Language Learning is Messy V: Celebrate Your Mistakes

If your goal is to learn a language without making any mistakes, I’ve got bad news for you: I couldn’t and I’ve never met anyone who could.

Since making mistakes are an inevitable part of this complex, tricky, and often magical process of learning to speak in a different tongue, what should our attitude be regarding mistakes?

I suggest the following approach:

People can’t laugh at you if you’re already laughing, because then they’re laughing with you.

My First Public Mistake in Chinese

Let me practice what I preach by telling you about a little blunder I made in my first couple of weeks in China. A friend and I were out buying some little “bǐng things that came in spicy and non-spicy varieties. Because we didn’t like the spicy ones, we’d been saying a phrase we’d just learned:

  • wǒ pà là 我怕辣 = I don’t like spicy food [I fear spicy]

But I got confused with those rhyming words when I decided to make my own sentence:

The worker guy just kind of cocked his head at me. But my friend started laughing and said in English, “Ya, we don’t want any buns that are afraid to be eaten. Only the bravest ones for us!” I suddenly realized what I’d said, started laughing, and tried again to say what I meant.

My Achilles Heel

My most common mistake in Chinese is certainly worth laughing at. In a way like Chinese spoonerisms, I often switch around the syllables of two-syllable words. I’ve gone into a store and asked for “bees” (mìfēng 蜜蜂) when I wanted “honey” (fēngmì 蜂蜜) and inquired about someone’s “divorce” (líhūn 离婚) when I meant “wedding” (hūnlǐ 婚礼). After hearing a joke about someone with my problem, I refuse to call a “briefcase” anything but a “bāo” . I’m just too scared of not saying “píbāo” 皮包 (“briefcase”) and ending up saying “bāopí” 包皮 (“foreskin”).

Look on the Lighter Side

It goes without saying that cause for celebration will be significantly reduced the more frequently the same mistake occurs. For example, if nine out of ten times I say “bee” when I mean “honey,” it’s time to stop laughing and start looking for a cure. But in general, I think it’s good to learn to take ourselves, and especially our task of learning a language, a little less seriously. It’s going to be a dirty job, why not enjoy it?

What’s Your Story?

Now’s your chance to celebrate your own mistakes. Feel free to leave a little tale of your own language blunders in a comment so everyone can laugh with you.

See also the other posts in this series:


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  1. 15 Responses to “Language Learning is Messy V: Celebrate Your Mistakes”

  2. Jens UNITED STATES said:

    I live in fear of saying 屁股 (pì gǔ; the rear end) when I mean 排骨 (pái gǔ; cooked spareribs).

    Comment date: Nov 28, 2007

  3. jp 吉平 CHINA said:

    As a teacher, I have to say that fear making mistakes is one of the biggest (if not THE biggest) blocks to language study there is.

    This is a great post, I’m linking to it! Thanks!

    jp | SpanishPod

    Comment date: Nov 28, 2007

  4. Jim Mahler UNITED STATES said:

    I learned *expletive deleted* from a textbook. I figured it must be a pretty mild expression, like “darn” maybe — otherwise, my teacher wouldn’t have taught it class, would she?

    Later I used the expression at a banguet, surrounded by a group of Chinese lawyers. Can you imagine a Chinese restaurant becoming so quiet you could hear a pin drop?

    Comment date: Nov 28, 2007

  5. Pen UNITED STATES said:

    Not actually my mistake…

    One of my classmates didn’t have anything to write with in class so he turned to our female teacher and asked if she did. One problem… he switched the tone on bi from third to first. Our teacher looked shocked and horribly offended. Then she realized what he actually was asking for. She politely suggested that he be a little more careful with his tones, esp. the one for pen.

    Comment date: Nov 29, 2007

  6. Fanfan CHINA said:

    A friend I live with in Xi’an was in beginners’ level class trying to patch up a sentence on the pattern “我喜欢…”, and in spite of the hugeness of the array of possible solutions he managed to come up with “我喜欢东西”, thinking he was just saying that he liked things from the past. But his teacher had a hard time suppressing laughter. Fortunately he was not himself a 老东西, he would have got mad.

