – Talon from 1 Dad 1 Kid

I’ve had pretty good luck during my travels of not saying something too terribly off. However, recently I had a ticket clerk laughing so hard she had to excuse herself and leave the office. She kept repeating my faux pas over and over while she tried to subdue her guffaws.

It began simply enough: “Un adulti si un copuli.”  I was proud of myself for saying “one adult and one child” in Romanian. Right before it went downhill quickly.

“Copuli?” she repeated. I smiled, and she erupted into fits of hysterical laughter. She had to hold onto her desk to keep from falling out of her chair as her body spasmed. She could barely breathe and quickly jumped up out of her seat and ran out of the room while fanning her face with her hands.

When she finally returned, I asked, “What did I say?”

She shook her head vigorously. Then she said: “Un adulti si un copil.” Oh yeah, copil.

Again I asked what copuli meant, but she couldn’t bring herself to answer. Upon arriving at home I got in touch with some Romanian friends who speak English. This is when I discovered I had asked for a ticket for “one adult and penises.”

No wonder she was in hysterics.

The (failed) game of charades – Laura from Savored Journeys

We showed up at a winery in the Colchagua Valley in Chile on a Sunday with no appointment. No one there spoke English.

We tried so hard, in our horrible broken Spanish, to say that we wanted to taste wine, but no one understood. We were pointing to wine bottles, mimicking drinking wine, and generally making fools of ourselves in front of a growing crowd.

You wouldn’t think it would be so hard to explain you wanted to taste wine at a winery!

Finally, we gave up and left. Spanish language fail.

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The ultimate collection of travel language fails. When you're tried your best in a new language but just get it so so wrong.

Trekking with Becky

Friday 19th of February 2016

This is GREAT! I laughed out loud, and it reminded me of the time I didn't have deodorant in Korea and what a time I had finding some so I wouldn't know everyone out -

Thanks for linking this up for Expat Tuesday! :D

Trekking with Becky

Friday 19th of February 2016

This is GREAT! I laughed out loud, and it reminded me of the time I didn't have deodorant in Korea and what a time I had finding some so I wouldn't know everyone out -


Tuesday 16th of February 2016

I tried getting birth control in China- it ended in a game of charades where I walked around the store rubbing my belly and back and then shaking my head 'no' vigorously. Looking back, I'm pretty sure they knew what I wanted but wanted to see how far I would go to get it- haha!

Steph Dyson

Tuesday 16th of February 2016

hahah that is BRILLIANT! How far did you end up going?! I guess people have to have their fun....although having been the one desperately trying to explain myself now I think I would have a little bit more empathy now!


Monday 15th of February 2016

Great post! My friend worked in French-speaking Canada and told me loads of the language mistakes she made.

One that sticks out was that she made a comment on friend's photo on facebook stating that he had nice testicles. What she'd actually meant to say I can't remember but it definitely wasn't that!

Also not so much her fault but she attended a party where everyone had to bring a dish from their native country. She commented that she was going to bring pasties (as in Cornish pasties) but not knowing what a pasty was everyone took it to mean pasties like the nipple covers worn by strippers.

Glad I found your blog via #ExpatTuesday, really interesting to read about your volunteer experiences!

Steph Dyson

Tuesday 16th of February 2016

I genuinely think language fails are my favourite part of travelling - everyone has such wonderful stories! Oh no, nipples and testicles - definitely sound like the type of mistakes I make!!! Yeh great to connect via #ExpatTuesday - see you next week!


Friday 5th of February 2016

Thanks for the laugh! These were great stories. You should check out Sand in my Bra by Travelers' Tales. It's the first book in a series of short stories about women's misadventures while traveling. I think you'd enjoy it.

Steph Dyson

Saturday 6th of February 2016

Thanks for the tip - I'll definitely check it out! I think I might have to write my own and embrace my ridiculous moments! :)