Language lessons

We writers deal in language, its power and its influence. But it can be a trap for the unwary. I imagine all of us are capable of spoonerisms and misplaced words in our own language but the dangers of using a language not our mother tongue merely increases, sometimes, exponentially, the risk. Take this cautionary tale from my days at the legal coal face

Martin – not his real name – agreed to move to Amsterdam to run our office there. He spoke German fluently and French to a high level. Being a diligent cove he thought he should learn some Dutch, even if only so he could use it socially. The course was intensive and he had been in post about a fortnight when he was invited to a colleague’s party.

Great, thought our hero, I can try a little light Dutch, to show I’m trying.

His host was impressed on his arrival and complimented his accent. He took him to the main room and introduced him to a group. They all spoke English immaculately but it wasn’t long before two moved away to say hello to a new arrival, leaving Martin with a woman who had said little to that point.

Martin launched into his Dutch, asking how this woman knew the host. She looked relieved and admitted her English was only so-so and grateful he spoke Dutch. For five minutes Martin nailed the Anglo-Dutch entente. Then the woman asked, ‘Are you married?’

Martin had done this in class. He took a moment and replied, ‘No I’m divorced.’

Immediately the woman’s expression changed, from shock and surprise, through embarrassment ending with a moue of distaste. She turned and walked away. Martin felt confused and upset. Was she particularly religious that any mention of divorce upset her? Maybe she had just been through a difficult experience herself.

He watched as his host listened to the woman, clearly recounting why Martin had upset her. He frowned, then nodded and put a comforting arm round his shoulder, easing her away.

Martin was mortified. What had he done? His host was a busy man but Martin tracked him down to apologise and hopefully to obtain some absolution.

‘Jan, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to upset her.’

‘Strange thing to say. Does that pass for flirting in England?’

‘What. Sorry, I don’t understand. I only told her I was divorced.’

The host took a moment, his expression, starting at surprise, like the woman’s, before morphing, but in his case from confusion to hysteria. ‘Oh dear, oh dear,’ he finally managed to say, wiping his eyes. ‘You need more lessons. I’m afraid you didn’t say ‘I’m divorced but rather I’m circumsized. She thought it was some sort of coded come on.’

About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published four books - Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle, My Father and Other Liars, Salisbury Square and Buster & Moo. In addition I have published three anthologies of short stories and a memoir of my mother. More will appear soon. I will try and continue to blog regularly at about whatever takes my fancy. I hope it does yours too. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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25 Responses to Language lessons

  1. M. L. Kappa says:

    Hilarious! But, he who risks nothing, gains nothing. And woman was an idiot, she knew he didn’t speak Dutch well


  2. Much has been written on this topic, but none as funny as this one. Certainly has impact and will be remembered

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Love this post. There are two ways to say “to be” in Spanish. A fun way to illustrate the difference to students…A young lady meets her boyfriend’s family for the first time. She uses the wrong form of the word. At the end of the meal, she intends to say “I’m full”…but it comes out “I’m pregnant”.

    I am a fan of language. ☺

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Autism Mom says:

    Oh dear, that’s a little embarrassing! Though I agree with the comment that the woman might have used a little logic, common sense, and kindness to sort it out. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Charli Mills says:

    Growing up around Washo, I often heard my friends’ elders speak the tonal language, but never understood a lick! When I was 18 I moved to Arizona and learned to speak some Navajo. It was similar to Washo and I was delighted to learn meaning behind the words and tones. Problem is, I don’t do tones well. A single word could have three unrelated meanings based on tone. After I set off a riot of laughter (apparently I addressed someone’s Grandmother as Horse) I gave up the speaking part! Funny story, Geoff.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Mick Canning says:

    I can do regular fauxs pas in English, so I try to keep away from foreign languages!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Ritu says:


    Liked by 1 person

  8. Ha ha ha. Really, the woman should have been more understanding. Didn’t she know he was ‘learning’ Dutch?


  9. Silly woman! She missed her chance there πŸ˜€


  10. noelleg44 says:

    Good one! I goofed a lot when I was learning Czech!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Funny story but, agree with others, she should have been confused more than angry or upset. She certainly could have asked him. Still…funny and relatable. Unfortunately. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Lisa Reiter says:

    Geoff! Only you could tell this story ! A cringe a minute, poor guy. I bet he’s never got over it!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Great story. Which reminds me. Once, driving round Paris with French friends, I observed that I had seen a woman with her skirt round her neck. Arnoux and Marie-Helene roared with laughter. I had meant scarf. A short while later I got my own back when Arnoux pointed out a building he called the mosquito of Paris

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Love this story, Geoff. It reminds me of some of the English words that mean different things depending where in the world you may live.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. As ever, good story well told. Though not a foreign language, it reminds me of a story my dad told. He’d just been advised by his dentist that he had a condition known as pyrea, the result of which would be that all his teeth would have to be removed. On his way home he called on some close friends, who could see he was in state of shock and asked what was wrong. When he told them, Joyce went pale and suddenly left the room. Puzzled, he asked her husband what was wrong. It seemed even he was shocked that a dentist had diagnosed my dad’s Gonorrhoea. Does make you wonder why the Freudian slip, though…

    Liked by 1 person

  16. willowdot21 says:

    Love it!😠

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Ali Isaac says:

    Haha! Very funny! So easy to make a mistake in a foreign language. Can’t imagine why on earth the silly woman got so upset. She knew he was foreign. Anyone else would just laugh. Or at least say, er… excuse me?

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      no idea, but maybe the shock of it. Different nations can’t be sure about how humour works so she could have been thrown in ways she wouldn’t have been if he had been Dutch.


  18. Sacha Black says:

    Pahahahahahaahahah this is f***ing hilarious!!!! made my day reading this, and after a hefty dentist bill and a scratch on my car I needed a good laugh

    Liked by 1 person

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