To be able to speak and understand more than just your native language opens up many doors of possibilities. Whether it be culturally; being able to explore and chat with the locals in a foreign land, generationally; hearing about those stories straight from nonna about the obstacles she overcame and what life was like back in the old country, or professionally; speaking another language can look really good on a resumé. Opportunities abound, plus the ability to eavesdrop on conversations provides endless entertainment.
What would you do if you overheard some tourists talking about you? How would you act if that random guy understood what you said about him? How would you respond to rude or offensive remarks made about a stranger? It can be tricky water to navigate. To confront or not to confront, that is the question. Here are 28 stories shared by Redditors about times they either overheard and understood conversations in a foreign language, or were the ones having those conversations.
29. Not Completely Useless After All
Myself and my family speak fluent Irish, a talent that is for around 50 weeks of the year completely useless—until we go on holiday! Not even all Irish people can speak Irish so it’s highly unlikely that you will be eavesdropped on in a foreign country.
I was visiting my cousin in Prague and we started talking about the people in our carriage in Irish. Naturally we noticed the cute guy sitting across from us and started to discuss his hotness. Ten minutes go by and he gets up to get off the train. Just before the doors close, he turns, winks and says “go raibh míle cailiní” ( thanks a million girls in Irish) in what sounded like a Czech accent. I’m still confused…
28. Seagulls Crack Me Up Too
I speak fluent English and German, plus a few other languages where I can speak the basics.
I was sitting in a hot tub while on vacation in California. These two German girls came a little while later and got in the hot tub. The hot tub overlooks the pool and the public beach since the hotel was on the water.
I made some small chat in English when they got in and they assumed I only spoke English. So they started talking among themselves in German, they started commenting on people that would walk by with all sorts of things “I bet she has breast implants, he is probably her b—, etc,” I was just listening and holding anything back, then they started narrating this seagull who kept asking for scraps and were making some horrible remarks “Hey you fat c—, you’re already fat enough! Throw me some food you fatty!”
They cracked a few good jokes (considering they were German humor I still found them really funny), before I knew it I lost my shit and started cracking up.
They knew instantly, their faces turned bright red from shame. I just laughed even harder. I then said “Thanks for the laughs, I’ll leave you two. Have a good day.” In perfect German.
27. Good Bartering Trick
Ohhh the fun I’ve had being able to speak Indonesian. My family and I, like most Australians, go to Bali in Indonesia quite a bit. I learnt the language for 12 years, and was fluent enough to pass tertiary entrance exams. The Indonesians just aren’t used to tourists making much of an effort to speak their language so, as a consequence, they say a LOT.
My two favourite moments would be from my first trip. We were being driven from our hotel to a really popular restaurant. We were being driven by three young guys. They were happily chatting away, blissfully unaware that I understood every word. One of them cracked a joke about taking my mother home (they were very much just cracking a joke, no real ill-intent) and when they all laughed I laughed REALLY LOUDLY. They stopped immediately and said in Indo “How long have you been learning Indonesian?” Was a pretty quiet car ride after that. The other time would be at the markets. I was buying some crappy jewellery from a small stall by the side of the road and I made a point of bartering in English for a change. In the middle of our transaction she turns to her daughter, who was sitting next to her in the stall, and says “Make sure you never barter much when the young ones are alone. They’re easier to make more money.” To which I said “Could you please repeat yourself, but slower?” And her face!! It was magical! I had never seen someone so shocked. Her daughter ended up giving me the things for their cost price and we chatted and hung out quite a bit too. All in all, victories all around.
26. She was NOT. HAVING. IT.
Oooh.. I have a good one.
I’m Asian and I live in France so my French is pretty fluent, spoken at least. I was visiting some friends in London last summer and on the tube, there were a group of five French tourists standing around and pretty much complaining about EVERYONE else in the tube… saying that Brits are so ugly, dissing how they dressed, really petty shit. I was already side-eyeing the crap outta this group but pretty much kept to myself and my friends.
Then the tube started getting really crowded, and we had to move in nearer to said French group. I accidentally bumped shoulders with one of the guys in the group and he proceeded to groan loudly then turn to his friends and say “All these f—- Asians, they’re everywhere… Go back to China, what a b—.” His group started laughing and looking at me. At that point I saw white and COMPLETELY LOST IT.
