Just because someone is speaking in a different language doesn't mean people can't understand them! This can lead to some pretty awkward situations, just ask these people.
Bilinguals on Reddit share their best "They didn’t know I spoke their language" stories. Content has been edited for clarity.
“Both Of Us Gave Them Dirty Looks”
“Once when I was younger, I went to the park with my sister. We look very white and no one would know both of us to speak Mandarin fluently unless we told them.
Some money must’ve fallen out of my sister’s pocket while we were walking around. In Mandarin, we hear a mother talking to her daughter and telling her not to let us know we dropped money so that they could pick it up after we left.
Both of us turned around straight away, and my sister picked up her money while both of us gave them dirty looks and we changed our conversation to Mandarin. The look of horror on both of their faces will forever be burned into my head.”
“Did He Understand What I Just Said?”
“I was visiting South Korea with my wife, a native of that country. I’m shaped like a lumberjack and have a big, red lumberjack beard to match. A group of Korean women in their 50s and 60s nearby were laughing and calling me a ‘bear,’ which I found hilarious.
So one of the older ones says, ‘Gom’ (‘bear’) to me as she passes by, and I start laughing. She makes that face like, ‘Did he understand what just I said?’
So I raise my arms and make a playful growl at her. She is horrified and starts apologizing while her friends all cover their mouths and giggle, as Korean women customarily do.”
“The Whole Class Died Laughing”
“This happened while I was in high school. My homeroom teacher sent me to the principal’s office with some paperwork that was requested. As I walk in, I see this one guy in the principal’s office, tall black dude, will call him ‘Mr J.’ To my surprise, he was speaking fluent Spanish with the Spanish teacher. I drop off the papers with the secretary and go back to class. It’s almost the end of the day and I’m in my English class and we have a substitute teacher, Mr. J
Well, kids being kids, no one is listening to him, and one of my classmates, Millie, who’s sitting on the other side of the room from me starts bad-mouthing him in Spanish to three other girls. I kept telling her to shut up, but she wouldn’t listen and just went on and on.
He heard me try to warn her and motioned for me to stop, so I stopped. And that’s when he began talking back to her in Spanish! I didn’t say a thing, and the whole class died laughing.
Millie then began to yell at me for not warning her, and Mr. J told her, ‘She tried to warn you but you didn’t listen.’
As a result, Millie and the other girls got detention for about a week.”
“She Looked Absolutely Humiliated”
“I’m fairly tattooed and I was working in retail, in a shoe shop. I was serving a very rude woman and her daughter, both of whom clearly thought they were better than me. Every time they asked for shoes, they told me (in English) that I was very slow to fetch them and bad at my job (I was only on like my third shift).
The atmosphere turned pretty sour because obviously they were being rude and it annoyed me. As I was boxing up the shoes they wanted, the mother turned and said to her daughter something like ‘Don’t ever get tattoos, this is the kind of person that has them, working in retail with absolutely no brains and tattoos reflect that! in Italian.
I simply replied ‘Non sono d’accordo, ma grazie,’ (‘I disagree but thank you). She looked absolutely humiliated and quickly left!”
“What Did They Say?”
“I am a straight guy, and my bilingual friend is gay. We were in college for summer school about 20 years ago, and everyone taking classes stayed in the same old dormitory. It was a school with a lot of international students who had even greater representation in the summer because they typically didn’t fly home for just three months. My friend had a computer, I didn’t, so he told me I could go into his room any time and use it if he didn’t need it at the time.
My friend was white, but had spent a number of his childhood years in Japan and spoke Japanese like a native. We were talking and walking down the hall toward his room, and two Japanese exchange students began talking to one another in Japanese, looking at us and snickering. My friend looks over and starts dressing them down in absolute perfect Japanese and they are horrifically embarrassed.
They began profusely apologizing and hurriedly waking away. I turned to my buddy, ‘What did they say?’
‘They were making some disparaging remarks about your private life, so I told them they were wrong and not to be rude,’ he said. Then he quipped, ‘They were making some disparaging remarks about my love life, too, but those were all true.'”
“It’s Handy To Understand”
“I studied abroad and got a minor in Spanish, so I can understand most spoken Spanish and definitely understand it when reading, I’m just very slow at speaking at this point since I’m so out of practice.