    Comment date: Dec 1, 2007

  7. Joel CHINA said:

    These all just happened either this week or last, and I promise they were all totally innocent mistakes:

    小弟弟 (xiǎo dì di)- I meant to say “little brother” (弟弟) in a homework sentence, but was in a hurry and wrote in front without thinking. It means penis, kind of like “wee-wee.”

    上床 (shàng chuáng) – Also in a homework sentence, I just wanted to say “go to bed” but this is a euphemism for “have sex.”

    卫生巾 (wèi shēng jīn) – We were talking at lunch with some Chinese associates and I meant to say toilet paper (卫生纸 – wèi shēng zhǐ), but pronounced “jīn” instead of “zhǐ.” Turns out I was talking about maxi pads. This one got me a couple dirty looks.

    My female teacher is too embarrassed to actually tell me about these kinds of mistakes in class. But my wife has this same teacher (we’re both in one-on-one classes), so she tells my wife and they laugh their butts off.

    Comment date: Dec 4, 2007

  8. Albert CHINA said:

    Joel,

    So let me make sure I can avoid these blunders.

    1) For the first one I shouldn’t say the “xiao,” just say “didi” right?

    2) How would you say “go to bed?” Should I say, “qu shuijiao?”

    3) I can see how you could say that since a common word for “napkin” is “can jin zhi” which includes both.

    If anyone else who has left a comment isn’t too bu hao yisi to share the details, I’d love to know how exactly to avoid making the same little faux pas. (apparently that was a sentence only to be understood by polyglots.)

    Comment date: Dec 4, 2007

  9. Joel CHINA said:

    right, it’s just 弟弟, no need for 小。 For “go to bed,” I don’t know. We just use 睡觉 (shuì jiào), but if you really wanted to parse out the different meanings (like “get in bed (and read a book)” vs. “go to sleep”), I haven’t done that yet. I’m working on translating a dog restaurant menu at the moment, and after that I want to get basic family member titles straightened out.

    Comment date: Dec 7, 2007

  10. null CHINA said:

    In Chinese, you can use “xiao xiong di” meaning the person who is younger than you, but this word is always used by old people.The second word you can use it only with “shui jiao” behinde of it, like “shang chuang shui jiao”, but we always use “shui jiao” to stand for “go to bed”.

    Comment date: Dec 9, 2007

  11. Kelvin UNITED STATES said:

    Albert, thanks for putting the blog about language learning. In fact, I’m looking for effective ways to teach my kids Mandarin. My daughter goes to Chinese school 2 hrs per week. I don’t think it is effective. I want to find some interactive ways we can do at home daily. You blog gives my some great insights about language learning. keep it going!

    Comment date: Jan 8, 2008

  12. Sharon ZY SINGAPORE said:

    I really had a good laugh here..Albert said People can’t laugh at you if you’re already laughing, because then they’re laughing with you, which I totally agree. The first rule in my class is to “ENJOY LOSING FACE”:)

    Comment date: Mar 9, 2008

  13. Tez UNITED KINGDOM said:

    Hey, I just started reading your blog, i`m hooked!

    I also mix up two syllable words all the time so I had to post. I have even done the Honey/Bee one you discussed.

    I am scared of saying the word 秘密 too, incase i pronounce two first tones. :|

    haha, keep up the good work.

    Comment date: Sep 1, 2008

  14. Gymnosopher CHINA said:

    Any epiphanies on how to avoid the syllable mix up conundrum?

    Comment date: Nov 5, 2011

  15. Big Liu said:

    I’ve heard the story of a friend of a friend. She was pregnant but not far enough so that others could tell by just looking at her. She was wary, nevertheless. One day, she got on a very crowded bus. She wanted a seat no matter what, so she went up to an old man, pointed at the seat and instead of saying “我有Baby”, she angrily said “我要baby!”. Note that her pointing at the man’s seat and the man’s crotch wasn’t distinguished by the passengers of the bus who uniformly bursted out in laughter. :)

    Comment date: Mar 4, 2013

  16. Albert CHINA said:

    @Big Liu,

    Hahaha! Classic “you” / “yao” switch up. I’ve done that myself, but perhaps not so dramatically. Thanks for the story.

    Comment date: Mar 5, 2013

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