It was near the end of our time in Rabat when I decided I’d make pillows out of the cool African mud cloth I’d bought in Marrakesh. I had a new sewing machine and I had the fabric. I just needed zippers and so I went in searching in the Rabat medina, a place that sells slippers and underwear, keychains and spices, baby turtles and fabric, so I figured they must have some zippers too. I popped into a store that seemed to sell tassels and thread and asked the shopkeeper “Do you have any zippers?” (“Vous avez des fermetures?”) and accompanied my question by pantomiming opening and closing a floating zipper whilst making the onamonapiac noise “zip zip zip zip.” The first shopkeeper looked dumbstruck and said no. I repeated this at several other stores, the owners of each giving me a look of surprise or confusion or both. I later told Adam how I’d failed to get zippers and the words I had used to ask. He laughed and said that without adding the ubiquitous “Est-ce que” (pronounced ess-kuh) at the start of the sentence to indicate I was asking a question, I was basically just popping into stores like a crazed Jack-in-the-box, accusing people of having zippers, and then peacing out. I told that story the other day to a Palestinian woman here in Paris and she had a particularly horrified expression and then burst out laughing much harder than anyone else to whom I told the story. Turns out “zib” means penis in Arabic (the other language spoken in Morocco). She told me not only did I accuse people of having zippers, but I followed with “penis penis penis penis” and performing a motion that looked a lot like jerking off a teeny weeny between my thumb and forefinger.
This story illustrated two things I’d already known but that have been at the forefront of my mind this week as I’m in Paris continuing my French-learning. The first is that to learn a language, you must be willing to look like an idiot. You’re funny in English? Well, you won’t be funny in Spanish/Italian/Chinese but you will nonetheless make people laugh from your over-expressiveness, your trying-too-hard pantomimes, your speaking like a four-year-old, and your constant gaffes. You have strong opinions that you express with an impressive vocabulary? In English you did. In French you will say things like “As for me, I prefer hot soup to cold soup,” and you’ll feel quite victorious that after years of practice, you can express an opinion, any opinion. People will be like “Haha, your accent is cute!” and “Ah so close, but we actually say it like this…” both things mean you speak like shit but it’s amusing for them to watch.
The second thing I’ve come to find about language learning is that 95% of embarrassing language gaffes have to do with words that mean penis, vagina, or at least refer to actions done with these body parts. Like the time my friend Amy was living with a host family in Italy and discovered for the first time the deliciousness that is a fig freshly plucked from the backyard tree. She declared at the dinner table that she couldn’t get enough figas, She simply loved to eat the figas! Figa is Italian slang for vagina. Of course it is.
In another gaffe at the host family table, Adam had a friend in high school who asked if there was any preservativo on the breakfast table, which seems like a pretty good guess for what the Spanish might call jam or jelly. But nope, he had asked for a condom.
Once in Mallorca, when asked whether I wanted to take my leftover pizza up to my hotel room or have it be brought there later by the waitstaff at the hotel restaurant, I meant to say “with me,” as in I’ll take it myself, but instead said “with I,” or “con yo.” Adam’s eyes got big in unison with the waitress’s and when she walked away, he told me “Emily, she asked if you wanted to take your leftover pizza yourself and you said simply: ‘Cunt.'” (I was less horrified after I had lived in Madrid for a while and heard Spanish people saying cunt all the time, a great deal more casually than Americans would ever dare use the word).
It can be very exhausting to risk looking like a clownish fool who says embarrassing sex things to strangers. But if you never dare to utter horrifying sounding phrases like “Je suis en retard” or “Je pris un douche,” or literally “he entered me” in the case of my friend, who had to explain that another driver had hit her car in Rabat, well if you are never bold enough to at least try to say these scary things, as well as the less scary things that you’ll probably screw up too, then you won’t be able to learn a foreign language.
Just today in French class, we learned a word – baisser – that means to turn down something, but if you pronounce the “ss” as a “z” it means to have sex. Just knowing that I might ask someone to turn down the heat and accidentally ask them to please fuck the radiator, well that’s terrifying. But, c’est la vie. It’s just the way of learning a language, mostly because humans everywhere have a million different words for sex and genitals.
Please do share your best story about accidentally asking for sex in a foreign language.
XOXO (pronounced “cho cho” in Spanish, which obviously means vagina).