A couple of weeks ago at work, I was warming up my breakfast when I hear two women speaking to each other (in Spanish) that they needed to call maintenance because the coffee machine was broken. Without really thinking I said, but in English, ‘It’s not broken, it just needs a new filter – that’s what the error message said.’
And they both just stared at me.
Something similar happened at my house when I was having a pest control treatment done. Two of the workers were talking to each other in Spanish and I heard them say ‘I can’t find the attic stairs.’
So I said ‘Oh they’re right here,’ and then when I walked away I heard them discussing if I spoke Spanish or not. I did usually keep that under wraps so I’d be able to hear what people were saying when working on my home. I like to know the truth and a lot of times people thinking I don’t speak their language is a good way to get that. I live in Texas so 95% of day laborers will speak Spanish. It’s handy to understand what’s being said.”
“Watch Me Destroy His Noob”
“I’m an Indian who is fluent in Mandarin, and was at a local poker game where two Chinese lads were talking trash about me as I had won some money off of them. Lad A spoke to his pal his Mandarin, ‘Watch me destroy this noob by bluffing his butt off, and I’m going to show him the bluff when he folds.’
It was a rather big pot for me ($1000+), as I was only 18 back then. I put on a show for him with the sighs and massive tanking to get him to sweat it out before I made the call with a single pair to take the pot down. He was extremely frustrated and sarcastically told me that I made a next-level call. The game ended two hours later with me winning over $2000+ and he was the main contributor.
It took every shred of discipline not to rub it in his face that I spoke Mandarin, as I wanted to shear this sheep over and over again which I did over the next few months!”
“All Of Them Stared At Me In Shock”
“I was working summers during college on an assembly line, and there were a lot of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans working in the same factory. I had gotten to be pretty good at speaking and understanding Spanish in my high school classes.
One day, one of the mechanics was telling a story to a couple of the women working on the same line I was working on, and the story was funny, so I laughed. All of them turned around and stared at me in shock. When they confirmed that, yes, I did understand Spanish, the mechanic looked at the others and said, ‘Wow, we better watch what we say around her from now on.’
Yes, dude, I did hear all the other comments about the college students the last few weeks, and I understood which ones of us you thought were more attractive than the others.”
“I Saw Several People Die Inside”
“I grew up in Japan and was raised by a Japanese stepmother but I am white. I went to elementary school on an American airbase, and almost every year we would have a field trip to visit a Japanese school off base. It was just the thing to do. I remember one time I got into a class with two rude kids who were saying awful things about me, like ‘He’s so fat. He is so disgusting,’ ‘He looks like a pig,’ ‘They get bad educations, will be surprised if he can do origami,’ and other horrible things.
They were like that the whole day. The teachers didn’t really do anything about it, and only told them to shut up when they were being disruptive. Towards the end of the day, as I was on my way out of the class to go back to my school, I thanked the teacher in my best formal Japanese for his time and for hosting me. Then thanked my student host whom I was assigned to and told the rude boys that I was glad I wasn’t paired up with them.
I think I saw several people die inside that day, and it was delicious.”
“All Color Drained From Their Faces”
“I’m from England, but am currently living in the Netherlands. A few months ago, I was on holiday back in England.
Two Dutch girls around 19 (same age as me at the time) were queuing to pay for their shopping. I was in front of them with maybe twice their items as I was doing chores for my grandparents, because they are nice enough to put a roof above my head for the holidays.
The girls start talking about how rude I am for being in front of them with more shopping, how a short girl like me can’t carry all that shopping anyway. Then they start talking about British people in general, calling us ugly and stupid.
So I just turned to face them, smiled, and said ‘Have a nice day.’ in Dutch. And all color drained from their faces.
Then after I paid for my items I said, ‘Sorry it took so long, nice hair,’ again in Dutch. To be fair, she genuinely had nice hair. I’ve never seen someone look so darn ashamed of themselves.
Anyhow, it took me a while to get home cause the bags were heavy. To my surprise, one of the girls came up to me and apologized and thanked me for not getting angry with her. She even put a chocolate bar in my shopping and left.
I once again said ‘Have a nice day,’ in Dutch. She cringed, but after I laughed at her reaction she laughed it off and we went our separate ways.”
“A Really Nice Experience”
“There was a deaf lady ordering at the Domino’s I work at. She had her daughter interpret her sign language for her, but her daughter ran off and did something else before the lady could finish ordering. I then let her know that I could do some sign language and finished taking her order.
