My Most Embarrassing Language Mistakes

My Most Embarrassing
Language Mistakes

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Nelson Mandela

Unless you’re learning a foreign language, then what you say often simply goes downhill. Sometimes when you’re speaking in a foreign language, you can sense the dangerous waters ahead, so your mouth muscles clench in apprehension of a careless slip that would forever haunt you. Other times, your ship done sank, but you’re blissfully unaware of the damage until you look at your mates’ faces.

Hello darkness, my old friend, I tried to speak Chinese, but failed again.

So today I’m going to share with you my most embarrassing language mistakes, both made in writing and in speech, in the languages that I have studied. Some of these mistakes are as old as the hills, classic faux pas that most textbooks now warn you of in desperation, like college campuses dishing out STD T-shirts during Welcome Week to unsuspecting, bright-eyed freshman. Watch out now, y’all.

However, my most cherished mistakes – Yes, I meant to use that word – are ones that perhaps some of you might not have made yourselves. Well, at least I hope you haven’t. At the time, these blunders were enough to make me want to peel my skin off so not a single soul would recognize me as that girl. My skin is very much still attached today, so I have survived the public shame.

As a fair warning, some of the words I accidentally let slip were a bit raunchy. If you didn’t know these words beforehand, well, now you know. So let’s clutch our pearls together and dive into my most embarrassing mistakes.

Japanese 日本語

Ah, my precious. I’ve been with you for nearly eleven years now. Let’s look at some of our best moments together during the times that we struggled to understand each other. Don’t worry – it was me, not you.

  1. さっき何が大好きだと?? What did you just say you liked??

It was during a lovely outing with my Japanese friend and her family when I had my first taste of public shame, except I inflicted it on myself unwittingly. It’s a skill I have listed on my resume now. Here’s what went down.

古民家がずらずら並んでいる街並みを友達と友達の家族と一緒にぶらぶら歩いていた。その時に、 りんりんと鳴っている何かの音が聞こえ、 見回してみると、ある店舗の軒先にぶら下げてきらきらしていた物が目に触れた。よそ風に揺らいでいた沢山の小さな風鈴だった。風鈴の音に振られた私は、すごく穏やかな気持ちになって、やっぱり風鈴って夏の風物詩だね~と思った。そして、みんなに向かってこう言った。

I was walking down a street lined with traditional Japanese houses with my friend and her family. I heard something ringing and when I looked around, something sparkly hanging from the eaves of a shop caught my eye. It was a lot of tiny wind-chimes blowing in the breeze. Caught by the sound of the bells, I became calm and thought, “Wow, wind-chimes are the epitome of summer, aren’t they?” Then, I turned to everyone and said this:




“Adultery is great, isn’t it? I love it!”

Sarah swanner

And with that phrase, I managed to disgrace my own name.


Does that kind of thing even exist? Yes, it does, good sir. I mean, just look at me! I myself have experienced self-inflicted shaming. I am the representative of shame. I look forward to working with you.


In fact, what I meant to say was, “Wind-chimes are great, aren’t they? I love them,” but I messed up my pronunciation and ended up saying something COMPLETELY different. In other words, with the slightest of differences, the length of vowels, I ended up saying that I liked “adultery.” It’s the pits, y’all.


It’s as I suspected. If you don’t make the proper distinction between long and short vowels, it can be quite dangerous indeed. It was a lesson well-learned!

Korean 한국어

Japanese and I talked about it and we decided to start seeing others, but still kick it with each other from time to time. It’s 2019, polyamorous relationships are acceptable, right? I was okay with that, and Japanese even went so far as to find me someone else to spend time with – Korean.

Korean had what Japanese lacked. The simplicity of its letters, the challenging pronunciation, and the ability to abbreviate just about anything. Even the phrase that means “abbreviating just about anything” is abbreviated – 별다줄 (별 거 다 줄이는 것). Y’all. Chill.

  1. 어떤 운동 했어?? What kind of “exercise” did you do??

이런 일이 이렇게 일어났어요.

Here’s what went down.

친구랑 헬스에서 운동을 하러 같이 갔는데 그 날에는 제가 너무 열심히 해서 끝냈을 때는 온몸이 땀 투성이였어요. 친구에게” 난 끝났다”고 톡 보낸 후에 이층에서 만나자고 해서 올려 갔는데 친구가 제 칠칠치 못한 모습을 보자마자 “야~ 너 뭐하느라 이겋게 됐니? 머리 완전 산발이야!”라고 말 했어요.

