Global HR

In the Workplace and Around the World, Language Mangling is Universal

Languages

A friend of mine is certainly no linguistic scholar but over the years, she’s learned to communicate in several languages other than English.

The biggest benefit, of course, is that when traveling abroad, she can sometimes talk to people in their native tongue, instead of expecting them to speak English (American English at that!). Another benefit is a greater appreciation of language and its uses — how applying the grammar of one language to the spoken words of another language can sometimes lead to humorous results.

That’s the direction I’m taking here. There may be a few people out there who will think I’m making fun of a particular group, language or culture.

That’s not the case. Just imagine what Americans — a people not known for the ability to master foreign languages — are doing to other languages in similar situations. You should hear me trying to order food in a Japanese restaurant!

Here are some examples of “language mangling:”

  • Sign in a Tokyo hotel: Is forbidden to steal hotel towels please. If you are not person to do such thing please not to read notice.
  • In a Paris hotel elevator: Please leave your values at the front desk.
  • In a Japanese hotel: You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid.
  • Outside a Hong Kong tailor shop: Ladies may have a fit upstairs.
  • In a Rhodes tailor shop: Order your summers suit. Because is big rush we will execute customers in strict rotation.
  • In the office of a Romanian doctor: Specialist in women and other diseases.
  • In an advertisement by a Hong Kong dentist: Teeth extracted by the latest Methodists.
  • In a Rome laundry: Ladies, leave your clothes here and spend the afternoon having a good time.
  • Weather forecaster on TV in India: We are unable to announce the weather. We depend on weather reports from the airport, which is closed, due to the weather. Whether we are able to give you the weather tomorrow will depend on the weather.
  • Chinese host, lifting his glass in a toast to his American guests: Up your bottoms!

All of these examples of fractured English are true. They have been taken from hotels, travel brochures, restaurant menus, signs on the street and advertisements.

I would love to hear how Americans “butcher” languages from other cultures. I am sure there are many funny examples!

Just remember. People who can laugh together, can live together. And the world is getting smaller every day.

Jacque Vilet, President of Vilet International, has over 20 years’ experience in International Human Resources with major multinationals such as Intel, National Semiconductor and Seagate Technology. She has managed both local/ in-country national and expatriate programs and has been an expat twice during her career. Jacque has also been a speaker in the U.S., Asia and Europe, and is a regular contributor to various HR and talent management publications. Contact her at jvilet@viletinternational.com.
  • SandrineBardot

    Hi Jaque, excellent reminder !

    Once when I lived in Italy, I was at the centre of such an “incident”. Lucky for me, my colleagues were appreciative of my efforts to speak in
    Italian not in English, and I always asked them to correct my mistakes
    so that I would learn and improve my language skills.

    So one day I said “il mio amico turchese”… When everyone started to laugh in a good-hearted manner, I stopped and asked “OK -  what did I say ?”… Well, it turns out I said “my turquoise-blue friend”. I laughed too ! My intention was to say “my turkish friend”, not to speak about a Smurf :-)

    Nowadays, I use this example in meetings when people are shy of speaking up because they worry about their English skills. It reduces tension, and helps everyone focus on what matters : in the end, we are here to work together, not to evaluate one another on our language skills.

    And if we have a smile or too in the process, well, even better !

  • Jacque Vilet

    Ah Sandrine —- you have made a great point.   I have found that if in the presence of people who have a different native tongue if you make the effort to say only a few words of their language they are very appreciative.   It, no doubt, makes them feel right away that you respect them and want to show your desire to learn the culture, etc.

  • http://www.facebook.com/deandean Dean Lewis

    In Cantonese there’s a past tense particle added to the ending of a word to imply past tense. The same particle added in almost any situation with many words. When handed something I already had, I followed the same language structure to add a tense for something like.. to “already have”. However in Cantonese, this is how women say they are “pregnant”.

    I went around saying I’m pregnant for some time before I realized what was so funny.