Tag Archives: Language

Foreigner Beware Of Crinkly Forehead

A few weeks ago, I went to the doctor’s. It was a big event for me. I’d never been in need of medical attention before. Not in Spain, anyway. I’m of robust design, you see. I don’t pander to fancy foods that can’t be eaten with a spoon and I don’t get illnesses that can’t be cured by spending an afternoon in bed. However, a rebellious mole on my back was starting to morph into an octopus and it needed to be stopped by a professional.

Health centres are confusing places. I glanced around in a daze for ages until spotting a desk with a person who wasn’t either bellowing into a phone or being harangued by patient-staff scrum. I approached the woman stationed there and told her that I had an appointment at 11:30. Turns out that this was the desk where you make appointments and not the desk where you go when you already have an appointment. Once this was clarified, I asked her where I needed to go next. Up to the third floor, she said.

I followed her directions and arrived in a big central waiting room surrounded by four walls with lots of doors with names on them. Only then did it occur to me that I was missing a vital piece of information.

I returned to the desk lady for help. “Sorry,” I said, “I don’t actually know which doctor I’m supposed to be seeing. Could you tell me their name, please?”

And there it was.

The dreaded Crinkly Forehead.

I repeated my query, only to be met with yet more crinkles towering over a blank stare. I asked again. The crinkles assumed attack formation. I tried once more, in really simple Spanish, words spaced at one second intervals (I’ve had some practice at this, as you can tell). I repeated my question three more times. Still nothing. In an act of desperation, I grabbed a pen and paper from the desk and wrote it down. Finally, the name of my physician was divulged.

The most flabbergasting aspect of Crinkly Forehead is that it can spring into action BEFORE verbal communication even has a chance to commence. This happened to me in my local phone shop. As I handed my phone to the girl and drew breath to ask if she could please top it up with twenty bucks, I found myself confronted with a quizzically cocked head disfigured by crinkle over crinkle over fucking crinkle! They were humping each other, I swear! Then they called for re-inforcements and a bundle of veins as thick as anacondas after a meal of jungle elephants joined the wrestling match and… Christ, I did not know that the rosy baby bottom face of a twentynothing could even do that!

I’m guessing her inner thought process must have gone something like this: She looks like a foreigner, so whatever she is going to say will be incomprehensible. But I will try to help, because I’m a good person. But… what if she tries to make me speak in English?!?! Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God! I’ve only studied it for ten years at school, I can’t say a word!!! What am I going to do, WHAT AM I GOING TO DO?!?! At this point, she reaches the conclusion that it’s safest just not to understand anything.

The Crinkly Forehead is the nemesis of every language learner, tourist, or foreigner in general. It is the iron curtain, the NATO missile defence shield and the wall Trump is gonna build all rolled into one.

Once the contortions commence, once you spot the merest ripple, the slightest tell-tale twitch in the face that may have been smiling benevolently at you just a heartbeat ago, dear language learner, you are doomed. It is the manifestation of Blue Screen of Death in a real live person. A re-boot can only be effected once the obstruction has been removed, and the obstruction, my hapless foreign friend, is YOU.

Attempting to engage with Crinkly Forehead is not like flogging a dead horse. It’s like flogging all the sausages, lasagnes, burgers and chicken nuggets that its macerated remains found their way into, expecting the clapped-out old mare to re-assemble and run the Grand National. It ain’t gonna happen. No chance. Go home. Talk to Siri.

I, my dear people, will be talking to my mole. At least it is forthcoming, if only with tentacles.

 

I think we all need a restorative wedge of cake after this.

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Keen observers will have noticed that this very same specimen featured in the previous post, but from a different angle. C’mon… it still looks delicious, does it not?! If it fails to appeal, maybe hairy chested man in the back will do it for you…?

 

[Note for nerds: This post was also published on my new language blog http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com – please pop over for a visit to discover what you’ve been missing!]

 

Language Matters: Gender Benders On The Rampage

If there’s one thing that really vexes native English speakers when embarking on learning a second language, then it’s the curious feature of grammatical gender. The concept that nouns can be feminine, masculine or neuter is most baffling to them. English is one of the few Indo-European languages which do not have gendered nouns. Or, rather, it no longer has them.

