Embarrassing Moments in Learning a Second Language

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Early on in our 25-year-and-counting marriage, my Darling asked me, “What do you call someone who speaks three languages?”

I replied, “Trilingual.”

She then asked, “So what do you call someone who speaks two languages?”

I knew something was up, because she had that I’m-about-to-teach-you-something look on her face, but like most husbands, I was like the proverbial deer that figured those two really bright lights were really interesting to look at as they grew bigger and bigger, and said “Bilingual”.

Then my Darling asked, “So what do you call someone who speaks only one language?”

She was smiling a little too sweetly by now, but I was still entranced by those lights and replied, “Um…monolingual?”

“No. American.”

Her point was obvious: only in America are there people who think that speaking only one language is somehow preferable or even patriotic. The great majority of the rest of the world speaks (at least to some extent) two or even several languages and see the ability to do so as laudable, a real advantage in business and in life. That was when I decided that I would learn her language, Tagalog (also known as Pilipino), the main dialect spoken in the Philippines.

It wasn’t until I began to learn Tagalog that it finally sunk in just how unnecessarily difficult, how stupidly complex the English language is. In Tagalog, here’s two rules: (1) the vowels “a, e, i, o, u” are pronounced “ah, eh, ee, oh, and ooh”, respectively, and (2) all syllables are pronounced. Congratulations! You now know how to pronounce (and spell, once you’ve heard a word) almost all words in Tagalog. The grammar, definitions, shortcuts, and slang take much longer to learn, of course, but just imagine how our American educational system would change if it took perhaps two minutes to learn how to pronounce and spell almost all words in the English language! In Tagalog, there’s no confusion over homophones like “two, too, and to”, much less confusion in giving directions like “It’s right there on your left.”

What’s more, Tagalog is gender-neutral, meaning that while there are words for “man” and “woman”, there’s no “him” or “her” or “his” or “hers”, but only phrases that translate as “the person who is male (or female)”. And yes, it is true that in other languages there are words that simply do not translate well to our own language. One such example is “lambing” (lahm-beeng) which is an adjective that can mean “affectionate” but also means “wanting attention” or “wanting a gift” or “wanting to cuddle”, depending on the context.

But in learning a second language, beware…for there be dragons.

Not long after we’d been married, my Darling and I were about to go have lunch with her sister and brother-in-law. She told me that her sister was in a family way, so I asked her, “How do I ask your sister if she’s pregnant?” (note: I am not mentioning her name here for privacy reasons)

“Buntis ka ba” (boon-tees kah bah), which is strictly translated as “Pregnant, you are, aren’t you?”

I practiced the phrase to myself over and over (“boon-tees kah bah, boon-tees kah bah”) until we arrived at her sister’s house. Her sister welcomed us inside and we began sharing the pancit and the pork adobo with jasmine rice. Once the conversation eased a bit, I turned to her sister and said, “Butas ka ba?” (booh-tahs kah bah). Everyone got very, very quiet.

Come to find out, I’d just asked her sister, “Do you have a hole?” To this day, I’m grateful that her husband didn’t immediately try to beat me to a pulp. After a moment, they were gracious enough to realize that I was still just learning the language, and that I’d simply mispronounced the word. That was when I learned to try to be very careful with my pronunciations.

But mispronunciation isn’t the only dragon of multilingualism. Context can be every bit as vicious!

A couple years later there was a meeting of the married couples at the Church of which I’m a member. During such meetings we receive guidance and gentle admonitions, and we occasionally have simple social games or presentations. During one such meeting, the husbands were asked to step up to the microphone and describe their relationship with the wife in one word. One by one, the husbands stepped up to the mic and said things like, “wonderful” or “exciting” or “incredible”. Mind you, they were all Filipino using English. I was the only white guy in the function hall that day, so I wanted to try to say something in Tagalog. Being a career sailor, I also wanted to say how much I missed my Darling while I’m deployed overseas…so I decided on the word “bitin” (bee-teen) which meant “not enough” or “I want more”, and by which I meant to say that I wish I didn’t have to spend so much time away from home, that I miss her so much when I’m away.

So I stepped up to the mic and said, “Bitin!”

The whole crowd erupted into laughter and applause, and so I smiled, thinking that I’d done something right for once. I sat down and looked over to my wife and saw that she was smiling at me…but the smile wasn’t her normal honest and sincere smile, but the kind of smile that a civil servant might use with a rude customer. She then said, “You’d better get up there and explain to everyone what you really meant”, and so I did, explaining how much I missed her with all the deployments, and so on.

Later, after we’d gotten in the car to go home, she explained to me what I’d done. In the context I’d used, the word “bitin” means “I’m not getting enough sex!”

Oh, boy. And in front of all the other married members of the Church. Thank God she loves me and sticks with me anyway, even with all the silly mistakes I’ve made along the way.

Multilingualism is wonderful…but just be aware that you’re likely to get bit by a couple dragons along the way.

Retired Navy. Inveterate contrarian. If I haven’t done it, I’ve usually done something close.

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