I turned around and addressed his whole group calling them out on their ignorance and racist bullshit, telling them off for being the exact stereotype of French tourists that ruin the reputations of the decent French people out there, and assuming that no one else can speak their language while travelling around in EUROPE ffs. Ended by saying if you don’t want to see any other races or ethnicity you should probably stay in that hole you call a home and not travel abroad if you’re gonna act like a massive douche.
Everyone was looking at me at this point, my friends were like wtf and trying to get me to stop. I just said loudly in English to everyone else that this group of French people were making racist statements and deserved to be called out. They all pretty much turned red and one of the other people in the group mumbled a quick apology and they got off the tube at the next stop.
AAaaaaaaah that felt good to finally share.
25. Not So Dumb After All
In high school my dad and I went backpacking through the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. We were in this small town named Lone Pine, which is about four hours north of LA. There were tons of German and French tourists there who had been visiting the redwood forests. I speak both English and French fluently and I overheard these two French girls talk about me in a convenience store.
One of them nodded in my direction and said “What about that one?” To which the other one replied, “He seems kind of dumb, but he’s cute, so yeah I’d probably sleep with him.” I thought I would try my luck and approach them about it. In French I said “So, I’d like to take you up on that offer if you’re up to it.” They were clearly pretty embarrassed, and just walked away giggling.
EDIT: My dad watched this all go down. He gave me a solid high five afterward.
24. Don’t Try it Punk!
I speak fluently English and French.
We were in an English bar playing a poker tournament, with a French Quebequer sitting next to me. At one point he bluffed and won the pot, and threw his cards down. For some reason I mistakenly thought he had flipped them over, so as I assembled all the cards to shuffle, I flipped them “back,” which was actually me flipping them over and showed everyone the bluff.
I immediately apologized and explained in English that I thought… before I’m even done he waves it off and smiles, but tells his buddy next to him in French to get behind me, so that he can hold me down when he decides to start punching me. (Tiens le, jva le tapper!)
I look him dead in the eye and reply in French that it wouldn’t be a very good idea as (and I pointed to the table behind him) that those ten people sitting there were my friends (and waved at them, with a few reply waves). Funny part is we were all part of an MMA club and the table was full of beefed up, obviously tough guys.
Not another word was spoken. I came in third!
23. Hair Today Gone Today
I speak Portuguese. I went into a salon a few months ago to get my hair done, but I went in speaking English. So I sit down, start doing my hair, I was the only one in there. Another lady walks in, speaking English. And two girls working there start talking in Portuguese, saying the ladies hair that walked in was hideous, that they would have a lot of work to do. I go up to the lady that walked in and told her what was being said, she left. At that point my hair was damp, since I was getting a blow dry. I get up, talk to the manager in Portuguese and leave. I got a call in a few hours from the owner, since I was a client there, apologizing, saying it won’t happen again, she also told me she fired the two girls.
I haven’t been back, but I know she hasn’t fired them.
22. Tricksy Taxis
My late father was a very very big man. I’m slightly larger than the average bear. In 1995, we went to Costa Rica. There was a line of taxis outside our hotel, on a side street. Three or four were in front of the hotel, and another handful parked on the opposite shoulder. My dad got in the front seat, and I got in behind the driver. My normal-sized sister and mom were on the other side.
It was hot out, February in Alajuela, and they all had their windows down. Our taxi driver, assuming that I was just another gringo, yells, “A éstos voy a cobrarles por kilograma en vez del kilometraje.” That translates to, “I’m going to charge these ones by the kilogram instead of the kilometers [on the meter].”
Having lived abroad extensively, I am fluent in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, but I’m as Anglo-Saxon-looking as you can get, fair-skinned, cobalt-blue eyes, massive beard, a foot taller than most everyone in Costa Rica. I know when a Spanish speaker is innocently and culturally acceptably talking about how big I am, and I recognize when they are mocking or making fun of me. This was the latter.