Since English is the haughty offspring of an ancient variant of German, it once boasted three genders, just like its parent. But sometime after the Norman conquest, the genders bit the dust. German and French genders were clearly no love match and battled it out until total annihilation.

In my observation, the biggest hurdle for native English speakers is not the existence of grammatical gender per se, but all the mental energy they waste in their futile attempts to find logic in it. So, once and for all: THERE. IS. NO. LOGIC. It’s just like the weather. Or taxes. Or what happens to pairs of socks in the laundry.

It would probably be a bit harsh to imply that native English speakers are the only numpties in this regard. I have witnessed several curious reactions when speakers of a gendered language are confronted, for the first time, with another language whose genders don’t match theirs. I remember one instance, in a Portuguese class a few years ago, when my Spanish classmate, a builder in his early fifties about to start a job in Brazil, was dumbfounded by the discovery that a Portuguese ballpoint pen (caneta) was FEMININE, when, to his mind, pens (bolígrafo in Spanish) were MASCULINE.

“Look, Pablo,” I said, “if it ain’t got a dick or a cunt, how do you know what sex something is?!” (Note to aghast US readers: In Spain, such evocative vocab does not usually cause affront*)

But even this seemingly convincing line of argument has to be approached with extreme caution: In German, for instance, while man (Mann) and woman (Frau) are respectively masculine and feminine, the German word Weib, which is an outdated (and in modern usage a vulgar) term for “woman” closely related to the English “wife” is, in fact, neuter and NOT feminine.

The German word for “girl”, Mädchen, is also neuter, although there is at least some logic to that one, as it’s the diminutive of the (also outdated) feminine noun Maid (maiden), and all diminutives are neuter in German.

And, returning to our colourful vocab once more, it gets even more paradoxical: In Spanish, for example, the aforementioned naughty words for male and female genitalia are feminine and masculine, respectively, not the other way around, as you might expect.

In the native English speaker’s mind, this sort of thing causes mayhem. Let me illustrate: I respond to queries on language learning forums, and a few weeks ago, a Brit had a minor existential crisis over the fact that person (persona) is feminine in Spanish, and that, when referring to himself as a person, he would – shock horror! – turn into a GIRL! Oh, the indignity of it! Just imagine what will happen the day he finds out that the…erm… most masculine of his male parts is a feminine entity in Spanish. At least grammatically speaking.

Taking the genders of nouns in one’s native language to be universal brings some interesting problems. A Spanish friend of mine told me once that he had encountered some toilets in a German restaurant labelled not with the internationally recognised stick man and woman, but instead with a sun and a moon. In German, the sun (die Sonne) is feminine, while the moon (der Mond) is masculine. In Spanish (and all other Romance languages, I believe) it happens to be the other way around. I leave it to you to imagine the rest of the anecdote…

As a native German speaker, the concept of gendered nouns gives me no trouble, but I am nevertheless experiencing a maddening – and unexpected! – predicament.

I speak Spanish fairly well by now and know the genders of most nouns. I cannot, however, for the life of me, get my adjectives and pronouns to consistently agree with my nouns. This is not so much of an issue when the adjective either immediately precedes or follows the noun: una chica gorda, un buen hombre, etc. easy peasy.

But if the adjective or pronoun appear in a different part of the sentence at some distance from noun they refer to, or in another sentence altogether, I find that my brain will often revert to the GERMAN gender rather than the Spanish one, because that’s how genders were first installed on my hard drive.

On some primal level, a table will always be masculine to me rather than feminine as in Romance languages , and, hence, it takes an immense amount of concentration to maintain gender agreement in my Spanish/Portuguese/French sentences. When I’m tired or my attention slips for just a few seconds, my brain will go straight to its native-language default setting – how could it be any other way? Since I’m pedantic to the extreme conscientious in my linguistic exploits, I find this insanely frustrating.

Messing up difficult grammatical constructions and features, such as the subjunctive, is one thing, but coming to terms with the fact that I probably won’t ever be able to get something as basic as adjective-noun gender agreement down to a pat, is, quite frankly, a crippling blow. Just how am I going to get over it?!

