While it’s fairly obvious that different languages will have some words that sound like other things to a foreign listener, something that I didn’t really think about until I started communicated regularly with non-native English speakers were that all kinds of things are also different. Some that might be taken for granted and can lead to amusing situations. It does help if you appreciate immature humour, but still.
For example, animal noises. There was a time when I didn’t even realise that different areas of the world would have different onomatopoeias, though there are plenty of articles out there detailing the coolest/most confusing ones these days. One animal that could lead to amusing situations is the dog. You might think ‘bark’ or ‘woof’ or ‘bow wow’ or ‘arf’, but one day I was talking to a Romanian and a Thai, and this came up. Apparently, the main doggie noise for Romanians is ‘ham’.
Thus started a very intellectual volley of ‘ham ham ham’ ‘ham ham ham?’ ‘hamhamhamham!’ and so on, all the while the Thai person was quietly laughing away to themselves. When asked about the hilarity, it wasn’t just because we looked and sounded ridiculous, it was because ‘ham’ in the dog-noise context sounds a lot like regional Thai slang for dick. So be careful, when you least expect it, you could be walking through the streets of Bangkok, try to strike up a conversation with a stray dog, then BAM you look like a crazy person insulting an innocent mutt.
“But…. but why?”
Another common thing you might not have thought about are x’s. You know, the little kisses people put on the end of a text, or IM, that kind of x. Well there were a couple of moments in my communications that amused me to do with end-of-chat-friendly-kisses, at the very least eliciting a sensible chuckle.
First time was when I was talking to someone from the Philippines. I can’t say for certain how common xx’s are there in messages, but the first time I ever used them in communication with one, it was taken to mean similar to a big, sarcastic NOT, negating and reversing the previous sentiment. (basically ending up saying you were terrible company, let’s never hang out again) So in a single masterstroke of having-no-idea-that-this-might-be-not-fairly-universal, I managed to make someone quite sad and confused at my sudden rudeness.
Basically, it went flawlessly.
If only I had been as cool as them.
The second time was talking to a Brazilian Portuguese speaker. While I had previously learned ‘beijos’ as a very common way for Portuguese-speakers say ‘kisses’ in place of x’s to friends and so on, my brain hadn’t logically figured out yet what the shortened form of that might be. (note, beijinhos are ‘little kisses’ and fulfil a similar purpose)
So I did laugh out loud and choke on my milk a little bit one time after a (perfectly innocent!) late night chat ended up with a “good night and lots of bjs”. I *did* let them know of that particular two-letter meaning in English, and we all laughed some more, as people who are awake at too-late-o’clock-AM at night tend to do.
Obviously any misunderstandings (if they can even be called that!) like these are easily rectified with even the smallest amount of communication, but coming across things like this for the first time are always a delight.