I reached up, put my hand on his shoulder, pulled him back towards me, and icily whispered in his ear: “Mira, papito. Vas a ponernos la maría de una puta vez o voy a notar tu número de placa y la próxima llamada que hago será al MOPT para que te la quiten de una vez. ¿Me entiendes, Méndez?” (Look here, little man. You’re going to turn on the meter at f— once or I’m going to write down your taxi license number and the next call I make will be to the DMV so that they take it away from you immediately. You got me, dude?”
He turned as pale as someone can and apologized profusely. When I translated for my family, my dad started laughing like mad, looked at the dude and said, “¿Mi hijo habla bien, no?” (My son speaks well, huh?).
I almost felt sorry for the guy, because, it’s not a bad joke. But, I’m guessing he was a bit more careful from then on out.
21. Can’t Fool This White Guy
I was buying my house, I was at my lawyer’s office in a meeting with the seller and his lawyer; the seller had been weirdly difficult to close.
He only spoke Spanish. I purposely never spoke Spanish around he or his lawyer, and my lawyer only spoke English to me. When my lawyer stepped out of the room to go make copies, the other dude and his lawyer started discussing all kinds of stuff about the deal in Spanish.
I understood everything, and used this to close the deal right then and there. They looked embarrassed as all hell.
I normally don’t like to embarrass people, but I find that switching languages so you can speak in front of people without them understanding really fucking rude… so they deserve what they got.
Never assume people can’t understand you.
I also maintain my “ignorant white guy” approach to the language most of the time, when meeting new people, and so on—so that I can use my language skills to my advantage. I’d usually rather they see me as the ignorant foreigner than someone who’s lived here a long time and understands everything.
I was on holiday in Moscow, and in the subway I heard another tourist tell his mate, in my native tongue, “You know, when we speak Dutch, nobody here will understand a word of it. It’s kind of a code language here!”
To which I replied, “Yeah, about that. It’s not as effective as you might think.”
19. Let the Cow Sit
One of my Israeli women friends told me that, when she was pregnant riding a subway in New York, she asked (in English) to squeeze in on a bench seat next to two women. One of the women said to the other (in Hebrew) “Let the cow sit down.” (T’ni l’para lashevet.) After she sat down, my friend then said in Hebrew “The cow says ‘thanks.'” (Ha’para omeret ‘toda’.)
18. Jeans with a Twist
I’ve had a few of these actually. I speak both English and Dari and you’d be amazed at the places that you see Afghan people at.
One time I was at Macy’s trying to grab a pair of Levi 508s but they didn’t have my size in the color. So, in the Levi’s area there were two women that had the Macy’s nametags on that were speaking to each other. As I got closer, I noticed that it was Dari but didn’t want to say anything. I came up to them and said “excuse me, but can you check if you have this in this size”; and one of the ladies turned to the other and said (in Dari) “wait a second while I show this idiot we don’t have what he wants.”
I didn’t say anything and turns out they did have it in my size but it was in another spot. Once I grabbed them, I turned to her and said in Dari “thank you very much for the help.” Her and her friend both turned bright red and asked if I was Afghan and apologized multiple times; in the end they hooked it up with some secret 40% off code so it all worked out.
17. Respect the Popcorn Popper
My parents speak Spanish, but I look completely white. I don’t look like I have a hint of any Spanish descent, but it was my first language and I’m fluent. When I worked my first job at a concession stand, this rude couple in line was taking their sweet time ordering (after being in line for twn minutes. Why couldn’t they decide then?). If you’ve ever worked at a chain theater, you know how bad the lineups can get. Five minutes had passed and they still hadn’t gotten past their first item. I politely asked them if they minded if I observed the next guest while they decided, and they yelled “NO.” Suddenly they’re having this full blown conversation about how useless I am in Spanish, about how I think I’m important because I make minimum wage and that I couldn’t get hired anywhere else. They made a couple stabs at my appearance to. I was a shy 16 year old with little confidence, so I didn’t say anything at first. After they finally ordered and paid, I handed them their popcorn and with a huge grin I said ” I hope you enjoy your movie”… In Spanish. The look on their faces made my day.
16. Well Damn…
This didn’t happen to me, but I still think it’s a good story.
Every Afrikaans woman I know living in England, including my sister and mother, love to gossip and insult strangers in Afrikaans to their fellow Afrikaners. Once a family friend was riding the Underground with her daughter, and she was criticizing literally everything about a man sitting opposite them, his hair, his clothing, his weight etc. Now, he says nothing the entire journey, doesn’t as much as look at them, but when the train stops, he stands up, walks past them, smiles, and tells her to enjoy her day.
