Lost in Translation in Different Languages

Last Updated on May 19, 2017 by Charmaine | The Canadian Wanderer

Translating between languages are always fun. There is bound to be some mix-ups, confusion and a loss in meaning when you try translating between languages. If I have learned anything living abroad these few years, it is how languages work and function in society. Being in an ESL (English as a Second Language) classroom, I’m always learning how people learn English and help me to learn their language in result also. When I don’t understand what they are saying, I will try to relate back to their native tongue and try to understand what brings the confusion.

Here are a few classic examples that I’ve picked up in the ESL classroom:

‘Date’ Me

This one is unique to Cantonese speakers. The first time I heard this was when I worked with college students in Hong Kong with a low proficiency, but even if you don’t, you’ll be surprised this is a common mistake. I’ve heard it from local friends who have an excellent proficiency in English, and it still occurs. In English, we express ‘date’ to be a romantic night with a partner of the opposite sex. It’s a time where you dress up, go for a romantic dinner/ scroll and have a fun evening. Occasionally, you can also say I have a date with a friend, but it is not very often people would say this.

However, Cantonese speakers use ‘date’ casually (without knowing the mistake). They would say ‘date me’ on text, but what they mean it’s let’s meetup/hangout. This is because the same word for ‘date’ can also be used in the context of ‘make an appointment’ or ‘booking’ something. It makes me wonder if this was taught in school properly or if teachers also use it incorrectly.

Graduating Friends
ptksgc / Pixabay

Fun vs. Funny

I’ve heard this mistake the first time from French speakers and then again in Hong Kong. It seems like ESL speakers have a hard time differentiating the difference between fun vs. funny. I’ve often heard, “It was such a funny day,” when I am very sure they meant to say ‘It was a very fun day.’ It sounds a little off when you don’t understand or realize the mistake. The way I teach it is “fun” is used to describe enjoyment, where “funny” is used to describe something that is hilarious, and you laugh about it. Ex. I had a fun time because the actors in the movie were very funny. This helps them to clarify and to understand better.

Hospital vs. Clinic

I first heard this from my friend who has a strong English proficiency with an IELTS score of 8 (close to native level)! In China, clinics are not very common. If you’re sick, you go to the hospital. So when she got sick, she told me she went to the hospital, and I got really worried. Then when she told me it was on the university’s campus, I realized she just meant the ‘clinic.’ This was one of the first time I had heard a mix-up with hospital vs. clinic but I guess that also comes with cultural differences and what you are used to!

Friends Smiling

Being in ESL classroom has been so interesting. As a native English speaker, I have been very fortunate the opportunities I had across the globe where I get to witness and see how languages unfold. While learning the local language, I start understanding what makes English difficult for them and can relate to the problems. Sometimes, when ESL speakers don’t know the word in English, they just use the word in their native tongue. When I understand the context in how it is used, I learned a new word in the process as well.

Can you think of some examples in languages you know? I’d love to learn about it below!

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