Chalk Stubs are short anecdotes about language teaching and learning – the funny things we say when struggling with a new language, or the funny things that happen in the classroom. They should be under 100 words in length. If you have one to share, post it using the box at the very bottom of the page.
I was always taken aback when ANA end-of-flight announcements thanked passengers for their “copulation” (co-operation). Thankfully they have changed their formulaic patter, and now just say something like, “Thank you for flying with us…” For a while there I was wondering if I had unwittingly joined the ‘Mile High’ club.
Tonight’s Australian news on the upcoming election: Scott Morrison on walkabout surges up to an Asian woman, with his hand out, saying, “Ni hao!” She backs off saying “No, no. I’m Korean!”
“By the end of that academic year, this student stopped attending conversational classes. She said she was too busty to stay after our regular classes.” (From a Font submission)
Pupil: Please Miss can we do some French today?
Teacher: Mais oui!
Pupil: Ok, ok – MAY we do some French today?
My friend “A”, though a native English speaker, is given to charming malapropisms such as:
There’s a bad mood in their house, the tension is palatable.
The pain is quite bad, its really dilapidating.
My friend is not thin, she’s quite volumptuous.
The dog has developed a pensione for chewing my daughter’s toys.
I chose this school for my football-mad son because the sports facilities are really superfluous.
and (my personal favourite) Those people move in the upper chevrons of society.
How to avoid embarrassing foreign language faux pas
A student once told me her favorite food s were ‘ corns’. Another preferred ‘silver fish’ . I had an ‘ewww’ moment!
In Italy, be careful not to burn yourself when turning the tap marked “Caldo”, which is Italian for “Hot”.
A bit passe now, but in France, when offering a cigarette, don’t suggest someone is un fumier, (muckheap) rather than fumeur. (smoker)
Again in France, better to “rendre visite a” someone, rather than “visiter” (to visit, a grandparental euphemism implying the visit was sexual.)
A final note – be careful with foreign spellcheck. A colleague recently received an email which ended by politely apologising “for any incontinence caused”.
I remember crewing on a French yacht, and thought I was doing rather well, until the skipper started to shout abuse at me. It transpired that he wished me to ‘back the jib’ – in French ‘foc a contre’.
I saw a sign in a zoo in Budapest that said, “Please don’t feed the animals. If you have any suitable food, please give it to the guard on duty.”
Message in a hotel in Moscow: “If this is your first trip to Russia, you are welcome to it.”
Sign in a bar in Norway: “Ladies are requested not to have children in the bar.”
“Ass wipe, sir?” enquired the helpful attendant who filled my petrol tank this morning near my home in Dubai. I declined, thinking this was customer service taken just a little too far. It took me a full two minutes to realise that I’d missed a very significant “Gl…”. Getting old and deaf, I guess.
Last night a friend had an extra ticket to the Chunichi Dragon’s game and he invited me. It was a great game. They were playing Hanshin and Hanshin jumped out to an early lead in the third inning, going up five runs. Chunichi got one run back in the bottom of the third and then took the lead in the fourth on 10 hits and five runs. This one run lead hung on until the top of the ninth when Chunichi sent in their ace reliever, Iwase.
One of the things about Japanese baseball is that each player has a theme song that the PA system plays when he comes in. So when Blanco, theVenezuelan, first baseman bats, they play the Black Eyed Peas’, A Good Night and when the big third baseman bats you hear AC/DC’s, You Shook Me All Night Long. Anyway, when the reliever Iwase came in they played Ne-Yo’s romantic R&B ballad Closer. I did not get it at first. Ne-Yo is crooning away, “She wants to own me, She says come closer, Come closer.”
And the crowd is screaming CLOSER, CLOSER, CLOSER. They are saying closer, like clozer as in “He closed the door” or “He closed out the game by striking out the last two batters” which he did and Chunichi won. I was laughing so hard, I could not feel my left arm. I thought I was having a stroke.
Blood on the Tracks
The students were practicing the conditional, “If I could fly, I would… or If I had a million dollars, I would, ….” Stuff like that. The girl turned to her partner to ask the question she had written. “If you were late your period, what would you do?” It was not a bad attempt, a bit personal for early in the semester, but the boy she asked the question to didn’t seem to be put off by it.
My mouth opened, to explain why the question might not be appropriate, but then closed as I imagined how that conversation would go. Probably best to avoid embarrassment all around, I thought. In fact before I could close my mouth, the boy answered, “I would ask the train station manager for a ticket to explain that the train was too slow.”
My mouth opened and closed a couple more times. But the girl seemed satisfied by the answer. The boy followed up, “How about you?” To which she answered, “Me, too.”I quickly moved on to another pair of students. It was the next class before I realized that she probably meant, “If you were late for your period (class), what would you do?” Still I was the only one who did not seem to understand what was going on.
