Slip of the Tongue

I just got back from a two-week business trip to Brazil and Uruguay. That may seem like a long time, but I was just getting the hang of spelling Uruguay when I had to take a plane home. Actually, it wasn’t just one plane. It was two planes, three buses, one taxi, a train, and then walking six blocks and up four flights of stairs with my thirty pounds of carry-on bags. Add three countries, three languages, and five universities, and you’ve got yourself Navy Seal training for travelers.

I come from a long line of people who do things the hard way. I don’t know how I have survived except that everybody else is so busy with their own lives they don’t have time to look at mine. That includes language. I challenged myself to give my three-day, business seminar in ethics in Brazil in Portuguese, or rather half Portuguese and half English. I’ve never spoken Portuguese before in my life. Do you know what trench warfare is?

Then there was the young guy I met waiting to board a plane in São Paulo who grew up in the interior of Brazil speaking German. He was on his way to Germany for training in a sales job for a brick company. Now that I think about it, that doesn’t sound right, does it? The conversation ended in remedial German with a lot of nodding.

Spanish in Uruguay was much easier, since I speak Spanish. The only problem is that they don’t speak Spanish in Uruguay. From what I can tell, they speak a mixture of Catalan, Sicilian, and Esperanto, with the usual English terms like “brainstorming” and “crowd funding” thrown in. When one of the speakers at a conference I was attending, a survivor of the rugby team plane crash in 1972, started talking excitedly about proteins in human flesh, I understood maybe one in five words.

Unisinos 5 Brazil

Here’s how they went down, as they say (Note 1: I do not mean go down, which is entirely different). I mean my slips of the tongue. I have accepted the fact that learning a language and using it in real life are two of the most humiliating experiences anyone can have. But if you’re going to learn another language, you have to embrace humiliation. I have also accepted that everywhere I travel people think I am either French or English. They smile when they find out I am American and then try to speak English, often gleaned from shows like “Dancing with the Stars” (Note 2: I’ve never seen the show).

(1) From all my trips to El Salvador years ago, I learned that palo is tree, puro cigar, and pito cigarette (also whistle). However, Uruguay is not El Salvador, and I doubt that people from those two countries can even understand each other. For instance, when I asked the receptionist at the pension where I was staying how I could get my hands on a pito since I like to have one after dinner, he stared at me. I had to explain, leaning over the desk, that I meant a cigarette (actually, I used the German, zigarette, just to be funny). Apparently, pito in Uruguay means penis.


(2) Surprisingly, you can use debit or credit cards in a lot of places in Uruguay, which is not the case even in Manhattan. So, I did not know what the problem was when I asked a clerk if I could cargar a purchase. He just stared at me. When he finally proceeded with the transaction, I realized it sounded as if I wanted to take a crap on his counter. I corrected myself using cobrar for charge, and that set things straight again.

(3) Perhaps the pièce de résistance was my opening salvo in the business ethics seminar in São Leopoldo, Brazil. After I was introduced by the dean and she left the room, I asked the students to pair up to introduce each other. Again, muito staring. I repeated the instructions. Turns out I had asked them to copulate. Oh, those crazy Frenchmen!

There are other examples, even in English. On the same trip, I toasted a blind colleague with “here’s looking at you” as we downed our fruit drinks. We both laughed. I will also never forget the time in Provvidenti, Italy when I toasted a distant relative with birthday wishes of “cent’anni,” which means, “May you live for a hundred years!” I found out later she was a hundred and two.

I am going to do something I always tell my students not to do. I am giving myself an A for effort, even if the results were mixed. After all, the people I spoke to seemed to appreciate it. I also have to go back to those places.

I’ll just bring my own zigaretten.

Top photo taken from Times Picayune; center from Unisinos University; bottom from BM Caustin. Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance.


  1. It’s ALWAYS something sexual when making efforts in a foreign language. I once told a Chinese friend who had just broken up with his girlfriend that I was so sorry he had an STD. What I meant to say was broken hearted or “heart sick.” It came out as “genital sick.” Oh well. As they say, A for effort.

  2. I studied German for eight years in high school and college, and then spent three decades in the chemical industry — which is dominated by many large German firms, so I had plenty of opportunity to use German when I traveled there on business.

    My German colleagues always appreciated my efforts to speak their language, and I know it made for much easier travel around the country — but, in all honesty, the commercial language of the world is pretty much English, and they actually found it easier to converse with me in English.

    Perhaps the academic world will migrate to that same standard — making it easier for all of us insular Americans to continue to not learn other languages!

    1. Vic, I could have easily gotten by with English as you did in Germany. Maybe here and there in Brazil they don’t speak English, but English is overwhelmingly the language of choice for academic conferences. As I said, I just like to make it hard for myself. Then again, I would have felt lazy not speaking or attempting to speak, their languages. Thanks for the comment. Vielen Dank für den Kommentar!

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