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Alliance Workers, Uncut

As Alliance international workers learn their host culture’s language, it’s often not without a few blunders.

We in the National Office Communications department receive compelling God-at-work stories from international workers on a weekly basis. But some of the most . . . interesting stories are the ones we receive in more private e-mail or dark hallway settings. What follows is a “most embarrassing language blooper” compilation from our international workers (well, at least the ones we could print). Read at your own risk.

Deanna Harrison (Ivory Coast)

Our children were all born in the Democratic Republic of Congo. When asked what I fed our son, I replied that he was nursing. The only problem is that Lingala is a tonal language, and I used the wrong tone on the last syllable, which gave the word a different meaning. Mabelé refers to nursing, but I said mabele which means dirt. So instead of saying that I nurse my baby, I said, “I feed him dirt.”

Anonymous (Creative-Access Country)

I was talking to a migrant about his dad’s job back home. He said that he had rugs (kovriki) to sell. I misheard that he had cows (korovi) to sell. So I asked, “Do you milk them?” It was funny seeing him try to come up with an answer before I finally realized my mistake.

Tim Steinert (Asia/Pacific Regional Director)

My most embarrassing language moment was when I was talking to a young mother on the bus in Kosovo about her little boy. I thought I was using the Albanian word for boy (djale), when in fact I used the word djall which means devil. I only realized later that I had called her little boy a little devil. Thankfully, she understood that I was a language learner and only smiled.

Rich Brown (Latin America)

I grew up on the mission field as a missionary kid speaking Spanish, but I had been out of the language for 10 years of college and ministry before I returned to South America.

My wife, who also grew up speaking Spanish, was with me on the plane. The lady sitting on my other side was from Colombia, and I wanted to witness to her. Remembering that my wife doesn’t like to fly, I asked the Colombian lady, “Do you like to fly? My wife doesn’t like to fly. Do you?”

My wife elbowed me hard in the gut and said, “The word is volar, not violar.” Volar is the Spanish word for fly; violar is the Spanish word for a type of assault.

There was no witnessing after that. I told her I was tired and had made a simple mistake. Then I put my head down and went to sleep. The lady may or may not have asked to change seats.

Anonymous (Eastern Europe)

Where I live has pretty cold winters, so nearly everyone wears a hat, hood, scarf, or something like that to cover their head while walking. I had to learn that, even if I wasn’t cold, other people would scold me for not wearing something on my head.

One day, a good friend of mine came into the community center where I was working, and I saw that he was not wearing a hat. So partly to be funny and partly because I was curious, I asked him, “Where is your hat?” However, I mixed up the word hat with lid. So I wound up saying, “Where is your lid?” He looked very confused, I realized what I had done, and we had a good laugh. Don’t leave home without your lid!

Bonnie Oberg (Burkina Faso)

While we were in French language study in Burkina Faso, I was telling our part-time babysitter how to put a diaper on our baby in case she had to change her while we were out. Our conversation erupted into laughter when I said, “Put the pig on the baby.”

Beverly Bellamy (Congo)

During our year of language study in France, we were assigned to a summer internship with a church. I was assigned to lead the ladies’ prayer meeting. We would go around the circle, and each woman would pray. I would strain to understand each lady’s prayer request, knowing that I would have to pray aloud for one of them.

One week, there was a long, emotional request about a Sister Louisa, who had apparently died in her garden. Then there was some mention of a snake and her husband. I was totally confused. I stumblingly prayed for comfort for her husband and family. When I looked up, the ladies were staring at me. One of them turned to another and asked, “And now, Sister Maria, would you pray for healing for Sister Louisa’s snake bite?” Evidently, the French words for dead and bitten sound similar.

Anonymous (Creative-Access Country)

I’m in language study right now, so my language mistakes are pretty fresh in my mind.

I usually confuse similar words. For example, I told my host mom her new wallpaper was “delicious” instead of “beautiful.” I said that I was becoming “dangerous” instead of “worried.” I asked the man to print the “song” instead of the “picture.” I told my host mom people in America eat cow “teeth” all the time, instead of cow “tongue.” She gave me a very strange look for that one.

Some of my other mistakes are cultural. One day I asked a waiter for honey for my coffee, and the young man got all flustered and silly because he thought I was calling him “my honey.” I told a taxi driver I have many “male friends” all over the place and understood much later that he meant boyfriends.