I went to the gym with my friend, but on that day I really pushed myself and was covered in sweat when I finished. After I sent a message to my friend saying that I was done, they told me to meet them on the second floor, so I went up. But the second my friend saw me, they said, “Woah, what did you do to get so disheveled like this? You hair is a freaking mess!”

그런 말을 들어 제가 이렇게 대답해 버렸어요.

When I heard this, I regrettably replied in this way.

“너무 열심히 했지! 떡쳤으니까 빨리 씻어야 돼.”

스와나 세라

아~ 잘 못 했다~ 참 창피하당 ㅠㅠ 심지어, 저는 그 표현의 뜻이 몰랐으니까 친구가 왜 놀랜지 알 수가 없었어요! 왜 웃냐고 물어 봤더니 친구는 그 표현의 의미를 아냐고 물어 봤어요. “단영히 알지~ 영어로 oily hair(떡지다)란 뜻이잖아!”라고 대답했더니 친구가 더 심하게 까르르 웃었을 뿐이었어요.

“I really did my best! I firetruck(ed), so I gotta take a shower.”

Sarah Swanner

Lord Jesus. What an embarrassment! What’s worse is that I didn’t have any clue what the meaning of the phrase was, so I had no way of knowing why my friend was so shocked. When I asked them why they were laughing, they proceeded to ask me if I knew the meaning of the phrase. “Of course I know the meaning! It means “oily hair” in English,” I replied. My friend only cackled with renewed intensity.

If you’re a learner of Korean and are familiar with neither the phrase 떡치다 nor 떡지다, here’s my advice – don’t use either one. You will confuse the two and you will turn some heads when you use the “beat the rice cake” version.

“But Sarah, what if it’s Korean New Year’s and you really ARE beating rice cakes?”

Beats me. (Wait a second…) Just avoid the subject entirely. Don’t nobody wanna hear about no rice cake beatin’ just eat your rice cake soup and enjoy the scenery. Or as our mothers affectionately say, “sit down, shut up, and eat.”

제가 썼던 표현은 사실은 아주 불량스럽고 완전 금기시되는 표현이에요. 원래 제가 하고 싶은 말은 “너무 열심히 했지! 떡졌으니까 빨리 씻어야 돼”였는데 잘 못한 발음을 했기 때문에 자기자신에게 망신을 줬어요! 그런 사람 어디 있어요??

The phrase that I used is actually a very dirty, taboo phrase. What I wanted to say originally was, “I really did my best! My hair is oily, so I gotta take a shower.” Yet because of my botched pronunciation, I brought disgrace upon myself. Where do you find these people?

바로 여기에 있어요. 저예요. 죄송할 따름입니다. ㅠㅠ

Right here. It’s me! I can only apologize.

뜻이 완전 다른데 발음이 왤케 비슷해야지? 인생은 불공평한 거라지만, 이건 좀 심한 거 아니야?

The meaning is completely different, so why does the pronunciation have to be so similar? They say life isn’t fair, but isn’t this a bit much?


I could write more, but I feel this is enough embarrassment for one day. I made the classic “je suis excitée” (I’m ”in the mood for love” – not “I’m excited”) in French, so I figured there was no need to mention that one. We’ve all been there, my fellow Francophones. My condolences.

Self-learning a language as an adult is a unique journey. You rarely have someone there to correct you sincerely, and even if you do, they might skip some parts just to make things easier for you or withhold information to save you the embarrassment. Yet these kinds of mistakes evoke such a strong reaction from natives that they can’t help but point them out to you. That “deer in headlights” look can’t be hidden upon hearing such language from a foreigner.

These mistakes are the kind that stay with us for the rest of our lives as language learners. They’re some of my most cherished memories! We all had to start somewhere, you know. So don’t be afraid to make mistakes. We all do it, just some make worse ones than others…風鈴か不倫、どっちが好き?

2 thoughts on “My Most Embarrassing Language Mistakes

  1. Deeyandra says:

    Not sure if you’re happy to hear this but you win – your Japanese mistake was definitely more embarrassing than mine! このような恥ずかしい間違いを減らすために、一生懸命勉強しましょう!☆


    • Sarah Swanner says:

      It’s a whole different category of embarrassing mistakes, haha! I lived reading yours about the 人参 and 人間 mistake. I’ve actually made that same slip before!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s