Duality in meaning creates problem sometimes. Interesting!
All In a Days Work
The venerable academic, author of 46 academic articles and books, presenter at both national and international conferences, roams the corridors of the national university with a clipboard, stopping every 10 meters or so to look up. He is counting light fixtures and noting those that are not working. Once a month he can be seen prowling the school. He passes a colleague counting the lights inside classrooms, another counting windows, and another checking the air conditioners. After all, this is Japan.
Straight Answers to Tough Questions
What is the maximum velocity needed for sub-atomic particles to achieve positronic distillation?” asks the foreign English instructor of his class of freshmen. “C’mon, this is an easy one,” he chides after the obligatory 60 seconds of silence. “Uhm, ahh, Japan?” is finally ventured from the student he has managed to capture in eye contact. “Yes. Of course we all do. Shoot me now” mutters the teacher. The annual ritual of rehashing junior high school English in the first weeks of university is just getting started. “Where do you live?” is just such a puzzler. After all, this is Japan.
Ghost in the Machine
A United States military trainer was making a routine visit to an Afghan government official whom he mentored. He was excited because new computers had just been delivered, and he wanted to hear how the devices were working.
The trainer had a thick Southern accent that, evidently, his interpreter found hard to understand.
“How’s the system?” the trainer asked.
“How’s your sister?” the interpreter said, translating.
The government official was visibly angry, to the American’s confusion: “My sister?! Who are you to be asking about my sister?!” The interpreter translated the official’s response into English, but said “system” instead of “sister.”
Trainer: “Yeah, your system! We just delivered new computer systems.”
Interpreter’s translation: “Yeah, your sister. You have beautiful sister.”
The Afghan, roaring: “You better stop talking about my sister!” The interpreter kept the miscommunication going, again telling the American that the official had said “system.”
Trainer: “Hey, relax! It’s on the agenda.”
The Afghan, huffing and puffing: “My sister is most definitely NOT on the agenda!” He stormed out.
The American was perplexed. The interpreter shrugged.
Pass the Celt!
This is not really funny, but a good example, anyway.
When I went to Thailand to live in the early 70’s the musical ‘Jesus Christ Super Star’ was very popular here in the USA. I kept seeing the message ‘Jesus Christ Supper Star’ on t shirts. It took me a while to realize it was not a weird play on words, but was done unknowingly.
The last (supper) laugh, if indeed there was one, was on me.
or dinner theater
Please Clean Up After Your Pet!
After several months of language and culture training, one of the Peace Corps volunteers was finally assigned to his site to work with Thai teachers. During a teachers conference he was asked to introduce himself. He was doing fine and the teachers were paying attention until he was talking about his home state and the many feet of snow covering the street. The teachers burst out laughing. He tried to maintain his composure and finished his speech. Later he found out what had happened. He meant to use the word for snow หิมะ hì-má but used the wrong tone for hi-ma. What he ended up saying was -“In my home state in winter the streets are often covered with many feet of dog’s-vaginas.”
In a Paris hotel elevator:
Please leave your values at the front desk.
In a hotel in Athens:
Visitors are expected to complain at the office between the hours of 9 and 11 a.m. daily.
In a Yugoslavian hotel:
The flattening of underwear with pleasure is the job of the chambermaid.
In a Japanese hotel:
You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid.
In an Austrian hotel catering to skiers:
Not to perambulate the corridors in the hours of repose in the boots of ascension.
The Turing Test
In the early days of computing, in the 80’s, a London university tried to develop a program that was so sophisticated it could translate several thousand colloquial phrases. At the official press conference a reporter entered the English phrase “Out of sight, out of mind”. The resultant Russian was translated back to English: “invisible idiot”.
It has been averaging around 100 degrees for the past week and I got tired of sleeping with one of those blue cooler things wrapped in a towel for a pillow so I gave up on the city and went to the mountains for the weekend, about 70 degrees versus 100. It was pretty standard hiking nothing bad happened this year. I guess the only funny thing was after we got back, we stopped at an onsen, hot springs / public bath, to wash the sweat off. I was getting dressed and next to the row of lockers were two doors. The one on the right was labelled “storage closet.” And the one on the left said “toilet.” A naked old guy came shuffling up. He knocked on the door on the right. There was no answer so he tried the door, but it was locked. So he sat down and waited. I continued getting dressed. About five minutes later, the old guy stood up and shuffled back to the the door. He knocked again. Again there was no answer. He tried the door again, but it was still locked. He mumbled something so I said, “That’s the storage closet. The toilet’s the next one over.” He looked at me and then looked at the door and I guess saw the sign for the first time. I am also blind without my glasses so I can’t say anything about missing the sign. He laughed and said, “That’s the storage closest.” He looked back at me and said, “thank you.” It’s a nothing story, but I consider it one of my most effective and pleasant interactions in Japanese.
