China Elevator Stories

Chinese language faux pas: A really awesome ear surgery and losing my mind in Thailand

One of the more memorable occurrences where I used a Chinese phrase in a completely wrong way happened when I studied in Kunming.


Ruth Silbermayr-Song


Being afraid of practicing a new language to avoid language faux pas’

One of the things that can be really terrifying for any language learner is speaking the foreign language with native speakers. Unlike small kids who just practice new words or phrases until they get the hang of it, a shy grown-up might shudder at the thought of pronouncing a word wrongly. But not only the pronunciation is what keeps some of us from actually speaking with locals, the thought of using phrases incorrectly can be another barrier language learners are afraid of.

My personal Chinese language faux pas #1: An awesome ear surgery

One of the more memorable occurrences where I used a Chinese phrase in a completely wrong way happened 5 years ago when I studied a year abroad in Kunming. A Chinese friend had ear surgery and needed to stay at the hospital for a few days. When he messaged me and told me about his surgery, I wanted to show my concern by replying that the ear surgery sounded very serious (很严重). Because I had learned the phrase incorrectly, what I said instead was that his ear surgery sounded really awesome (真厉害). I’m sure this funny miswording made for a good laugh in the hospital and let him forget the pain for a minute or two.

My personal Chinese language faux pas #2: Losing my mind in Thailand

Another such occurrence was when my husband and I traveled to Thailand with my cousin-in-law and his wife for spring festival 2013. On one day, hubby and I went diving. In the evening, they asked us about it. I told them that it was great fun, and wanted to add that there was now water in my ears (which of course was not so great). Instead, I told them that water had entered my brain (脑子进水了). All three of them burst out laughing. In Chinese, water entering the brain is used metaphorically and means that one has lost one’s mind. It’s usually used towards another person. After realising my mistake, I couldn’t help but join in the laughing.

What are your personal language faux pas’?