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What is your most memorable multi-lingual story?

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This is a “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” type posts… as I really do want to hear your best multi-lingual story…

Wanna go to school in Ireland? (Photo: Carissa Hickling)

Wanna go to school in Ireland? (Photo: Carissa Hickling)

My most memorable multilingual experience was in Calgary, Alberta, Canada in the early 1990s. I was there for an academic conference, staying with relatives and catching a bus to the campus each day…

On one bus trip, the driver had a wide smile, jovial manner and a comment or two or three for just about everyone getting on and off the bus… in different languages! By the time it he was on to the 5th language… I simply had to ask his story.

He was a refugee from Africa and picked up languages in his many years going from the land of his birth to first South Asia then several countries in Eastern Europe then Western Europe and eventually Canada. Shared it brought him pleasure to chat and tease his passengers, keeping his linguistic skills sharp while enjoying a joke or more. Those who knew him clearly appreciated the banter. Those that didn’t were startled initially – not expecting an African Canadian would speak Polish or Bengali.

Everyone left with a smile and their day was a bit brighter. Language is an amazing connection… anywhere in the world.

Now… your turn!

Related posts:

Clearly not a Calgary bus! (Photo: Carissa Hickling)

Clearly not a Calgary bus! (Photo: Carissa Hickling)



  1. You’d think I’d have a story ready, seeing that this is my fave topic (besides food)…. but am drawing a total blank… must still be in a food coma…

  2. Expat Eye says:

    I was amazed by the people who work in chocolate/beer shops in Bruges – they all have to know 5 languages minimum and some of them are teaching themselves a 6th or 7th just to give themselves an edge… amazing!

    • Ah.. the language of commerce which for decades has residents of Cavendish, PEI (Anne of Green Gables) learn Japanese and bag merchants in Colaba, Mumbai speak fluent Italian. Going to Goa? Expect to be served in Russian, English, Hebrew… the list goes one. It is especially remarkable seeing street kids who often can’t read but can appeal to you in 7-8 languages!

  3. Mary says:

    While travelling in Northern Ireland in 2004 we had a local guide in Londonderry who was clearly of Korean descent. After the initial surprise we went on to see and hear the history and story of ongoing conflict in this fascinating city. While chatting with the guide over lunch he told us of the fun he had listening to people talking about him in Gaelic not knowing that he had an Irish mother and spoke the language fluently. There were a few very embarrassed folks !! I’m sure you have some similar stories Carissa when people assume you don’t know Hindi :o) I’ll always remember the great help you were when shopping in the Mumbai markets !

    • I love your story Mary! Being rude – is just rude – and thinking people around you won’t understand is incredibly dumb.

      Most folks find my Hindi ‘cute’ and after an initial surprise, get used to it.

      I remember one consultant – originally from India but studied in Europe and worked in China – was in the lift in Delhi and some businessmen from Shanghai complaining in Mandarin about all sorts of things. On leaving the lift, the consultant politely said in his obviously fluent Chinese “Hope you enjoy the rest of your stay in India.” Jaws dropped…

      Or another time took a Sikh friend who wears a turban to a German function in Mumbai. Amazing to see how he was dismissed as not important or relevant when in fact he is a highly successful businessman living in Zurich. Our conversations effortlessly switched from English to French to Hindi and – in his case – German, as appropriate. It was clear several fellow attendees were not entirely comfortable to have their stereotypes challenged.

  4. Karolyn Cooper says:

    My favourite polyglot is our driver in Bangalore. He speaks English, Hindi, Kannada, Telugu and Tamil. That’s what his resume says, and I have heard him use all of those languages, and seen him reading his Tamil newspaper every day, and then reading my English shopping lists. Oh, yes he also worked for an expat French family and picked up enough French to understand their greetings and directions. No funny stories, just a lot of admiration.

  5. When I was in Germany, I went to a restaurant and the hostess asked us how many of us for a table, in German. Note: at the time, and always, I only knew a few words in German such as beer, airport, Germany, and goodbye. But somehow I understood the hostess and replied in German that it was two of us. Went we sat down at the table and to this day, I am surprised at myself. I have no idea how I understood and how I responded, but it was awesome. I had spent a few days in Germany by then, maybe my brain had picked some up without my conscious knowledge.

    • That’s brilliant! I’ll never forget being in Macedonia in 1990 on the cusp of multi-party elections. Having spent a summer in Germany a few years earlier, German (which I really don’t speak!) was the only common connect for basic communication… amazing how a few words and phrases is better than nothing!

  6. OK so my Hindi is especially shamefully rubbish (still learning) but the part of this beautiful language I have become most fluent in is the slangs.
    This is partly from spending four months teaching my child to walk a few hours a day on a reasonably busy beach in Goa, having to fend off pervy Indian male tourists persistently taking voyeuristic photos after you have asked them politely in both English and Hindi not to.
    It is partly from my Indian friends finding it especially funny to hear me say the slangs in my English accent and using this as some kind of entertainment whilst drinking together in various Goan bars.
    Mostly however, it is because I work in a live sound company with only boys. As the only girl (and foreigner) I have to somewhat be one of the lads just to survive in my working environment. The crew at work, like my Goan friends find it hilarious (and slightly shocking) to hear me say these bad words, and get me to repeat them over and over again whilst giggling like a bunch of school kids!
    I was bemused for some time as to why it was so funny until I started teaching some of the Maharati boys who speak very little English the odd English slang. It has certainly helped me to bond with them all and the looks on the faces of the local crew (most of whom have never seen a woman let alone a foreigner lady working on a show before) when I playfully tell them “aalsi ganda oouta!” are completely priceless!
    Still swearing is not big or clever as we all know and i know that in India especially it is not proper behaviour for a lady.
    I will leave you with one last thought: The only thing that produces the same reaction (look of total shock and confusion from the person I am speaking to) is when I say thank you in Hindi – make of that what you will…

    • Sounds like you doing rather well – have a funny feeling you are well beyond the ‘rubbish stage’ in Hindi even if you’ve mostly focused on mastering ‘trash talk’! 😉

      As for the confused looks on hearing “thank you”… think about it… when have you actually heard someone say “Dhanyavad” or “Shukriya”…? Bet you can’t recall!

  7. One last thing – my audiologist can speak nine (!) languages – respect!

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