I open my door to the TV fee man.
He smiles. I grimace.
He asks questions in perfect Japanese.
I burble answers in imperfect Japanese.
He waves his ID at me.
I wave my hand at him.
He asks questions in perfect English.
I burble answers in imperfect Welsh.
He grimaces. I smile.
I close my door to the TV fee man.
What follows is one of those things you can see is about to happen but can’t do anything about. I just spent the weekend at work invigilating the center exams, the almighty university entrance exam in Japan. In the middle of the maths exam on Sunday, one of my colleagues – the team leader bloke sitting at the desk in the front – fell asleep and banged his chin on the desk when his elbow dropped off the edge of the table. Caused an almighty thud as his knee also hit the metal wall of the desk. Everyone in the room jumped a foot. Poor kids! I had to leave the room immediately for fear of laughing out loud. The look on the guy’s face was priceless. Where am I?
*On student written exams
My Question: Using your imagination, finish the following sentence stems using linking words:
1) I’m not feeling well… “because I dumped my girlfriend and then my wallet in the river”.
2) My community is quite a safe area… “except for the flashers”.
3) I think I will get a good grade in this class… “because I didn’t do absinthe”
4) We need to go the library… “so that we can rent a boot”
5) Why don’t you ask your father to lend you some money… “so that you can buy someone”
My Question: Rewrite the following sentences, using reported speech:
1) I think my cat has disappeared…”She told me her cat was disappointed”
2) I think John is telling a lie… “She seems to be John and is telling a liar”
3) People need to recycle plastic bottles…”He said people need to be recycled bottles”
4) Let’s meet for coffee = “He said to meet for coffee. I don’t think so”
5) “Are you enjoying yourself writing this test? …”She asked me a stupid question”
S1: So. do you want to get married, one day?
S2: Yes…I want to marry a kind, rich and tall man.
S1: Ahhh…that’ll be the Americans, then.
Me: Ok, the test starts now, so please begin.
S1: You go first.
S2: What? Me? What? No way! Oh my god I’m going to expire.
S1: So, how was your New Year’s?
S2: It was great. I went to the beach to watch the first samurai.
S1: So, did anything bad happen to you as a child?
S2: Yeah, when I was about 7, I got stung by a bee.
S2: Really?! That’s terrific!
(…think he meant ‘terrible’ but could be wrong…)
“What’s mean?” “What’s mean?” the student kept asking.
In my imagination, I slapped him smartly on both of his cheeks and said, “That’s mean!”
Will Work for Vegetables
Instead of talking about my salary (kyuuryou), I told my Japanese teacher that I get paid in cucumbers (kyuuri).
The Accent is on the Positive
This one works for Spanish speakers, but others may get it too. The students in the elementary class were learning the alphabet. One raised his hand to ask: Is there an “ñ” in English? The teacher was about to answer there wasn´t when a voice from the back said: Of course, Ñot!!!
If It Walks Like a Duck and Sounds Like a Duck…
A colleague of mine in northern China was being visited by her Welsh father who was a professor of philosophy at a Scottish university. He was an adept linguist but was fascinated by the whole idea of communicating to people whose language one didn’t speak. One morning during his visit he set out to buy eggs armed with nothing more than his determination and some thespian courage. We could have said to him “Just ask for ji dan”, but he waved us away and seemed to relish the challenge ahead.
He entered the first store, a small grocery shop on the campus of my colleague’s college, and tried miming breaking an egg into a bowl. He met with no success whatever; just a puzzled stare. This was repeated at the next two stores. By the time he got to the fourth store he had acquired quite a following of curious Chinese – including the owners of the first three stores who were wondering what this strange “waiguoren” could possibly want. The professor decided his egg-breaking routine obviously wasn’t getting the idea across and instead decided to mime the entire process of producing an egg – from the hen’s point of view. He puffed out his chest, waggled his arms like a chicken’s wings and squatted down as if laying an egg. He then reached under him, pulled out an imaginary egg and pointed to it as if to say – this is what I want!
Light dawned on the shopkeeper who immediately dived beneath the counter and came back up triumphantly with – a roll of toilet paper!
Now Showing in a Theater Near You
The Ausfahrt comment reminded me of my flatmate in Venezuela. He was going to the mall so I asked him to check out what was showing that night at the cinema on the top floor. After an hour he returned to our flat. “Did you see what was on?” I asked. “Yes, there were two film notices in the window” he replied. “At one screening they’re showing “Hoy” and at the other they’re showing “Agotado”.