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Ah yes… something like this sure dulls the pain 🙂

[*For those interested in colloquial language, you may enjoy reading about how the most worstest of bad words in the English language is part of everyday parlance in Spain: Language Matters: C-Words of Difference]

 

You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com

 

I Spoke French. And God, Did It Hurt!

I’ve been learning French since May, shut away at home, curtains drawn, eyes (and ears) glued to the computer screen. But there comes a point when the input of a real living, breathing human being is required.

Some of you may remember me mentioning a few months ago that my goal was to join a local French conversation group in September. Well, it didn’t happen. Why? Coz I cannot speak. And who wants to be sitting there like a nun in a condom factory? Not me.

I know from previous experience that there’s only one remedy for my selective muteness: Brute force. It’s a job for a professional bully, for someone who sits down opposite me and won’t budge until the cake lady talks. A cat o’ nine tails would speed up the process, but not many language teachers carry that one in their resources folder, I have found.

Yup, that would bring out my chatty side...

You really want to bring out my chatty side…?

So, a friend of mine recommended a teacher, and on Thursday, I trotted off to my first lesson.

Poor woman, I should have prepared her. As you may have guessed by now, I’m not a terribly rewarding student first off. It’s not that I complain or turn into Miss Bossy Boots. But it can’t be much fun crowbarring sentences out of somebody while they pull a face like they’ve been sucking lemons injected with battery acid.

I also have a list of activities/subjects I absolutely detest in language classes. One of them is poems. My new teacher hands me a list of tongue twisters, which is kind of in the same category, only a million times worse. She tries to convince me that it is the best way of nailing the pronunciation. I do NOT agree. To me, it’s like being plonked into Bombay city centre at rush hour for your first driving lesson. Surely the best place to learn how to start a car and lurch along in first gear is a quiet parking lot?  My sour lemon face reaches a level of contortedness on a par with the Gordian Knot. Slightly alarmed, she lets me read aloud through a couple of short texts aimed at preschoolers. That’s better.

Contents of my head

Contents of my head

Still smiling and chirpy, she drags me through the French alphabet, gives me a couple of handy pronunciation hits, cajoles me into squeezing a couple of half-baked sentences through my gritted teeth.

She tells me I have gazpacho in my head. I like gazpacho, but I can tell it’s not meant as a compliment.

Before one of us has the chance to collapse in a sobbing heap on the floor, the doorbell rings and the next student arrives. I leave so frazzled that I forget to pay her.

I’ll be back next week. Unless she’s left town…

You never know, I might graduate to bouillabaisse one day...

…and you never know, I might graduate to bouillabaisse one day…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 *    *    *    *   *    *    *    *

[Why am I learning French? See here for the answer: Scratching a 30-Year Itch

 

 

 

 

Nothing Separates A German From Their Sausage

Vegetarians of the world please avert your eyes. What follows is pure carnage. Of the most delicious kind. Let’s do the food porn first, and leave the educational bit (I am using that term very loosely) till later, shall we?

Currywurst is a legendary German invention... this one was devoured on a hike through Munich by the river Isar

Currywurst is a legendary German invention… these two were devoured my mum and moi on last week’s hike.

My brother and my mum beneath a sign in Munich advertising the most famous of Bavarian sausages: The Münchner Weißwurst.

My brother and my mum beneath a sign in Munich advertising probably the most famous of Bavarian sausages: The Münchner Weißwurst.

What is a Weißwurst, I hear you ask…

It's this! Actually, I don't really like them...

Here’s a pile of them. The while ones, obviously. Actually, I must confess that don’t really like them all that much… SACRILEGE!

And of course, you can get them canned

And of course, like any kitchen cupboard staple, you can get them canned. For emergencies.

f

A small selection of a local supermarket’s sausage offering

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Those bits in there are finely sliced tongue, in case you're wondering

The chunky bits are finely sliced pieces of tongue, in case you’re wondering…

A seven-pound pack - now that would make for a nice afternoon snack

The seven-pound pack makes for a tasty afternoon snack

Now imagine this potential nightmare scenario: You’re at home, it’s late, you desperately fancy a meaty midnight morsel BUT YOU’VE RUN OUT OF SAUSAGE! If you happen to be living in a semi-rural area like my folks, 24-hour supermarkets or convenience stores are far and few between. What is a desperate sausage-dependent German to do?!?