She seemed genuinely surprised that I spoke sign language, and told me she was pleased to be able to speak (or rather, sign) for herself. We even carried on conversation about the city, as she was new and wanted to know more about the area. It was a really nice experience, and a nice change from the usual rude customers we get there.”
“There Was A Deathly Silence”
“A company I worked for bought a company in Canada. Montreal, specifically. Back in the Telecom days.
Nobody on our side had done any due diligence. I was sent up to evaluate the effort level of integrating the two systems.
The bought company is wonderfully diverse and multi-national.
I’m sitting in the middle of the conference room, after getting the standard markitecture slide deck, and start asking the tough questions.
Almost immediately, the folks to my left start talking in Arabic about all the work they’d have to do to get us an interface. The folks on my right started talking in French about all the back end work they’d have to do to make a viable product.
I let the conversation develop for a while.
The big boss finally gets the meeting back under control and starts spinning some nonsense about we’d be ready for interface shortly. I stopped him. I repeated exactly what both teams said and expressed that given what I just heard, there was no way any of the integration would be feasible within any kind of reasonable time frame.
There was a deathly silence.
Finally, the big boss says, in English, ‘Well guys, I think we’re going to have to find a language this guy doesn’t know if we’re going to have private conversations.’
As it happens, as it goes, we never did get their stuff integrated. Both companies eventually tanked.”
“They Both Looked Very Nervous”
“In Austria where my (German) family and I were touring, we stopped at a big visitor’s stop to get a tire on my cousin’s car fixed. My mom brought us inside to eat while we waited, and while standing in line, two grown men behind me began commenting on how I looked in my shorts (I was 14/15 at the time).
I guess they’d heard me speaking English to my mother and didn’t know that I speak and understand German, particularly the dialect of it that is closest to how Austrians speak German. I didn’t say anything because I’m nervous, but eventually I turn around and say to them in German, ‘I’m still deciding what I want, you guys can go ahead of me.’
They both looked very nervous and ended up ordering and immediately rushing out.”
“Had My Plan In Motion”
“One time, I was on a plane besides two men who made a comment about how much of a nerd I looked like and how dorky I must be in Spanish. I proceeded to spend the next four hours listening to these two beef heads complaining about everything under the sun. This included no small amount of mean-spirited comments on how I was so overdressed, and it was a good thing that I couldn’t understand them.
I didn’t make as much as a single peep.
No sir, I stayed as silent as an awkward giraffe trying to blend into the wall at a party for elephants because I knew it wasn’t my place. I would play the long game, even if it meant staring out the window for four hours straight. I had my plan set in motion.
As we began to exit the plane, I asked my clueless neighbors (in crystal clear Spanish, of course) if they could pass me my bag from the overhead bin and also casually mentioned that I am a translator.
The color slowly drained from their faces as they realized that every time they had made snide comments about everyone on the plane or talked about their STD problems and a variety of other topics, I had understood it all. If I could only bottle that expression and sell it, if only. I could put the horror movie industry out of business if I could only sell pure vials of the concentrated dread those fellows showed on their faces at that moment, I tell you!
But, in all seriousness, there are so many people in the US that are fluent in both English and Spanish that one should never assume one can speak in Spanish to keep their discussion private.”
“He’s Really Handsome”
“I was in the elevator with a mate, just standing shoulder-to-shoulder facing the door. We stop after a few floors, and a girl and her boyfriend quickly shuffle in. The girl stood to my right, my friend to my left. She glanced sideways and up at me a few times, each growing a bit bolder and looking at me a little longer. She then quite audibly looked at her boyfriend and surprisingly emphatically told him, ‘Wow, he’s really handsome,’ in Chinese.
I didn’t say a word until we got to our floor, and before stepping forward and out of the lift, I looked her dead in the eye and replied ‘Honestly, you’re really pretty too,’ in perfect Chinese.
I’ve never seen somebody turn deep-red so quickly. Her boyfriends start belly laughing so loud that the people outside the elevator were looking over to find out what was going on. I just strode off without even glancing sideways.”
“The Waitress Rolls Her Eyes”
“My mom speaks almost exclusively English, but can understand a fair amount of Cantonese and can read a few common characters.