“Hoy” means “Today” and “Agotado” means “Sold Out”. I didn’t have the heart to tell him and I diplomatically slipped out later that afternoon to check for myself.
Sure enough, neither film was showing. Instead, on the door was a sign advertising a film I’d never heard of called “Abierto” 😉
What’s on the Menu?
I’ll never forget an attempt a friend and I made in a restaurant in Guizhou, China to establish what the fish of the day was (I think we were simply anxious to ensure it wasn’t carp). The waitress couldn’t tell us what the fish was but happily confirmed it was “yu” (fish) which we felt was at least a start.
After trying several different species of fish on her, my friend decided we could at least ask whether it was a fresh water fish or a sea fish. Not knowing how to say “fresh water” in Chinese, she asked “Where does the fish live?”. “Oh no!” said the waitress, happy to assure us both, “The fish is not living; the chef killed it already!”
Glowing, My Dear, Positively Glowing
My English friend met her Mexican boyfriend’s parents for the first time and the first words that she uttered were ‘estoy embarazada.’
She thought it translated to ‘I’m embarrassed’ (for not speaking more Spanish) when really it means ‘I’m pregnant.’
No Way Out
On holidays in Germany, my grandmother once said to my dad in the car, “This place ‘Ausfahrt’ must be HUGE- we’ve been driving past it for ages!”
(Ausfahrt is in fact the German word for “motorway exit”).
“You Like Me! You REALLY Like Me”
One day I was preparing for my first English Speech contest. I was reciting a first draft of my new speech to my English teacher. It was about a violin performance I gave while visiting another school.
I read him: “As I finished the song, the auditorium was silent. I was afraid that no one liked my performance. Then, one man began to crap.”
(My teacher looked up from the notes he’d been taking.)
I went on: “Then, another man began to crap. Soon, everyone is crapping. I think they enjoyed my song, after all.”
He suggested we change the word to “applaud” and my speech was very well received.
Spoken Like a Diplomat
I work in the university bookstore where I had been helping a student from China get her books for her Master’s programme. Her English was fine, but she had a strong accent. After I’ve finished helping her, the next customer stepped up.
Customer: “If that’s how she speaks English, she’s going to have serious trouble with Dutch. She’ll be useless in class!”
Me: “Actually, her courses are all in English, so she won’t have to learn Dutch.”
Customer: “What? That’s ridiculous! They’re making all these courses in English to let lazy foreigners get in easily. What about us, hmm? We have to put up with having to speak a foreign language in our own country just so she can come here and basically get handed a place at university by the stupid management. I bet she’ll get a job here, too. Everyone seems to think it’s more prestigious to hire some foreigner than someone who actually knows the language and the culture and everything!”
Me: “… Anyway, let’s get your books. What is your major?”
Customer: “International relations.”
Whilst on a day out in York with my Spanish intercambio a couple of summers ago I said ‘estoy caliente’…she choked on the water she was drinking at the time and when I asked her why she was laughing she said that if she was a man she would have been very happy. In the future, I won’t forget that it is ‘tengo calor’ for I’m a bit warm and ‘en caliente’ for sexy hot!!
In a short biography, my English teacher set for us once, I wrote; “My father had unhappy childhood. His father dranks too much and his parents was divorced. About five years late his father died.”
My husband is learning Japanese and always confuses the words denwa (phone) and densha (train). Hence we get amused or bemused looks from commuters as he asks them whether the phone we’re about to board is going to Kyoto!
As I mentioned…
My teacher was smiling when he returned my English essay, which tackled some weighty issues. I had written; “Let’s look at human problems. There are many problems of human beings, like my writing in the first paragraph.”
I guess I got that right!
My teacher asked my class to write about our future career plans. Later we had to check each other’s writing. My partner wrote; “I want to be a cabin attendant because I love an airplane.”
Coffee, Tea, or Me?
I hadn’t been studying English very long. We’d been learning names of various jobs when my teacher decided to give us a little pop quiz. She included a picture of a uniformed young lady pushing a cart down the aisle of an airplane. There was a line beneath the picture where we should write the name of the job. My spelling was so bad, and I wrote “fright attendant” but one of my friends wrote the even more alarming “fried attendant”!
I have a friend called Dave who’s from Ireland and when he came to France to visit me and my family, as he didn’t have much money he decided to hitch a ride.
Now Dave speaks very little French but still, he wanted to make conversation with the guy who’d given him a ride.
As it was really cold outside, assuming that talking about the weather was pretty safe, he went:
“je suis fou!” (I am insane) instead of “j’ai froid” (I’m cold).
Then he realized he must have made some sort of mistake and didn’t utter another word during the whole journey!