'I have a pain in my teets!'

My new Mexican friend Ricardo had a problem. He'd woken with a serious toothache and he needed to see a dentist. This, however, was not the major problem.

The problem was he was living in the US but, after just a few weeks, wasn't yet confident with his English. Still, that tooth wasn't going to fix itself.

"So I thought about what I'm going to say to the dentist," Ricardo tells me later, perched behind a bar back in his home town of Puerto Escondido. "I think about what you call the things in your mouth and I know it's 'teeth', so I think about what the plural must be for that. Put an 's' on it and it's 'teeths', right?

"Now, you remember that for Mexicans there is no sound for 'th', so it just comes out like 't'. So I visit the dentist and in front of all the people there I say to the girl at the desk, 'I have pain in my teets.'

"Everybody laughed at me!"

What was worse was that at the time, Ricardo didn't even know what the English word "teats" meant - he just thought everyone was laughing at his pluralisation of teeth.

Embarrassing as it was for Ricardo, I find this story refreshing because it reminds me that we monolingual Australians aren't the only ones who have a problem with language when we travel. It's a worldwide phenomenon.

I've always had a problem with language, in that I speak only one of them. This isn't much of an issue in Australia; in fact, I rarely even notice it. Step off our shores, however, and I find I'm at a severe disadvantage. I'm cut off from the rest of the world. Conversations with possibly very interesting foreigners are reduced to asking for directions to the nearest toilet.

In non-English-speaking countries, I travel around in a bizarre bubble, cut off from the rest of society by my inability to communicate with it.


But hey, travelling life goes on.

I bumble through things, making a fool of myself as I go along. I play little games of charades, tap out pricing negotiations on calculators and feign horror when the price comes back at an unreasonably high amount. It's actually part of the fun of travel and it has to be, because you can try as much as you like but you're never going to master every language on the planet. You might fancy yourself as a linguist but you're always going to end up somewhere where you don't parlez the lingo.

That's when the charades come in, or the desperate search for words in common. (I've found "Cristiano Ronaldo" works - everyone knows him and everyone has an opinion.)

I even once communicated with a friend of a friend through the magic of Google. He spoke no English, I spoke no Portuguese. No problem. He whipped out his laptop, surfed his way to Google Translate and we talked by plugging our conversation into the little space and clicking on "translate". Worked a treat.

Depending on which country I'm in, my language skills range from the rudimentary to the appalling. With Asian languages, I have absolutely no chance. I have enough trouble memorising words, let alone learning the different intonations to apply to those words. European languages I've had slightly more success with, although I'm still embarrassingly bad.

I can read menus, I can greet people and I can thank them. I can even ask a few questions; trouble is, if the answers are any more complicated than the silent pointing of a finger in the direction

I need to be going, then I'm completely buggered.

I've learnt to say, "I'm sorry, I can't understand you," in about 10 languages. I've embarrassed myself on countless occasions.

I constantly put words in the wrong places. I've tried to thank someone by saying, "Gracias por favor." In other words, "Thank you please." Que?

Still, I think the best "lost in translation" story I've ever heard belongs to my old school friend Kylie. She was in Argentina a few years ago during a particularly hot part of the year. One day, a real scorcher, one of the locals asked how she was doing.

"Como estas?" he asked.

"Oh," Kylie said, fanning her face with her hands, "muy caliente."

This was met with a roar of laughter, which was pretty confusing to Kylie because as far as she was concerned, she'd just replied, "Very hot."

Trouble is, "caliente" is a funny word. When applied to something inanimate, such as water, or the weather, it does mean hot. When applied to a person, however, it means something completely different.

So this is how the conversation sounded to the Argentinian guys. "Como estas?" he asked.

"Oh," Kylie said, fanning her face with her hands, "very horny."

Have you ever committed a language faux pas? Post a comment below

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