Multilinguals Share Their ‘They Didn’t Realize I Could Understand Them’ Story

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More than half of the global population speaks at least two languages. Being multilingual can open up a world of possibilities: It can help you communicate with more people, understand more cultures, get more jobs and earn much better salaries. One slightly negative consequence of speaking more than one language, however, is that you can sometimes find yourself understanding private conversations.

People who assume others only speak one language can be in for a rude awakening. Here are some hilarious and even shocking stories of multilingual individuals catching people saying things they probably shouldn’t have. A word to the wise: never assume others don’t speak your language, and you’ll save yourself a whole lot of face.

Bacon Actually Goes Quite Well With Chicken

I live in England but I come from Poland, so on top of English, I am also fluent in Polish. A couple of days ago, I was ordering at a sub shop when two Polish employees started talking about me. They said things like, “This fatty wants chicken AND bacon,” and they would laugh thinking I didn’t understand them. When they got to putting vegetables on my sub, I gave my order fully in Polish with a big smile on my face. The order cost me £4.80, but the looks on their faces were priceless.

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Matchmaker, Matchmaker

I was solo traveling in Morocco. I’m 22 and speak Arabic well enough to understand conversations — basic words, phrases, etc. I was trying on clothes at a small shop, and there were two women helping me choose what to try on. They started talking about me in Arabic, saying how I would be a great wife for one of their sons. They were going on and on, and as I was leaving, I responded in Arabic, “No thank you, but I appreciate your help.” They were stunned.

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She Showed Them Difficult

I’m a Black American. My dad was in the military, stationed in Korea from his late teens to mid-20s. He picked up on the language, and as a child, he taught me. It was like our secret language to talk around my mom with, and she hated it.

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Anyway, I went to a college that had a large Asian population. While some of my friends and I were in a study room, a group of students came in and asked us to leave so they could use the room (in English). There was no time limit or no sign-up for the room, so we didn’t have to leave. I explained that we were here first and that they could find a different room.

They then started speaking Korean and said something along the lines of, “Ugh, of course, the black girl is being difficult, they’ve been here for a while now, so they need to leave. Maybe we can lie and say the professor reserved it.”

I responded, in Korean, “Call me names in English so I can punch you in the face.” Their faces turned bright red and they couldn’t say anything; they just looked at me in shock.

The Universal Language of “Women Problems”

I was a high school student in Toronto, but I speak Slovak, which is similar to Czech and Polish. I was going to school on the subway in the morning, and two good-looking women started to talk in Polish right next to me. I usually like to strike up conversations with fellow Eastern Europeans. Unfortunately, they started talking about how one of them had a burning “lady parts” problem.

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With nowhere to move on the packed subway and no headphones, it was an awkward thing for me, at 15 years old, to hear. It got a little worse later when they started to talk about more serious women problems. Now, I have no issues with that type of conversation nowadays, of course, but 15-year-old virgin me was a bit mortified.

Skin Color Does Not Determine One’s Language Skills

My dad is a very white guy with an equally white Irish last name. However, he was born and raised in India. He speaks a variety of languages (Gujarati, Hindi, Konkani, English, Portuguese, etc.) One time, he was at an airport and sitting across from two young Indian women. One said to the other in Hindi, “Look at that fat old white guy over there.” My dad got up, walked over to them and greeted them in Hindi, proceeding to make small talk about their flights and days. From his telling, there was a mix of shock and absolute embarrassment coming from them. He smiled and walked back to his baggage.

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They Lost the Job for That Assumption

My dad grew up in Egypt and now travels the world for a major fruit company. One time, he was in Morocco at a plant, and there were possible suppliers there who tried to deceive him. They showed him safety guidelines written in Arabic that would have described different standards in English. My dad doesn’t look like a typical Middle Easterner, and he has a very non-descript accent, so they thought they could fleece him. After the dude was done talking, my dad told them, “That’s not what it says,” and the guy replied, “What do you mean?”

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My dad repeated the statement, but in Arabic. The guy's jaw dropped, and all he could say was, “You speak Arabic?” Needless to say, that Moroccan plant did not get the gig.

Accidentally Overhearing a Sweet Exchange for a Change

I’m from Russia and I did my exchange studies in China. One time, I was riding a subway in Shanghai and at one of the stops, a mother and her daughter sat beside me. The daughter was maybe four or five years old, and she wouldn’t stop looking at me. Without turning her head, she started asking her mom, “Mommy, why is mister so strange? Why is his hair strange?” and so on. The mother patiently told her daughter, “Mister isn’t strange, he’s just a foreigner, they look different.” I thought it was really sweet so I started talking to both of them in Chinese. They were very nice, and I hope they’re doing great now.