Well, there is hope: My tiny little village of 700 inhabitants, which only has one restaurant and no shops at all, sports one of these:

YES! There is a God!

YES! There is a God!

The day is saved!!!

Just look at that shapely line-up…the day/night is saved!!!

By now, you’ll have gotten the point. Germans have a very special relationship with their sausages. Not only are burly bangers ubiquitous in local fast food outlets, butcher’s shops, supermarkets and vending machines, but they have also wormed their way into the common vernacular in the form of countless expressions. Here is a selection:

Picture the scene: There’s a terminal struggle going on. Everything’s at stake. It’s a matter of life and death. This is when, for a German, “es geht um die Wurst” (it’s about the sausage). And that tells you all you need to know about how we feel when it comes to our precious meat products.

I’m quite partial to the (British) phrase “I don’t give a rat’s arse!”. The German equivalent is “das ist mir Wurst!” (It’s sausage to me!). This appears to contradict the aforementioned “es geht um die Wurst”, but it’s really just proof that the sausage is all things to all people. (To all German people, at least.)

Some sad individuals love nothing more than to be offended by anything and everything. These bothersome thin-skinned types are liable to earn themselves the title of “beleidigte Leberwurst” (insulted/offended liver sausage). And while they stomp off in one of their huffs, they might well call the hapless culprit who (probably inadvertently) caused their latest grievance a “Hanswurst” (a buffoon).

When Germans get philosophical about the finiteness of things, they like to point out that “alles hat ein Ende, nur die Wurst hat zwei” (Everything has an end, only the sausage has two).

 

[For those interested in German food-related expressions, you will enjoy this post: How To Be A Hater With German Food Phrases]

 

 

Is Learning Three Romance Languages At The Same Time A Route To Insanity?

I ask myself that question every day. And whether an overdose of irregular verbs can make one go blind. I think the only reason why my grey matter hasn’t liquified yet and made a gushing exit through my left nostril is that I’m at different stages with my languages, so the learning activities I engage in are quite varied. Every time terms like “partitive carbuncles” or whatever give me the urge to go and drown myself in the toilet, I remember that, in the end, it’s all about wrangling a bunch of words into the right order, and that if a four-year-old can do it, so can I.

Spanish – Airily Advanced

The frustration-fun balance has decidedly shifted in favour of the latter. But it sure took a lot of blood sweat and tears to get there. Those of you you’ve been with me from the beginning will probably remember my whiny rants and tantrums. I’ve been living in Spain for nearly four years now, although I don’t have what you’d call “full immersion”. I work from home in English all day. Hence, my progress was a lot slower than I had initially expected.

It’s been a very different experience from the one I had with English when I moved to the UK 25 years ago. I had a job in a local company and was sharing a house with British people, and so I was forced to communicate in English all day long. It was tough in the beginning, but I made progress at lightning speed. My situation here in Spain is very different, and so I’ve had to learn to moderate my expectations without feeling like a total failure. I’ve come to accept – gnashing my teeth an’ all – that it will take a good while longer until I get to squirt the icing on the cake and achieve the level of competence I strive for.

Nevertheless, I can read proper books and watch films without struggling. I can have in-depth conversations about complex topics. I can hold my own in groups.

I still very much consider myself a learner: I look up words every day, I google expressions, I bug my long-suffering friends with questions, I ask them to correct my grammar. Besides the odd clarification, though, I no longer need “special consideration” from the people around me.

Of course, my Spanish nothing like my German or my English. I’d say I’m about 70% there. I’m even starting to “sound like myself” on occasions. Being able to communicate, even if you’re fairly proficient, is a completely different kettle of fish from sounding like your true self. I have tackled the subject in this post, for those of you who are interested:

Language Matters: Do You Sound Like Yourself?