I have asked for French fries “with” my sandwich and gotten them “in” my sandwich. One day I wanted Sprite, but I didn’t know what to call it. I had heard if you ask for something with a local accent, sometimes they understand. So I asked for “spreet.” After a pause, the salesgirl asked in clear English, “Do you mean ‘Sprite’?”

Anonymous (Creative-Access Country)

The words for answer and punishment are only one letter different. I was telling someone about how God loves to talk with us, and I said, “If you pray to God, He will punish you!”

I accidentally got a taxi driver to pay me money because I mixed up my verbs. I told him to give me money rather than to take it. They are so hospitable here that he really would have let me have his money, but we got it right in the end.

Early on in language study, I decided to make Christmas cookies and give them out as gifts, so I went to the store to buy some powdered sugar for the icing. Almost everything in the store is imported from Russia, and all the bags on the one shelf looked like powdered sugar. The Russian labels on each bag were just a little different. While comparing prices on the various bags, I chose the largest one because it was the best deal.

When I got home, I started adding butter to my powder, but the mixture wasn’t getting creamier. I added more and more and more butter until finally the icing started to look like icing—it was mostly butter at that point. Surprised that I needed so much more butter than the recipe said, I tasted it. It wasn’t sweet, but it wasn’t bad either. It just tasted like butter. I dyed it and put it on the sugar cookies.

The next day, when my language teacher came to my house, I showed her one of the bags and asked her to tell me what I had bought. She said vaguely that you could fry things with it, you could put it in recipes, it was made from potatoes, you could use it to make clothes whiter and stiffer when you iron them. Then I realized it was potato starch. I gave the cookies out anyway.

My second Christmas in country, my team ladies and I decided to host a Christmas tea for our local friends. I was nominated to tell the Christmas story, so I prepared myself for it. I was in my second year of language study, and I had just learned a new word for love. I decided to use that word in the story, because love is the heart of the story. On the day of the Christmas tea, I told the story to the ladies who politely listened. Except for the power outage, the party went smoothly. While we were cleaning up, one of my teammates asked about my word choice for love. She asked, “Isn’t that the word for romantic love? Isn’t there another word for God’s love?” She was right; I had spent the whole afternoon talking about God’s romantic love for us.

Jeremy Bergevin (Mongolia)

We’re learning Mongolian. Cyrilic script is hard enough in print, but when we finally learned it, they introduced the cursive.

The capitol of Mongolia is Ulaanbaatar, which means red hero. The cursive “T” looks a lot like an “M,” so I read it out loud as Ulaanbamaar.

Our teacher bent over laughing and staggered out of the room, presumably to tell other teachers or classes what I had said. Instead of “red hero,” I had said, “I want to poop red.”

Anonymous (Creative-Access Country)

Our national friend came to our home from work. I served him a cool drink and offered a bowl of peanuts. I wanted to tell him if he wanted to wash his hands he could use the bathroom. What I said was, “If you want to be circumcised, you can use the bathroom.” Like a good friend, he told my husband my mistake so as not to embarrass me or have to say it to a woman.

Anonymous (Creative-Access Country)

The pastor of the church we were working in our first term came from a village with the name that was very close to the word used for hell in the Bible. There were just a couple of letters difference between the two words. Every time he returned from a visit to his hometown I’d say, “Welcome back. How are the people from hell?” He would just smile and say, “Oh, they are all fine!” Finally one day we received a package from his hometown with his name on it, and I saw the name of the town written out and realized what I’d been saying to him each and every time for almost a year. How embarrassing.

Anonymous (West Africa)

When my wife and I were learning the local language, she noticed a nice clay pot that could be used for flowers. So we went to the market to buy one. When we got to the area of the market where we thought they would be, two ladies asked how I was.

“Fine,” I answered.

“Who is that?” they asked.

“This is my wife,” I said.

Then they asked, “What do you need?”

And I said, “A clay pot.”

At this, the two of them burst out laughing. They called two more ladies together and repeated what I had said, resulting in more hilarious laughter. Then they called three more ladies over, and the same thing happened. One lady laughed so hard she almost fell out of her chair. Bear in mind the people here are known to be very stoic.

The next day we told our language informant the story. He laughed and explained that when they asked how I was, I responded correctly. And when they asked who my wife was, I used the right phrase. But when they asked what I needed, I said, “A replacement.”

We never did get the clay pot.