“Ask Babs” is an advice column for people who made embarrassing language mistakes (and are desperately trying to redeem themselves). If you’re cringing your way through a new language, Babs wants to hear about it. To appeal to her divine wisdom, email firstname.lastname@example.org with your awkward language questions.
Looking for some sage sisterly advice here. There’s this really cute guy in my night class, and I feel like there’s this unspoken thing going on between us. There’s just one problem: he’s Brazilian, and he barely knows English, and I couldn’t speak Portuguese to save my life. So we’re sort of at an impasse.
How does a fly gal resolve this dilemma?
Oh boy, have I ever been in your shoes.
Flashback story time: when I was 20 years old and studying abroad in Helsinki, I had a thing for the teaching assistant in my art history class. This isn’t a story about overcoming language barriers, by the way. The vast majority of Finlanders speak English, and pretty well at that. No, this is a story about me trying to prove how special I was — how “not like other Americans” I was — and falling flat on my face.
No one else in my program ever really took the time to try to learn Finnish. There was really no practical need for that, so they stuck to speaking English and exclusively hanging out with other Americans. It was a mixture of embarrassment on their behalf and a desire to impress my crush that led me to aggressively pursue Finnish studies late at night before bed. I crammed for about a week. And then, bursting at the seams, I lingered after class very conspicuously and attempted to show off my skills.
I had rehearsed the line in my head for the previous three nights. I had found it online. Essentially, it translated to “if you were a moose, I would be terribly in love.” It’s a play on words, because the word hirveen means both “moose” and “terribly” in Finnish.
I marched right up to him, and I blurted it out. He looked up in mild surprise. And he laughed a genuine laugh. Success!
Except then, he responded to me in his fluent, perfect Finnish. None of which, of course, I understood. So I stood there foolishly, blinked a bunch, and smiled.
He tried again in English. “Are you trying to flirt with me?” he said.
I was so mortified at this point that I just turned around and walked out of the room. In retrospect, I’m sure I was reading into things way too much, but in my highly nervous brain, it really did feel like he was kid-sistering me.
The point of this whole story is really just to show you that even fly gals can be hella awkward. And if you’re going to try to transcend this language barrier, you’re gonna have to be okay with removing your metaphorical sunglasses for a bit.
But here’s what you can do. First, research. You might be interested to know that in Brazil, it’s generally customary for the man to approach the woman. Now, I’m all for subverting gender norms, but this might be one that could actually work in your favor, depending on your outlook. On one hand, it means you have to wait around for him to make the first move, which sucks if you’re impatient like me. On the other, it does remove some of the pressure you’re currently feeling to come up with a strategy.
The other thing to keep in mind about Brazilian flirting culture is that it’s pretty low-stakes to express interest in someone (or flatter them a little). If you must make an overture, figure out how to pay him a very simple compliment in Portuguese — like, say, I don’t know, “Love is a smoke and is made with the fume of sighs.”
That’s not a compliment. It’s Shakespeare. But I’m sure he’ll dig it anyway.
Go get it,
I’m getting ready for my honeymoon in Florence, and I’ve been brushing up on my Italian basics like a good little globetrotter.
I’m a fairly anxious person, so of course I’ve already researched some of the most common embarrassing mistakes people make in Italian. I know it’s hilarious and I probably shouldn’t worry, but I’m particularly hung up on one language gaffe: the fairly plausible scenario where I try to tell someone how old I am, but wind up telling them I have 36 anuses instead.
I’ve been practicing my pronunciation, but I’m still nervous I’m gonna screw this up.
How do I deal?
Trying to be less anal about this,
I think you already know what I’m going to say. Do the blunder! Make the gaffe!
If I were you, I would probably lose sleep over the possibility that I wouldn’t have a chance to mess this one up. Really, the ultimate issue here is not about whether you’re doing your drills correctly, Pam, it’s about your apparent need to glide through the world without a trace of embarrassment.
But I realize everyone’s different, and I can understand your desire to leave Italy with your dignity intact.
The issue you’re worried about is one of subtle enunciation. For those of you reading along, ho 36 anni means “I’m 36 years old” in Italian (literally, “I have 36 years”). Ho 36 ani means “I have 36 anuses.” The trick is to make sure you’re pronouncing both the first and the second “N.”
From a purely didactic standpoint, I could suggest that you spend some time researching the correct mouth positions for the word you’re trying to pronounce. If you’re having trouble getting the sound of the word right, looking at your mouth in the mirror and approaching the problem visually could also help.
Still, though, I hope you can embrace the perfection of messy learning. Did you know that making mistakes is actually the best way to learn a language? And did you ever consider that you might make more friends in Italy that way?
Everyone has a certain number of years attached to their body. But not everyone has an outrageous number of orifices. I’d want to hang out with you too if that’s how you introduced yourself to me.
No ifs and buts about it,