In perfect Afrikaans.
15. Foot Permanently in Mouth
In France (Paris) I was travelling with some friends (also Portuguese) and we ordered in English in that restaurant because I am the only one who understands a bit of French in the group, and since we saw other tourists talk in English, it was easier for us, and then when eating we proceeded to talk in Portuguese, then I hear a regular looking French family say “Damn Portuguese, they are all dirty and thieves, and so poor, I bet they had to work for like two years just to come here (and other insults along the lines that all Portuguese women are prostitutes and etc),” when we left I said in the most perfect French accent I had to the Father who was like 30 years old (I was 17 at the time) “Well, at least Portugal isn’t known for surrendering and being rude, do you want to repeat all you said about my country outside, one on one!?” You should have seen his face… I did not know French people thought of us like that… seriously that left me wondering what the hell did we Portuguese people do to be seen like that?
14. Keep Those Racist Comments to Yourself
Apart from English, I natively speak Italian and Slovenian. The first time I brought my girlfriend to Italy, to see where I grew up, the main city I showed her was Venice, as I was born there.
There was this one time, when we had walked all day in the “secret passageways” of Venice, so we both were naturally tired and a little sweaty.
As we hopped on the train, two guys besides us started ogling us two and making fascist comments about us—”I wish Mussolini was still here, he would show these f%&kers to speak their own dirty language” (note: my gf doesn’t speak Italian, but she does understand a little)
Blood boiled up until we stepped off the train, as I approached them, and loudly said “NEXT TIME, YOU SHOULD PROBABLY KEEP YOUR NEOFASCIST AND RACIST COMMENTS TO YOURSELF.”
The whole car heard me and immediately turned to look at the blushing guy, who just replied with a “y-yes.”
Needless to say, I triumphantly walked off the train while my gf turned around towards the window these guys were sitting at, with a big smile stamped on her face.
13. Making Moves
I am bilingual (Dutch-Russian). I live in the Netherlands.
I was in St. Petersburg two weeks ago. I have a friend who also speaks both Russian and Dutch (we have known each other since we were two), our parents are good friends, so they booked flights to Petersburg for the same period. He was staying at his grandma’s and I with my grandma.
So we were together, buying vodka at some supermarket. We are talking Dutch together, and English to the cashier (just for fun). So, all of a sudden I hear two girls (18 years old) talking.
They start rating us. And come to the conclusion that we are quite cute. They guessed our age to be ~19. (We are: me 15 and he 14.)
I give “the look” to my friend. By some kind of “best-friend telepathy” we decide that I should make the move.
So I turn and say in Russian: “Well girls, you look quite nice too. We can maybe hang out or something.”
They scream and laugh, and accept the invitation. We then went to a café, and after that to the movies. We still occasionally chat with them. 🙂
12. Gringo Surprise
I’ve told this story before, but here it goes again.
I’m a pretty generic-looking white guy and I used to live in the southwest. When this story happened I had just gotten back from studying abroad in Spain, so my Spanish was and still is pretty good. A few of my friends and I (all white dudes) decided to go to Jack in the Box for food one day.
We get there, get our food, and eat it in a relatively normal fashion. We were one of the few tables in there and we weren’t excessively loud or making a big mess. As we all got up to leave, I heard one of the older Hispanic (in all likelihood Mexican) ladies who worked at the restaurant utter something to the effect of “pinche gringos” in Spanish to another employee. All my other friends had pretty much left the building, but since I was the last one out I heard her mutter it.
It pissed me off more than it probably should. Here I was, a white dude trying to learn Spanish when there was no need for me to do so other than me wanting to. If I am going to take the several years of language courses and travel 5,000 miles to a different country to learn Spanish, the least that native speakers can do is not insult me and place me into the “white people suck” category before talking to me. Some of us crackers do suck pretty hard, but not all of us.
