Do my ears deceive me?

Sometimes people speak to you in a language you’re not expecting. You might assume they’re speaking in the language you were expecting, and try to make sense of their utterances as if they were in that language, which just confuses you.

An example of this happened the other day when I went to pick up my laundry from the laundrette. One of the guys who works there is Chinese, and I’d heard him speaking Mandarin on the phone so thought I’d speak to him in that language. He wasn’t expecting this and thought I was speaking English, so couldn’t understand me. I explained, in English, what I was saying, then we chatted in Chinese for a bit and he understood me perfectly.

A similar thing happened to me when I was in Dublin in June – most of the kitchen staff in the hostel I was staying in were Chinese and I thought I’d be clever and order my breakfast in Mandarin. They weren’t expecting this and could make head or tail of what I said to them.

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10 Responses to Do my ears deceive me?

  1. Polly says:

    It happens all the time. I say something to my wife in Armenian. She doesn’t expect it (rightfully so) and so she either doesn’t understand or thinks I said something hilariously different in English! The reverse happens, too. (My wife is a native speaker)

    It seems almost as if we have to switch into different “language-modes” in order to understand. Like speaking pig-latin. One has to prepare their ears to hear the patterns first.

  2. TJ says:

    Reminds me of a story of some canadian writer I think … he said: a woman sent me a letter saying that she was confused on whether to speak french or english with the kids in the house! So I answered that letter and said to her, seeking a joke, that she should divide the house into two halves .. the top french and the lower is english. Later she replied back and told me that it was a perfect idea!!! and it was really a funny thing to see the kids change their tongues out of sudden when they just pass the stairs down from french to english!!!

    I think I should try this at home!!

  3. Joseph Staleknight says:

    I can imagine:

    “Hey, Mom, can I sleep downstairs today? I’m not quite up to my French!”

  4. Ben L. says:

    I’ve experienced that sort of “dyslanguia” before. Also, I’ve had the related experience of relaying what somebody said, but when asked being unable to remember what language they said it in.

  5. I can’t say I’ve had the experience of hearing gibberish so much as what Ben L. describes: receiving information but not knowing what language it was in. I had a Spanish teacher who had a habit of going back and forth between Spanish and English, and it got to where I would just hear an unbroken stream of information and not be able to remember what language a particular part was in.

  6. Chibi says:

    I’ve had sort of the reverse effect…I’d know that certain people only speak English, but for some reason, I definitely remember them speaking some random phrase of German. Even though they said it in English, and there’s no possible way it could’ve been German. I still heard it as German.

    I think it’s kind of strange. It’s not even, like, after I’m done with intense studying or anything, it’s just at random moments.

  7. SamD says:

    I had an experience where my eyes deceived me. I was walking through the streets of Montreal and assumed a sign was in French: men’s suits.

    I kept trying to translate verb forms of mentir and suivre. Oops!

  8. parkbench says:

    This goes along the lines of something I’ve always thought about: phrases which are phonetically identical in two different languages, but mean two different things.

    Imagine a Spanish person listening to a Japanese, and hearing:

    行けます? (ikemasu? can (subject) go?)

    Confusing instinctively with “y qué más?” (and what else?)

    Any other contributions to the list of…whatever you’d call these? Not sure if they’re considered false friends, because they’re not really. :P

  9. Simon says:

    parkbench – those two phrases can be considered false friends, I think.

    Everytime I hear the Welsh word cau (closed) I think of the Mandarin kāi (open), which sounds the same, and have to remind myself which is which.

  10. Geoff says:

    Ages ago, I went to school in France. Almost every conversation I had with my host family I remember in English. But my phone conversations with my own family I remember in French. Almost as though my brain flipped them round for the people I’d be explaining them to later.

    As for the mishearing bit, as long as I know enough of the language – English, French, Spanish, limited Italian – to understand, at all it usually comes in as straight content. The tricky bit is that I often answer in the other person’s native language, which throws them off if they’ve been struggling to get their thoughts together in English. I’m not sure how you score mishearing someone as speaking Spanish instead of English because they always speak Spanish.