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Be Careful Who You Call an Old Hag

My great aunt told me a story about how she once went into a butcher shop where the butcher was talking with a customer in Russian. The butcher saw my great aunt walk in and told the customer, in Russian, that he’d take care of this “old hag” and then continued the conversation. So my great aunt asked for pounds and pounds of cold cuts, in English, all sliced and wrapped. When it was all ready, she told him in Russian to shove everything up his butt. I love that woman.

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You Never Know Who Is Listening

My late best friend, who was big, tall and blond, was in Tim Hortons. He speaks fairly fluent Arabic, having spent seven years working in Saudi Arabia. Three Arabic men were sitting at a table making very lewd comments about the women in the shop. My buddy turned to them and said in Arabic, “You need to shut up before someone kicks your butt. You never know who is listening.” They got very confused and left soon after.

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Language Can Be Fun and Games

I was on the subway in New York City a few months ago when a family sitting across from me was playing “I Spy” in Hebrew with their kids. The adults went around describing each person they saw on the train, so when they got to me, I decided to play along. I looked up from my book, made a funny face, and covered my face with the book before the kids could find me. The parents started laughing and said to their kids, “I spy someone who understands us!” The adults and I shared a good laugh about it while their kids got really excited that someone else spoke Hebrew. They never figured out who it was, but it made my commute a lot more fun!

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Just a Little Fat

I moved to Thailand and took extensive language training. While I was drinking coffee in a little shop, the barista and the waitress started guessing my age, where I was from and why I came to their shop three days in a row. I was thinking, cool, they think I’m cute, how flattering. Then, the barista said, “But he is a little fat.” So when I left, I told her my age and home town. When she brought the change back, I told her that yes, I am a little fat.

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Unsolicited Opinions

My significant other is a tattoo artist who can speak Bulgarian, Turkish, English and German. One day, we were in line at the supermarket, and two guys behind us were laughing. They were saying, “Look at her arm. Those tattoos. Disgusting. How can you tattoo a naked woman on yourself?” In Turkish, my significant other turned around and said, “Thanks, man.”

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At first, the guy asked her to repeat because he didn’t even register that she was speaking Turkish and assumed he misheard English. That’s when she said, “For the tattoo opinion.” It was funny from there. The guy apologized and said he has never felt so much shame in his life. This was in a small town outside of Dublin city, so I can understand why they didn’t think there would be any Turkish speakers around.

Gracias, Boo

I was in line to renew my license at the DMV. Two Latina girls were behind me talking about my pretty blue eyes in Spanish. They turned three shades of red when I turned around and said, “Thank you.” They shouldn’t have felt embarrassed because it wasn’t like they were talking bad about me, but I guess they were just surprised I understood what they were saying.

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He Got All Their Secrets Without Them Knowing

I went to a psychiatric emergency ward once and asked for help. While I’m not the most fluent, I understand Danish. I stayed there for four days without anyone realizing I knew what they were saying about me right in front of me. Two of the nurses thought I was cute. One doctor thought I was lying all the time. A patient thought I was a spy for the staff. A lot happened in those four days. It made my stay way more enjoyable than it should have been.

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Caught In A Lie

My husband is bilingual. He’s from Colombia, so he speaks Spanish fluently, but grew up in the United States and has been here most of his life. He also has a really fair complexion. Most people think he’s just Caucasian. Anyway, we were in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico looking for a place to eat. We got to a restaurant, and he asked, in English, how much it would cost for the all-you-can-eat tacos option.

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The guy at the door said, “It’s $15.” His friend next to him then said to the guy in Spanish, “I thought it’s $12?” And the first guy responded, “Yeah, but they don’t know that.” My husband, of course, understood everything. He told them, in Spanish, that they’re lying rip-offs and that we’d be going somewhere else. The guy’s expression was priceless.

Either Way, That Poor Bird

My dad is from Tennessee and knows Chinese because he goes to China often for work. One time, he was driving and hit a bird. It had gotten stuck in the front of his truck. A Chinese man saw the bird and said to his friend in Chinese: “He drove too fast,” To which my dad replied, “No, he flew too slow.” The Chinese men were so amused.

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Way to Go, Dad

My dad speaks five languages: English, Afrikaans, French, Italian and German. He immigrated to the U.K. in early 1995 when a lot of other South Africans were doing the same. He was on the underground in London when he overheard two guys speaking about a pretty woman on the train in Afrikaans.