Blue Flowers

Portuguese – Interminably Intermediate

This has been tricky. It’s virtually impossible to find any good quality intermediate-level teaching materials in European Portuguese. It’s all smooth, melodious Brazilian, when what I want is the bushy, impenetrable Peninsular version replete with shshtshshtshshhh sounds, dog-chewed vowels and pronoun arrangements that make ikebana seem like kindergarten foolery, because, when I travel abroad, it tends to be to nearby Portugal – I love it there.

So, I had to take special measures. I have a Portuguese teacher (from Lisbon) whom I see once a week for 1-2-1 lessons. I watch children’s cartoons, which is something that I’d never even considered before, but if you’re stuck for resources, you have to take what you can get. I’m also chatting to a bunch of nice Portuguese people over Skype two or three times a week (I found them on conversationexchange.com).

And yet, It’s my Portuguese, which I’m struggling with most right now. The intermediate stage can be disheartening, and it drags on forever. It’s also extremely dangerous territory: If you stop, even just for a few months,  you risk losing everything, while, at the same time, you gaze with trepidation at the vast expanse of treacherous linguistic swamp you’ve got to wade through before you get any good.

It’s not like being a beginner, when you’re swept up in the initial thrill of new discovery, or when you’re an advanced learner having fun filling in the gaps. I’ve written about this vexatious stretch of language-learning hell here:

The Messy Morass of the Intermediate Language Learner.

French – Bare Bones Beginner

I’m now in my third month of French (see here how and why that started) and still very much in the honeymoon phase where everything is new and exciting. I’m determined to stretch it out to the max. Please do not tell me about how crazy the sentence structures are going to get later on, I DO NOT WANT TO KNOW! Thanks.

Unlike hapless learners European Portuguese, budding Francophones are spoilt with a wealth of free online resources, which means that I can cover the same topics by watching six or seven different YouTube videos without getting bored.

There is also an unexpected benefit to being a beginner in French: Portuguese is no longer my worst language! I feel stupidly happy about this 🙂

So, to sum up, I don’t think that learning several languages at once is necessarily a recipe for disaster. Having said that, I did bang my head against the wall more than a few times when I first started learning Portuguese two years ago, because my Spanish was still quite wobbly back then, see here:

Project Multilingual: Two timing troubles.

Next up: The Italian challenge!

…OK, I am not that crazy…

 

You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com

 

 

How To Start Reading In A Foreign Language

Two of my Spanish teachers have come to the same conclusion: there’s one determining factor which divides the mediocre student from the outstanding one, and it’s whether they read books or not.

This may not strike anyone as an earth-shattering insight. I’m sure we can all agree that reading is the best way to expand one’s vocabulary.

However, as I’ve discovered through years of trial and error, it’s not a matter of “just read whatever comes to hand” – a pernicious piece of advice that just refuses to die.

I believe that the choice of reading material can make or break someone’s motivation. Picking up a foreign language book with the best of intentions, only to throw in the towel after ten, thirty, fifty laborious pages is a pretty common experience. Not only is it disheartening, but it can dissuade some people from ever having another go.

So, I thought I’d share a handful of my homespun “rules” meant to minimise frustration and maximise endurance, so to speak. A wedge of cake,  a slab of chocolate or similar armaments have also known to aid in the endeavour.

1. Stay away from The Classics

If you’re passionate about reading, you’ll probably have ploughed through a quantity of highbrow literature in your native language. And you may even have enjoyed it. There are many good reasons why some works come to be regarded as “classics”: The language is beautiful, the insights are profound, the plot is enthralling, the characters are vivid and the author probably transgressed the social taboos of their time.

It’s hardly a surprise that those of us who love to read are itching to access the unadulterated literary riches of any other languages we are trying to learn.

Unfortunately, choosing a classic as your reading initiation is just about the worst possible strategy. I mean… poetic turns of phrase that fell out of use when automobiles had to be jump-started by rolling up your sleeves and cranking a big screw? Long-winded descriptions of items of clothing that you’ll only ever encounter in a period drama? Words so ancient that Google Translate starts to spit out runes?

C’mon. Get real. If your level of comprehension is below that of the average five-year-old native speaker, wrestling with a worthy tome is much like hobbling along an eight-lane highway on a pair of rickety crutches. You are going to run aground on the hard shoulder way before you even see the first signpost that reads “pretentious git”.

