5 embarrassing (or pregnant) language mistakes


Part of the fun when visiting foreign lands is trying out the local language. In most places, folks will be delighted that you're making an effort and will support your halting attempts.

However, some common linguistic mistakes often trip up well-intentioned travellers. To save you from being accidentally hilarious, we've put together a list of the most frequent errors:

'I'm so pregnant!'

Speaking in Spanish can trap Anglophones easily - especially as there are so many Spanish-English cognates. Normal = 'normal'; actividad = 'activity'; barra = 'bar'. How hard can this be?

Well, Spanish is also full of amigos falsos (false cognates). The classic one is embarazada, which means 'pregnant' rather than 'embarrassed'. You can imagine how common the scenario is: traveller makes a silly mistake, then compounds it by exclaiming Estoy tan embarazada ('I'm so pregnant!').

Do the right thing and say Me da vergüenza when you're embarrassed or ashamed.

'You're sure gonna miss me.'

Parting is such sweet sorrow, but it can be even more sorrowful when you're unintentionally boastful or cavalier. That's a risk in France, where the verb manquer ('to miss') actually means 'to be missed' in certain constructions.

So when you're making your farewells, remember not to say Je te manque, which would mean 'You miss me'; go instead with Tu me manques, which is far less egotistical.

'Let's drink some genitalia!'

This one's straightforward. Many Anglophiles adopt the Italian custom of saying 'chin chin!' during a toast (actually cin cin in Italy). Pretentious? Maybe. Disastrous? Well, yes - if you're in Japan, where 'chin chin' refers to the genital area.

You so don't want to go there. Kampai is the safe option.

Condoms for breakfast

So you've just woken up in Paris, and you're looking for some sweet, sweet strawberry jam to spread on your freshly baked croissant. You know that complex words in English are often similar in French (eg vélocité - 'velocity'). You summon your waiter and cleverly ask for préservatif - it's gotta mean 'preserves', right?

The waiter has just gotten the wrong idea. Préservatif means 'condom' in French. You really ought to have asked for confiture.

Time for a nice, refreshing...errr...

Headed to Brazil? You'll definitely want to avail yourself of the variety of tropical fruits, especially during the sweaty summer.

However, be careful when you ask for 'coconut' in Brazilian Portuguese. Sure, it's spelled coco - but it's pronounced koh-koo. If you say koh-koh instead, you're actually pronouncing the word cocou, which is the word for faeces. Careful what you wish for.

Scared yet? Don't be. Almost always, native speakers of a language will forgive any embarrassing screwups. The fact that you've made the effort to speak a local language is fantastic, and almost everyone will respond warmly. Even the most awkward trip-ups can be smoothed over with a smile and an apology.

Bonus language fact for reading this far: The urban legend that US President John F Kennedy famously called himself a doughnut in Germany by proclaiming Ich bin ein Berliner is completely untrue. Sure, Berliner means 'doughnut', but it can also refer to someone from Berlin. And no, you don't have to say Ich bin Berliner for the sentence to make sense.