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According to my dad, they were being incredibly rude and using quite graphic descriptions of what they wanted to do to her. My dad decided to speak up, telling them to screw off and refrain from speaking about people that way, as they don’t always know who is listening. The two guys looked horror-struck and shut up immediately. The lady turned to my dad at her stop and said, in fluent Afrikaans, “I bet they couldn’t do half those things anyway. Big talkers rarely have much to brag about.” My dad just laughed in shock and watched her get off the train.

Keep Your Child-Rearing Advice to Yourself

I live in Austria, but my dad is from Brazil. All my Austrian aunts and uncles married Brazilians after my grandparents from my mother’s side opened a factory for our family's company in Brazil. That’s why everyone was there, but mom and dad eventually came back to Austria. My siblings and I were raised multilingual, but we lived most of our lives in Austria.

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Once, when I was around 10, my mom and I were on a tram in Vienna with my little brother, who was around two at the time. He started crying really loudly, and then one Brazilian lady started speaking really loudly and in an obnoxious tone. She said something along the lines of, “Well, these European folks don’t know how to treat their children with love, how can someone be so cold and unaffectionate to a child as to let them scream without taking them out of the stroller and holding them?”

I was getting worried we were doing something wrong. I wanted to comfort my brother and get him out, but my mom stopped me and really loudly said in Portuguese, “Leave him, it is too dangerous to take him out of the stroller while we are standing here and the tram is moving.” You could see the women’s faces go from red to white and back to red. We just started laughing and my brother ultimately calmed down.

Brother Learns His Lesson

A long time ago, my brother had a habit of making remarks about people in Spanish whenever he got annoyed. I told him it wasn’t cool, not because he shouldn’t be talking Spanish in public, but that he shouldn’t be using it in such an underhanded way. If he had a grievance that he needed to get off his chest, he should tell them in a language they are likely to understand. He kept doing it anyway.

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One time, we were leaving a major retailer, and the store greeter asked to see his receipt before he could exit with the bagged merchandise in the cart. He had a hard time finding where he put his receipt and he got frustrated. He switched to Spanish and said some variation of “this old hag,” and the store greeter immediately called him out on it in Spanish.

He was like a deer caught in the headlights. I was so happy she did it. He made a weak attempt to reassert his right to be frustrated at the situation, but you could see he was very embarrassed at having been caught talking trash in Spanish. I love my brother, but I’m glad he stopped doing that soon after. It was a good lesson learned.

When a Guatemalan Looks Asian

This happened to my wife when she worked at McDonald’s. She looks a little on the Asian side, but she is really from Guatemala. A group of Spanish-speaking people paid at the drive-thru and tried short-changing her. The driver said, “Esa China no sabe contar,” or, “That Asian lady can’t count.” My wife took the money and very politely said that they were short in Spanish. The driver turned red while the passengers couldn’t stop laughing.

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It Turns Out She Would Have Said It In Any Language

My wife is Indian, and her family speaks Gujarati. I’ve spent many years trying to pick it up and have found it to be very difficult, as there are no great resources that I am aware of to learn it. You just have to listen and try to guess the context. Anyway, over the years I’ve gotten pretty good, and when my wife’s aunt was visiting from India, she went right to my wife about how much weight I’d gained and how bad my diet must be. I understood every word and stopped her about two minutes into her rant. It didn’t stop her from continuing.

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What One Guy Will Do Just to Have a Girlfriend

I lived in Japan when I was little and retook Japanese in college so that I didn’t sound like a child when I spoke. To solidify my new language skills, I went to my “hometown” for about six weeks a summer during college. It was a small town, so most people remembered me or my family, but some people I stayed with were new to the area.

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One of those families had a high school aged son who wanted to borrow me for his high school’s International Festival. No problem. I figured I’d go and let other high schoolers practice their English with me and do carnival games. However, the guy apparently did not get the message that I spoke Japanese and proceeded to introduce me to all his friends as his girlfriend.

I let him have his moment for the night (without leading him on), but on the train ride back to his home, he was talking to his friend in Japanese and I joined in on the conversation — also in Japanese. The embarrassment on his face was worth the lies he spread about us. I love being multilingual because of situations like that!

It’s All Greek to Her

I am Greek but study in Belgium. Greeks are notorious for talking about people loudly when abroad. The language is rare enough that most people, including me, usually feel comfortable doing that. The only problem with that logic is that there are so many of us around the world, it’s generally not a good idea. So I get on the tram one day, and there’s this woman sitting across from me. She says to her friend, very loudly and in Greek, “What is that supposed to be, a boy or a girl?”

