We recently had the missionaries over for dinner, one of whom is a convert from Brazil. He shared a funny language mix-up he had. In Portuguese as many other languages, nouns have a gender assignation, which is why Italians say things like: “The boat, she is sinking!” before they grab a taxi and flee the site of their navigation errors. He wanted to say something about angels, but he wasn’t sure what pronouns were associated with angels. He didn’t want to sound silly, so he asked (just as there was a lull in the conversation), “Do angels have sex?”
Language mistakes can be funny, and missionaries learning new languages often have plenty of stories like this to share.
Living in Asia we found that non-native speakers with heavy accents could be hard to understand at times, even when their word choice was perfect. In Cambodia we hired a Mormon tour guide who was very proud of his country’s “beautiful bitches.” He kept talking about how lovely they were, appealing to many tourists, and unexpected for a country mostly known for history. It took us a few tries before we finally decided we was talking about beaches.
As a missionary, my senior companion and I were doing street contacts when I noticed she was using “por” and “para” backwards. In Spanish, por means “by” and “para” means “for.” She intended to tell people that the Book of Mormon was written for us, for our benefit, but instead she was telling people that it was written by us. On the upside, we quickly emptied our backpacks of all our heavy books, and even got to sign a few copies for people. We were basically rock stars that day.
Another issue for non-native Spanish speakers is knowing how to say “excuse me” or “I’m sorry.” There are a few options: “Lo siento” (meaning “I feel it”), “perdon” (meaning “I beg your pardon”), or “con permiso” (literally meaning, “with your permission”). At a dinner with a member, my companion was embarrassed when she burped. She covered her mouth and sweetly said, “Con permiso!” which made me laugh because it sounded like she was asking permission to do it again.
Of course the most common Spanish mistake missionaries make is pretty bad. The word for “with” is “con,” as in chili con carne (chili with meat). To say “with you” the speaker adds “tigo” to the end to make the word “contigo” (ti = you). For “with me” it’s the same logic, but with “migo” or “conmigo” (mi = me). However, the word for “I” is “yo,” and sometimes missionaries mix up the “migo” with “yo” since both words are so similar in meaning. The new compound word does not mean “with me” but refers to female genitalia. It’s actually a fairly common swear word in Spain. I think every Spanish speaking missionary has made this mistake at least once, often while pointing at him or herself, mimicking the exaggerate hand gestures common in Spanish speaking countries.
One story people liked to share, which could be apocryphal, is a story about a missionary trying to teach a family about faith using an object lesson. The missionary has a comb in his pocket that is hidden. He explains faith by saying, “I have a comb in my pocket. Do you believe I do?” and if they say yes, then he takes the comb out and shows it to them to illustrate that they now have a perfect knowledge. Unfortunately, the word for “comb” in Spanish is “peine” which is incredibly similar to the word “pene” (penis). Needless to say, the family in the story strongly preferred that he leave it in his pocket. They were content to live on faith.
What language mix-ups have you experienced?