We were in an almost deserted but very large Chinese restaurant in a neighborhood we are familiar with, but don’t frequent. The food is decent but we didn’t finish, so my mom asked for some takeout boxes to pack up the food. The waitress comes back with two tiny boxes that were obviously not enough for the amount we had leftover. There are giant stacks of these boxes on the back wall near the kitchen, so my mom asks for a few of the larger ones. The waitress kinda rolls her eyes, leaves, and grabs a few of those and a plastic bag. She puts them on the table and immediately starts squawking to one of the other waitresses sitting a few tables away from us about how annoying we were.
My mom leans over, and says that the one yelling is telling the other to charge us for the boxes. Sure enough, the angry one comes back with the bill and mom sees a 10 cent charge for each box amongst the scribbled out Chinese characters.
She then calmly, but firmly says, ‘I heard what you said. I will not be paying you for the boxes, I will not leave a tip, and we will never come back.’
She put cash on the table for the exact amount, minus the charge for the boxes, we got up and left.
The look on the waitress’s face was priceless, as though she had been caught accidentally confessing to murder. I never thought of my mom as a cool mom, but I definitely thought she was that day.”
“She Looks To Be Your Age”
“I was sitting in the waiting area of my gynecologist’s office. I was there to get birth control, which makes the story somewhat ironic.
The waiting area is pretty empty – just myself, another person off to the side reading a magazine, and a group of three ladies sitting together: a pregnant young woman (mid-20s), and two older women (her mother and grandmother, as I soon picked up from the conversation).
They’re speaking in Russian. I look relatively Eastern European, but my lack of bedazzled clothing can confuse people into thinking I’m just a plain old’ American.
Some family drama was unfolding. The doctor was running late, and the pregnant woman had a hair appointment she was not keen to miss. The woman’s mother was in tears because her daughter ‘cared more about her hair than her unborn child.’
The grandma suddenly zeros in on me and turns to her daughter and granddaughter and says, ‘I think that women over there is pregnant too!’
They look at me.
Pregnant woman: ‘I’m not sure.’
Pregnant woman’s mother: ‘I can’t tell.’
It’s winter. I’m wearing a puffy jacket. I think this may be the problem, so I take it off and proceed to sort of stretch in my chair in a way that would be impeded by a fetus.
Grandma (to a pregnant woman): ‘She looks to be your age!’
I get up and sort of walk up to the front desk for a mint, sucking in REALLY hard. I mean, I wasn’t very skinny, but I certainly couldn’t have looked pregnant.
They started arguing about hair again. The grandma, obsessed with my uterus, again began to inquire about whether I was with child until her daughter snapped that ‘There are other types of doctors here!’
I wish I had the nerve to respond back to them in Russian, but honestly, they seemed to be going through enough.”
“He Was Obviously Unsympathetic”
“Shortly after moving to the US after spending most of my childhood in Germany, I was at a museum in Chicago on a family trip and helping my mom walk my youngest sister down a flight of stairs. The stairs were pretty big and steep, and my sister was about three at the time. So my mom was holding one hand and I was holding the other as my sister could take the steps one by one. Behind us was a Germany University class, and the professor was directly on my heels answering questions that his students were asking.
Apparently, despite having plenty of room to pass us on the left, the professor was none too pleased to be walking down the stairs slowly. He was obviously unsympathetic that these steps may be difficult for a small child because he sighed and muttered to the student next to him, ‘Americans are such freaking neanderthals.’
I don’t know if my mom heard him, but I certainly did. So I turned my head and whispered back, ‘You’re a freaking neanderthal.’ I didn’t stop to look at his reaction, because I didn’t want my mom to catch me swearing especially if she hadn’t heard what the professor said.
I’m pretty sure he heard me though since both he and the student walking directly next to him were dead silent for the rest of the stairs. To this day, I wonder if my mom heard one or both of us and chose to ignore us or if she missed the brief exchange entirely since she has never mentioned it.”
“I Thanked Her For Her Words”
“I work and travel around Europe. Well to be exact, I move country every 2-3 years to keep things fresh. So far, I’ve been in England, Germany, Holland, France, Portugal, and Poland and usually learn how to speak the language at a pretty decent level.
Anyway, while in Portugal I had to wait in line at the doctor’s for a quick l4 form, as I was sick and off work.
I had this elderly couple behind me completely berate the heck out of me, stating I had no right to be in front of them as I’m a foreigner, and that us foreigners are ruining the country and economy (I was talking in English to my girlfriend who was in line with me).
After 25 minutes of waiting, I turned around and thanked her for her words. The pure look of horror probably gave her more reason to see a doctor due to how flushed she looked.”