Sure, your ultimate goal may well be to enjoy the same kinds of books in your new language as you do in your native language, and maybe even to delve deeply into classic literature, but you’ll have to get on your tricycle first. With an extra pair stabilisers, if need be.

2. Build your reading muscle

Reading a book in a new language, even a fairly short one, is like embarking on a marathon. And it needs to be tackled in the same way. Before you even think about taking a “proper” book to bed with you, you should be capable of reading things like news items, magazine articles, blog posts, etc.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t always understand everything. The point is to try, to get through it and to glean as much as you can on the way. In any case, you should be at the higher end of the intermediate level before you have a serious go at a novel or a biography.

If you’re not quite there yet, start with books aimed at young children. Also, there are bilingual books, which give the text in two languages on facing pages – these can be an excellent way of easing yourself in.

3. Start with short stories

I’m just over two thirds through my first book in Portuguese. (And I’ve been at it for three months – how embarrassing is that?!) It’s a book of short stories, some of them just a couple of pages long. At this stage, I don’t get the point of each and every one of them. But that’s OK. I do understand most of the sentences, and I helps me consolidate grammar structures and vocab. By the time frustration makes me want to eat my socks, I’ve already reached the last paragraph of the tale.

The trick is to counterbalance the growing aggravation caused by wobbly comprehension with the satisfaction of having got to the end of the story. And if you get to the end of enough stories, you’ll eventually get to the end of the book.

Spanish Short Stories

My first book of Spanish short stories. It may look like highlighter pen, but it’s all blood, sweat and tears, believe me!

4. Read what’s useful to you right now.

When I first started to read books in Spanish, I picked a well-researched historical novel by a reputable author, because historical fiction is one of the genres I absolutely love to lose myself in. After all, whatever you read, it’s got to hold your interest, right?

Big mistake.

I had only recently moved to Spain, and what I actually needed at that stage was the appropriate words to dissect assorted family problems with a friend over coffee and complain about water leaks to my landlady, etc, not vocab denoting the constituent parts of ox carts used in 14th century southern Spain. What the hell was I thinking?!

Well, I very quickly got off my ox cart and turned to the very stuff that I’d never touch with a barge pole in English (or German): Romance novels and inane chick lit, where people talk about relationships and domestic disasters in everyday language. Oh, but how useful that trash proved to be in real life conversations! In fact, I’ve discovered that I don’t much mind if the plot is stultifying, because it’s very much like being on a treasure hunt. As I comb through the dross, I keep stumbling across pearls of handy vocab and nifty expressions.

And just a couple more things – in the beginning, choose books that are no longer than 250 pages, and before you commit yourself to any book, sample at least a couple of pages of it. If it’s impenetrable, put it back on the shelf. It’ll keep.

*    *    *    *    *

Let me be clear: Starting to read books in a new language is not going to be a twirl across the village green on a dewy spring morning. The first few books, even if well-chosen, may well make you want to re-grout your bathroom tiling (or engage in any other activity that doesn’t involve looking up yet another unknown word) or turn you into a compulsive gobbler of cheese toasties. There is no way round that. Stretching yourself is always going to hurt a little.

As a rule of thumb (though this varies strongly from language to language), once you’ve heroically dragged your weary eyes (and your even wearier brain cells) through five books, the magical “joy of reading” factor should kick in. You’ve made it out of the swamp and into the open water. Now you just need to keep on reading to patch together your sails and you’ll be off to discover a whole new world.

[If you liked this, you might also enjoy Language Matters: Do You Sound Like Yourself?]

English Phrases That Should NEVER Be Translated Into German

Colourful expressions make a language come alive. I’m always surprised by how many of them exist, in almost identical wording, in several European languages. For example, it’s rude to look a gift horse in the mouth in English, German and in Spanish, and although the mouth changes into teeth in the latter case, the concept is the same. This doesn’t apply to all sayings, of course, and there are some that are not merely rendered nonsensical in translation, but which are guaranteed to result in a serious case of red-face-syndrome.