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Some context for non-Greeks — we have a third, neutral gender that we use for objects, animals, or when talking about someone in a very rude and derogatory way. That is what she used, and in a very mocking tone as well. So I very calmly validated my ticket, and as I was walking away I replied, also in Greek, “It’s a girl. And it speaks Greek as well.” Her face was hilarious. She just made a mortified “Ah,” sound and didn’t utter another word until she got off a few stops later. I love this story, but it kind of terrifies me as well. I avoid talking about other people, but I do tend to have very personal conversations with my Greek friends in public places.

A Wisecrack Turns Into a Friendship

I was walking with my friend to a local bar. There were a few Russians standing outside their home, and one or two had a drink in their hand. As we walked by, a gentleman said, “What are you looking at?” in Russian. I turned around and replied, “I completely understand Russian.” Suddenly, they got cheerful. The gentleman gave me a hug and offered me a drink. It was hilarious, especially to my friend who didn’t understand Russian.

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That Behavior Is Not Too Surprising From a Mother-In-Law

My former in-laws speak Italian. I went into the marriage not knowing Italian, but I picked it up pretty well. My mother-in-law had a bad habit of talking to her family about me in Italian while I was sitting right there. Every one of them spoke English, so it wasn’t as if she had to speak it to be understood. I put up with it, and it became interesting to hear what she had to say about me to the family while I was there.

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I got out of the marriage due mostly to her son’s treatment of me, but her actions didn’t help. One day, she called me. She was going on about how I was a terrible wife and mother. So I remarked, “You know, I actually understand Italian. I understood everything you said about me when you thought I didn’t know.” She went quiet and cut the call short. It was wonderful.

One Language Short

I was in New York and entered one of those electronic stores. I asked for the price of an item in English. The guy at the counter turned to another guy, who was on a ladder stocking products, and asked in Hebrew how much he should charge. I speak Hebrew, so I was able to follow their dialogue. The guy on the ladder looked and me and noticed that I was following them with my eyes, so he switched to Arabic. I don’t speak Arabic. The counter guy told me the price in English. I said, “Too expensive” in Hebrew and left.

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Trading Insults for Free Lunch

Some workers at an airport restaurant were saying VERY inappropriate things about my sister in Spanish. The women were criticizing her appearance and making VERY inappropriate observations about what she was wearing and what they would do to her. When I ordered my food, I did so in Spanish, and all the workers went silent. I asked detailed questions about the menu in Spanish so that they understood I knew everything they were saying. I gave her my credit card, but she never swiped it, making a $40 (airport) meal free. At the end of the day, it was a win.

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A Happy Memory

I must have been about eight or nine years old. We were returning from a vacation in Agra by train, and there was this lovely family seated in front of us (they were British, I think). My mom was asleep, and I was reading Champak (a kid’s story magazine in India that used to be very popular in the ’90s). They were talking among themselves, and suddenly one of the girls looked at me and said, “She’s so adorable.” Instead of saying thank you, I blushed hard and pretended to go to sleep.

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Everyone Ended Up Being a Good Sport

My husband grew up in multiple countries, and though his English is pretty heavily accented, it’s a sort of unidentifiable hybrid of all the countries where he learned it in school. (He didn’t move to the US until he was in his late 20’s). When we went for our wedding rings, the two proprietors began to talk among themselves in Hebrew (one of my husband’s first languages). They were discussing how much they should charge. The first guy said, “It should be at least $650,” while the second guy said, “Tell him it will be $700 at least,” My husband said in Hebrew (but with a smile), “I’ll give you $500.” They just froze, and everyone laughed. We ended up paying $600 and I think everyone was happy.

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The Old “I Don’t Speak Your Language” Trick to Get Out of a Jam

I had to pretend I didn’t speak a particular language. I was going back home after having studied for a while in Uppsala, Sweden, and during the time I spent there, I learned quite a bit of Swedish. Anyways, to go back home, I had to buy a train ticket to Arlanda airport from Uppsala Central to get to my flight, which was really early in the morning.

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However, the first train that arrived at the station was a different train which I did not buy a ticket for. I worried that I would be late to the airport, so I still took the train, thinking that they almost never check the tickets. Well, they did a ticket check that day. The controller asked me in Swedish to see the ticket, so I handed it to him. He looked at me and said in Swedish, “Wrong ticket.”

I decided to pull a dumb tourist move and point to my passport, then say in a bad French accent, “Sorry, I don’t speak Swedish.” I explained that I thought the ticket I had was the right one to go to the airport. He immediately gave me my ticket back and said that it was okay, but to check next time. I got off without any fine or anything like that because I faked not being able to speak Swedish. I still feel bad about it today.

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