Staff Stories: Miscommunication

Everyone has experienced various degrees of miscommunication at some time. Maybe you thought that someone had said something different than what they were trying to say, or maybe you were not successful in getting your point across to someone who did not speak the same language as you or at the same level of fluency as you did. This is a natural occurrence periodically in life. Experience has taught me that the miscommunications and misinterpretations that occur between native and non-native language speakers can be the most confusing in the moment, but they are also many times the most amusing (sometimes even hysterical) in retrospect. Anyone who has ever seen the movie Lost in Translation knows what I'm talking about.

Granada, Spain – What did she say?
Every Tuesday afternoon during my semester in Spain, a good friend of our host mother's would come for lunch. My roommate and I never knew this woman's name, so we secretly referred to her as "the friend". The strange part about "the friend" is that neither my roommate nor I could understand one single word this woman said. She didn't mumble or have any kind of difficulty speaking, and she was speaking in Spanish. I really am convinced that it was just her voice (very high pitched and very nasal) that made it difficult to understand. We had to try so hard not to laugh through lunch because every week it was the same scenario. "The friend" would ask us a question. We would look at Maria (our host mother) with a blank stare. Maria would then translate (I assume verbatim) what "the friend" had asked. We would answer and on and on it went. Despite four months of Tuesday lunches with "the friend", we never did get any better at understanding her. Lucky for us, this was an isolated case as our overall Spanish skills improved tremendously during our time in Spain.

Prague, Czech Republic – Playing Charades
My brother, plagued with allergies, found himself surrounded in every hotel by feather pillows and down comforters. He was staying in mostly smaller hotels that did not have staff with strong English speaking skills. At first, he did not want to make a big deal and be the ugly American yelling at the housekeeping staff in English for "NOOOOO FEA-THER PILL-OWS." So he kept quiet, until the third night where he could not stand the allergy attacks any longer. The maid came to the room and he got a pillow off the bed, gave it to her and proceeded to shake his head no violently while flapping his arms and clucking like a chicken. After a few attempts at trying to get his point across with no visible response, he gave up and started fake sneezing. The maid finally caught on to what point he was trying to make, and gave him a non-feather pillow. This technique worked throughout his trip in Europe. Finally, he did stay in a larger hotel and proceeded with the standard reenactment as usual. He was very embarrassed when they asked him in English, "Why don't you just tell us you are allergic to feathers?"

Frankfurt, Germany – Who's Alice?
It was my first day in a beginner German class. The class consisted of myself, a girl from Japan and two boys (one from Russia and the other from Turkey). The teacher was a native German speaker. The class was conducted entirely in German. I was clueless for most of the class until the end, or so I thought. At the end of class, I thought I was starting to get the gist of what was being said. The teacher started with a long list of examples (I will translate from German from where I thought I was starting to understand).

"And you know, if it's this way, then Alice will be this way, and if this happens, then Alice will do that." This went on for the last few minutes of class. She kept talking about all kinds of things that Alice could do. I sat in utter confusion wondering to myself "Did I miss something? Who's Alice?" I looked at my notes since I wrote down the teacher's name (Katarina) as soon as she said it. "OK, I thought. She's not Alice. The Japanese girl isn't Alice, she just called her by name. Wait! Does she think my name is Alice? Who is this Alice person? The character in the story we just read was Hans. What is she talking about?"

Class finally ended, and I left shaking my head knowing how confusing and frustrating the next 2 weeks would be. I trudged back to my host family and decided to ask my host mother a simple question to try and make some sense out of everything. "Was beduetet Alice?" (Translation: "What does Alice mean?") My host mother looked at me and said in English "it means – everything." I started laughing and couldn't stop. I felt so stupid. I explained to her what transpired in class. We both had a good laugh at that one. That night, I re-told the story to my dad who had taken years of German in school. "Come on, Elizabeth," he said "It's pronounced ahl-less not Alice." Whatever, dad. I'm still sticking to the fact that it sounds like Alice with a German accent!

By Elizabeth Gregory

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