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People Who Speak a Second Language: What Have You Overheard People Saying about You When They Thought You Couldn't Understand?


(Photo: Michel Colin)

Redditor Grimdotdotdot asks that question. Many people recount their travels around the world, encountering strangers who assumed that they were ignorant of their native languages. Here are some of the best responses.

its_meem_not_meh_meh describes two cab drivers in The Philippines:

Me and 2 other friends (one American, one German) were in rural town Philippines. We were getting out of a cab and unloading our bags when the cabbie's buddy pulls over next to us and they start chatting in the local language.

Buddy: "Whoa - foreigners! How much did you get off them?"

Cabbie: "Usual 80 pesos"

Buddy: "No way! I would have charged them at least double!"

Me: "I think 80 pesos is quite fair, don't you?"

His jaw dropped - and he awkwardly drove away.

I learned enough to get by, but I deliberately keep it to myself - just for moments like these.

NCWarhammer describes a similar encounter in Arabic--one that came back around to him:

One evening, I called an Uber driven by Abdel-Latif. Mr. Abdel-Latif, an Egyptian, was nice enough at the start, but then took a phone call from an Arabic-speaking friend of his and started complaining very colorfully about his day. He eventually finished his rant by stating that he would head home after he takes this one last ابن قحبه (bad Arabic slur) in his car home.

I, of course, didn't drop the ruse and pretended that my Uber driver didn't just loudly (and quite needlessly) insult me to this random person on the phone. When we finally arrived, he told me to "have a nice evening, sir." I told him "تصبح علي خير يا روح امك" (the gist of which is: good night, asshat) and walked away, putting on my best display of being highly offended, even though I was dying from laughter on the inside after seeing the look on his face.

Weeks later, I took another Uber, driven by Mr. Badry, an Iraqi. He seemed like he had a lot of trouble with English over the phone, so I started the ride off by greeting him in Arabic. He was quickly at ease, and was surprised that I spoke Arabic so fluently for a white American. I explained I was only half Egyptian and that was probably why I didn't look like your stereotypical Middle Easterner.

He laughed, and said it reminded him of a story his Egyptian friend - also an Uber driver - told him, about the time he picked up this white guy that turned out to speak perfect Arabic. I asked him his friends name.

It was Abdel-Latif.

Some people become fearful when they meet someone who looks different. TokyoCalling describes a little boy in Japan:

Many things overheard. But my favorite moment was early on when I first moved to Japan in 1994....

Waiting on the train platform in a rural village when a mother and her young son come through the gate. Immediately the son grabs her mother's hand and tells her in Japanese that they have to be careful of me - that I'm a dangerous foreigner. He promised to protect her but he was hiding behind her.

We had a long wait. Eventually he decided he could creep closer. Still muttering under his breath about the foreigner. So I muttered back, "I love Japanese children. They're delicious."

He ran screaming.

I did not feel bad about it.

Some of the experiences have amorous overtones. Stylobite writes:

A friend of mine and I (both Americans) were in Sweden riding a train to our apartment. We were both fluent in Swedish, but we were talking in English, because it's easier. Two girls get on the train and sit across the aisle from us, and they say in Swedish "Look at that guy (my friend), he's SOOO hot. He looks like he works out, has a nice beard. I want him, I need to have him." My friend and I both play it casual because we know that they'd be pretty embarrassed if they knew either of us spoke Swedish. Then my friend pulls out his phone and calls a friend of ours, and in Swedish says something along the lines of "Hey, just checking if things are still on tonight, call me back when you get the chance, see you later." to her answering machine. We sat there in silence for maybe 5 seconds until one of the girls says, "And he speaks Swedish. How awkward." Then we made small talk for a bit with these girls, until they ran off the train at the next stop.

What experiences have you had overhearing languages you weren't supposed to understand?


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My mother and I were in Japan in the late 70's and found a Shanghainese restaurant in the middle of Tokyo. Being from Shanghai, my mother wanted to give it a try. If you've ever eaten with Chinese, you know one of their favorite things to do while eating is to criticize the food. So throughout the meal, she's going on and on about how the food isn't that authentic, it's just a bit off, all in Shanghainese.

At the end of the meal, the chef comes out and bows to us, beaming. He'd been stationed in Shanghai during WWII and fell in love with the cuisine. Not only that, but he loved being there so much that he picked up the dialect and he was *so* honored to have actual Shanghainese folks in his restaurant.

My mother turned five shades of red during his effusive praise, knowing that he heard and understood every word she said.
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In the Gospel according to Luke, Zechariah is made unable to speak by an angel, until the predicted birth of his son. He did his job as a priest in the temple, but could not speak. Then John was born:

…So they made signs to his father to inquire what he wanted to name the child. Zechariah asked for a tablet and wrote, “His name” is John. And they were all astonished. Immediately Zechariah’s mouth was opened and his tongue was released, and he began to speak, praising God.…

OK. So, why did the relatives "make signs" to him? He could not speak, but he could hear just fine! Just think what he must have overheard during those 9 months, while people thought he was deaf!
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Just watched that episode last night. My first thought was that too, but they weren't hiding what they were saying. The guy with the beard changes back to English and then finishes the conversation in front of Senior Blades.
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In one of the weirder scenes in last week's Fear the Walking Dead, two characters switch to Spanish to argue about the other people in the room. One of the other people is Reuben Blades. Could they really think he didn't understand Spanish?
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