I went over to her and motioned for her to come to the counter. I leaned across and said something to the effect of: “Cuidado, nunca sabes cuando un ‘pinche gringo’ habla el espanol…” (Be careful, you never know when a f— white guy speaks Spanish). Her eyes got really big and her jaw dropped open. She didn’t know what to say or do. I just turned and walked out the door. Hopefully she learned her lesson and is either now 1) less racist, or 2) more careful about her racism.
11. Careful What You Say
Mostly related. I’ve shared this before… my wife and I have adopted two kids from China on two separate occasions. We had some time to wait before the first one so we learned some basic Mandarin to help with our trip and connect a bit with our daughter’s birth culture.
While there, a day or so after we got her, we were in the Walmart (yes, Walmart) in Zhengzhou, when a younger woman walks by, sees a large American guy with a pale redheaded wife carrying a Chinese toddler in a sling, doubles back and with a fake smile says “ni bu xihuan ni de mama, ma?” which works out to “you don’t like your mom, do you?”
My wife spins around and, in Mandarin, basically says “oh yes she does.” The look on that woman’s face carried me through the day.
10. Easy There Monsieur
I speak French and Portuguese and live in Brazil.
One day I was walking home and this car stops next to me and this guy ask some directions in Portuguese, but in a heavy French accent.
I try to tell him where is the place he wanted to go but it’s kinda complicated, he doesn’t understand.
The place was near my home, so I ask him if he wants me to get in the car and take them there and he accepts.
Now I know this is awkward (and dangerous) but, hey, I trusted him and he trusted me, there is kindness after all.
Thing is, besides him, there is this old couple in the car… and as soon I get in the old guy (not the one who asked directions) started screaming as hell, in French, something like this:
“HOW DO YOU LET THIS THIEF GET IN OUR CAR? THIS IS F— DANGEROUS, YOU DON’T KNOW WHO HE IS, WE ARE IN BRAZIL FOR CHRIST SAKE, YOU ARE INSANE.”
Nevertheless, the guy started his engine and followed my directions… during all the way the old guy keeps yelling in French:
“YOU ARE PUTTIN US ALL IN RISK, THIS GUY (looking at me) CAN BE A HOMELESS DRUG ADDICT,” and so on…
There is this one point when I say for the guy driving the car to turn left, he doesn’t understand it because the other one is screaming, so I repeat and he doesn’t understand again.
Then I say in French: “tournez à gauche” (turn left).
Then a few seconds pass and the nice guy, the one who’s driving, ask me in French if I speak French, I say “yes, a little.”
The other guy, the one who’s complaining, turns white and stop yelling immediately.
I tell him to stop the car (in French), because the place (hotel) they wanna go was right there and my house was the other way.
That was a fun day.
9. American Idiots
In a reversal of the “French are rude” stereotype, I was in a grocery store in France and two college-aged American girls were walking around and talking to each other in English about the other customers, sometimes saying really rude things. When we were in the same aisle one of them started talking about me just a few feet away (just about how I’m really tall, which doesn’t offend me since it’s true) and when I looked over at them the other one got nervous and told her friend to be quiet, but the friend just replied, “Oh, it’s okay, she can’t understand us.”
There was no satisfying confrontation here, I’m afraid. I was so shocked at how rude they were being that I didn’t say anything and I just walked away. It’s true there weren’t many English speakers in that town, but still, it’s English. You should always assume there’s going to be someone around who can understand you.
In Canada I was buying some clothes in a Chinese run store and I asked the lady at the counter how much something was. She yelled back to her husband (in Chinese) “How much is this shirt?” and he yelled back in Chinese “five dollars.” She told me “ten dollars” and I said (in Chinese) “but he said it was five dollars.” She laughed and gave me it for five. I probably still overpaid by 90%.
7. Genital Mysteries
Not me but my girlfriend, she speaks English and Dutch. There have been numerous times that she has been in England and heard people speaking in Dutch about things you wouldn’t usually talk about in public.
For example when she was on the bus she heard to guys talking behind her describing this lump he’d found on his genitals.
Now because they assumed no one could understand them they were talking at normal levels. I was next to her at the time and she told me and I burst out laughing. When we got off the bus we turned to them and said “doei” which is “bye” in Dutch. The looks on their faces were brilliant!
6. You Got Played
Sorry. But here’s a “not me, but my friend” story.