Here’s a just few that popped into my feeble mind last week. I’m hoping to collect some more. Input welcome 🙂

Suck EggsTeaching your granny to suck eggs
I love this expression, and I can’t even think of what the German equivalent would be. But one thing is certain: if you tried translating this, it’ll have your German conversation partner either raise an eyebrow, or rolling around on the floor in stitches.

The reason being that “eggs”, which is “Eier” in German, is a slang term for testicles. (Incidentally, the same applies to the Spanish “huevos”).

OK, German grannies probably do know how to suck both eggs and balls, but their grandchildren would much rather cling on to their image of them as a saintly and innocent creatures who only get close to a set of eggs when whipping up a mighty good strudel.

I’m going to hit the sack
It’s been a long day, you’re totally knackered, and you’ll be calling it a night as soon as you’ve made it to the bottom of your 1-litre beer glass. But DON’T say it by using that phrase, if you can at all help it.

There’s… uhm… a hairy issue with the word “sack” that you should be aware of.  Sack means sack in both English and German, sure, but on planet slang, it also means scrotum. The German expression “Ich hau’ ihm eine in den Sack” (I’m going to kick him in the nuts) is just too painfully close…

 

What did I say...?!

What did I say…?!

To run off with your tail between your legs
What’s the problem with this one, you might wonder. Dogs do this when they’ve suffered defeat, even German ones, so it should be a pretty self-explanatory expression with little potential for confusion.

I totally see your reasoning. The problem is that the word “tail”, which is “Schwanz” in German, doubles as a slang word for dick/cock. So, although your conversation partner will understand what you meant to say, it may be best to refrain from any linguistic experiments containing the words tail, eggs and sack when you’re meeting your German in-laws for the first time.

You’re welcome!
Relax. This one won’t be causing any embarrassment. But I’m still going to mention it, because it’s a really common phrase, and if you’re translating this literally into German (or into any other language, I should imagine), it will have people scratching their heads.

By any means, feel free to say “willkommen” when German visitors arrive on your doorstep and you’re planning to usher them in for a steaming cuppa and a slice of fruit cake. But as a response to someone who’s thanking you for doing them a favour, it won’t do. A German will need to hear “gern geschehen” or “bitte/bitte sehr/bitte schön”, NOT “du bist willkommen” – it makes no sense to them at all.

This explains why Germans will often respond with the word “please” (translated from “bitte”) to an English speaker thanking them, which is just as puzzling to the latter as “you’re welcome” to a German. Spanish and Portuguese speakers frequently counter with “for nothing”, a literal translation of “de nada”, which can come across as slightly rude, because of its association with the sarcastic English phrase “Thanks for nothing!”. What they mean to say, of course, is that “it was no trouble at all”.

Now we’ve got that one out of the way, let’s move on to something slightly more entertaining. And, potentially, excruciating.

I’m so hot, baby. I’m stone-cold. I’m… warm.
Welcome to a veritable hot-bed of temperature-related faux pas. Trust me, you’ll want to avoid these clangers. Here is how:

In German, when you’re sweltering in the summer heat, you say, “Mir ist heiß”, which translates as “It is (‘is’ as in ‘feels’) hot to me”. It’s a dative construction.

A sweaty-browed English speaker, however, tends to veer towards the more literal, nominative construction, and comes out with this: “Ich bin heiß”. And it does indeed mean that he’s hot. But in the… erm… randy, gagging-for-it sense of the word.

In English, “to be hot” is, of course, a double entendre, but the meaning is usually clear from the context. In German, by contrast, you have one way (the nominative) of conveying your horniness and another (the dative) for prompting your hosts to turn on the aircon. Try not to get them mixed up.

If you’re feeling warm or cold, follow the same sentence pattern, i.e. “Mir ist warm/kalt”, NOT “Ich bin warm/kalt”. Otherwise…

“Ich bin kalt” is Mafia speak for being dead (dead bodies are cold), and if you have proclaimed, “ich bin warm”, you’ve effectively outed yourself. Yes, as in “I’m gay”.

So, are there any phrases and expressions in the languages you know that are amusingly corrupted if subjected to literal translations? Please share them 🙂

[In case you missed it, you might enjoy How To Be A “Hater” With German Good Phrases.]