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#23 Bad English

February 14, 2011

(be sure to read the fine print)

There are few things that give Expat Aid Workers more joy than bad English. (And, no, we’re not talking about some lame band from the 80’s.)

Being asked, “where are you come?”, while walking down a Phnom Penh side-street is not only chuckle-worthy at the time, but will also provide the basic fodder for innumerable inebriated one-upping episodes down the road. Similarly, quoting the label on the back of a “Three Coins Lager” bottle (“… a wholesome lubricant for social intercourse.”) is almost always a crowd-pleaser. And for those capable, saying almost anything at all in a convincing Indian or Nigerian accent is a sure way to take it to the next level at the next Expat Aid Worker gathering.

It’s a good idea to maintain a collection of photographs of examples of bad English from around the world, too. In addition to helping establish field cred, driving home the fact that you’re a nomad, and making your Facebook page a lot cooler, it’s just plain funny. There will almost certainly come a dark day when you’ll want to self-soothe your melancholy by re-watching that YouTube clip of someone singing “Highway to Hell” in a Thai accent.

Unintentionally ironic and/or enigmatic English is just as good. The little boy in Conakry with a “Dixie Chicks” cap, “Protect the Monkey” emblazoned on the side a Port-au-Prince tap-tap, or the “THIS is why I’m HOT” T-shirt being worn by a wrinkled old woman Cebu City are all equally photo and retell-over-beers worthy.

Finally, it is important that the Expat Aid Worker find humor in other people’s failed attempts to communicate well in English, but remain totally serious about her/his equally failing attempts to speak their language. Yes, you want directions to the national museum, and no, you don’t want to buy a gold-plated goat dropping. You know what you mean. Some people just lack the ability to infer meaning from context…

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Fay permalink
    February 14, 2011 9:36 am

    I am totally guilty of this. I once saw a (Sudanese) guy wearing a T-Shirt saying ‘White Trash and Proud’ and I got him to pose for a photo. I’ve not put it on facebook though. Yet.

    I disagree with the bit about taking my own ability in other languages too seriously though, I am regularly ashamed by my monolingualism, especially as almost everyone I work with (mainly Africans and Europeans) speaks several languages.

  2. Cynta E. permalink
    February 15, 2011 12:43 pm

    You’ve gotta love the side of the Barf box: “for best results, soak clothes in Barf…”

  3. February 28, 2011 7:21 am

    I have seen and heard some interesting interpretations of the English language in Ethiopia. One common mix-up at my local organization is between ‘confident’ and ‘confidential’.

    “I am feeling very confidential for this presentation.”

    Also, there is a cafe near my house that advertises a ‘Pizza Explosion!!!!!’ What makes it funny is that the name of the cafe is ‘Come’. A pizza explosion at Come Cafe. Oh my!

    That being said, my Amharic is pitiful, and I commend anyone who can speak multiple languages, no matter what the level :)

  4. March 5, 2011 12:57 pm

    Barf is how you say “snow” in Afghanistan; not sure if Dari or Pashto. First heard it from a taxi driver who was commenting on the weather and kept saying “barf” during the first snowflakes of the season.

    There’s a kid’s song about the rain that kids sing in Lebanon and it basically sounds like they are singing “shitty, shitty, shitty”– the word for rain being shti or some variation in Arabic. My daughter liked to sing it, but when we moved back to the US and she continued to sing it, it didn’t sound as nice…:)

    • March 14, 2011 2:53 pm

      Barf is a Persian word for snow and is used in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Barf detergent is a Tajik brand (or maybe it’s Iranian and is sold in Tajikistan). Every EAW who has been to Tajikistan proudly displays a box of Barf in his/her office or has a picture of it somewhere.

      • March 14, 2011 3:47 pm

        I took that particular picture in Azerbaijan…

  5. John permalink
    May 22, 2011 12:47 pm

    God, I’m glad I’ve never done anything like this.

    http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.88837425527.94829.646625527

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