My buddy is Mongolian and Russian, speaks fluently in both as well as English, but looks entirely Mongolian.
We went to Vegas a year ago, with some another friend who is also Mongolian, and hit the tables. They went to play poker together. I basically just handed my wallet over to the casino.
Anyway, they’re at the table with two Russian guys who are speaking Russian to each other, basically planning on trying to play my friends and drive up the bets in an attempt to get their money.
My friend hears them and understands what’s happening, then tells out other friend what’s up in Mongolian. So now they knew they were getting played and decided to play the Russians.
Basically, they bluffed their way to winning some money until the Russians left, at which time my friend said to them, in Russian, “good playing with you guys, take care.” The Russian guys jaws dropped and they left.
5. Umm, Please Don’t Rob Me
About ten years ago I was on a night train, going from Rome to Naples. These two addicts were discussing robbing me with a knife while I was sitting in the same cabin with them. I told them I spoke Italian, and that if they wanted to rob me, I wasn’t going to make it easy for them. They actually apologized, told me they thought I was German, and moved on down the car.
4. Can I Get a Latte with a Shot of Contempt
I speak English and French and I live in Quebec. Everyone knows how some French Quebequers don’t take too kindly to the English. So I’m at a café ordering in English because I’m in between classes and screw it, it’s 7:30 AM and latte is pretty much the same in both languages. The cashier looks at me like I had puke all over myself and walks over to her manager and says in French: Take care of that Anglo, when will they understand that it’s French in this province? At which point, I turned bright red and I said in French, Pardon? Can I not order a coffee without having to have a political debate? Would you not serve travelers or immigrants?
Free coffee for a year.
3. Well That was Lucky
US citizen here. I’ve lived in Georgia for two years (the country, not the state), so I have a rudimentary grasp on Georgian.
I was at a hostel in Istanbul a few months ago and fell deathly ill within a few hours of arrival. I’m the only person in my four-bed room. I proceed to spend the entire next day in bed—never left the room. Day three, I’m both still deathly ill and starving. I have a transatlantic flight the next day.
For the first time, the cleaning staff come in to the room—two women. I want to somehow get them the message that I’m sick and need an English-speaking staff member to come to the room. Unfortunately, I don’t speak a word of Turkish.
But then, in my half-conscious state, I hear some chatter that sounds like “smells bad.” I see the other worker glance my way. Then I hear what I’m absolutely certain is “yes, he smells bad.”
Praise jeebus, they’re Georgian! And you should have seen the look on their faces when I rolled over and blabbled “I’m extremely sick, I need medicine from a pharmacy.”
I had exactly what I needed an hour later, soup on a regular basis, and fresh hot tea every 30 minutes until I left. They were awesome. Good times.
2. Penurious Parisian
Jesus, the French get a bad rap here.
Speaking of which! I was in Krakow, Poland, with a few friends, all French, including me. Now, Krakow is an amazing city but one of our “friends” (actually a friend of a friend of a… you get the idea) was a born-and-raised Parisian. I know, it’s a stereotype, but they do tend to look down on people, even by French standards.
Anywho, there’s five of us in the tram, standing awkwardly in the middle aisle because all the other seats are taken. We’re the only ones standing though, so we attract people’s looks to begin with.
And for some reason, ParisGirl starts rambling about how everyone just looks so depressed and tired here, compared to Pâââris (which wasn’t true at all, and considering our steady diet of “just vodka” while we were here, we were certainly the most zombie-looking of the bunch). After a while, I say:
• ParisGirl, tune it down. Who are you to say that?
• What? They can’t understand it anyway.
• Like f— they can’t, how would you know? And just because they can’t understand doesn’t mean you get to insult them, jeez.
By now I could see a few frowns in our direction, probably from how loud we were. Anyway, ParisGirl stops for a bit, and all of a sudden starts again with a massive, loud and clear: “They’re all ugly anyway.”
At this moment, two friends of mine and I all at the same time screamed variations of “SHUT UP FOR THE LOVE OF GOD”.
And I swear that when we got out of the tram, a younger guy sitting looked at me, nodded in approval and mouthed “Merci” to me.
1. Do I Even Want To Know?
Once heard my boss tell his wife in German what he was going to do to her when he got home… It was disturbing to say the least…