August 29, 2018

Funny language mistakes

We’ve all been there.  We are trying to speak a new language and sometimes we forget a word and try to make it up, or we misunderstand, or we just get a bit mixed up and say the wrong thing.  Language mistakes can be embarrassing, but they can be funny, too!  Usually the people you are speaking to don’t mind and they probably find it endearing!

What kinds of mistakes can you make?  Sometimes it’s because a word is difficult to pronounce and you end up saying another word that is funny or even rude.  I remember being told by a Brazilian friend to be careful when asking for coconut – “coco” – because if I pronounced it wrong I would end up saying “cocô” – what children say when they are learning to become potty trained!

Some words in other languages look like words in English but they do not always have the same meaning.  It is easy to say the wrong thing by accident and it can sometimes be embarrassing.  That word is a case in point, because if you tell someone you are “embarazada” in Spanish, hoping to tell them that you are embarrassed, what you have actually told them is that you are pregnant.  If you ask people to come and assist you with organising an event in France, by saying “venez assister à mon evenement”, you will actually find that they don’t turn up until you have done it all and just watch – “assister à” in French means “to watch” or “to observe” (or even “to witness” – if you’re telling someone “j’ai assisté à un crime”, luckily it means you witnessed it rather than you committed it!).  Still on the subject of crime, if you say something is a “delikt” in Polish, it doesn’t mean it is a delight, it means it is a tort or wrongdoing.

It’s not always about false friends, though.  You might be tripped up by words that look or sound similar or are near homophones (words that sound the same but have different meanings, like “knew” and “new”).  Here is one to watch out for in French: imagine you wanted to meet someone at the hotel, “Je vais vous rencontrer à l’hôtel”, but you struggle with the closed “o” of “hôtel” and you actually say “Je vais vous rencontrer à l’autel” – “I’ll meet you at the altar” – instead! You might get a funny look, at least – or perhaps a very enthusiastic response! (From: Something similar happened to a friend of mine.  My friend had rented a gîte in France and was having trouble getting the gas hob to work so she went to ask her neighbour for help.  It turned out that the gas had been switched off so her neighbour rang the supplier to get it switched back on.  My friend wanted to thank her neighbour by saying “merci, Monsieur, vous êtes très gentil” – “thank you, sir, you are very kind” – but she couldn’t quite remember the word and ended up saying “vous êtes très joli” – “you are very pretty” – instead.  He just smiled.

You can also hear things wrong.  I was once asked in Italian if I was “scoraggiata”, “discouraged” or “disheartened” but I thought I had been asked if I had done something else, “scorreggiato” (look it up!) – which I hotly denied, of course!

If you are lucky enough to speak a few languages you might get them mixed up, or try to guess what a word is based on your knowledge of another, similar language.  A friend of mine was on holiday in Italy and wanted to compliment the chef on a cake she had eaten.  She knew that “gâteau” meant “cake” in French and so tried to think of a similar word in Italian that she thought meant the same thing.  She told him “il gatto è buonissimo”, which actually means “the cat is very tasty” (the correct word for “cake” in Italian is “torta”, which is actually like another French word, “tarte” (“tart” or “torte” in English).  If only she’d chosen that one!

Here are the best funny language mistakes I’ve heard from what people have shared on the internet: French faux pas, a mixed bag and some that users themselves have shared

Have you made any funny language mistakes? Share them in the comments!

Suzannah Young

August 22, 2018

Talking the Talk: Slang and Idioms Help You Sound Authentic and Understand Nuance

When I moved to France, I thought I could speak French quite well – but, I soon realised that although I could hold a high-brow conversation about politics or recycling, I couldn’t have an informal conversation that would help me make friends!  One of the problems was that I hadn’t learnt any slang and the idiomatic expressions I had learnt were very out of date.  I didn’t have the right vocabulary for informal situations and the register I could use was much too high for conversations with people of my age.  My French was correct but it didn’t sound natural.  I didn’t have the same casual, effortless way of speaking that the people around me did.  We have all heard the expression “to talk like a book” – speaking much too formally for the situation – and we can relate to it.  This is how I felt because I hadn’t learnt slang or idiomatic expressions.

This experience showed me that to be able to understand and produce authentic spoken language and sound like a human, for use in interaction with humans, we should learn and use all registers of language, where they are appropriate, and slang and idiomatic expressions are as important as formal language.  If we don’t learn slang and idiomatic expressions when we are learning a new language, we shut ourselves off from a rich array of meaning and tools we need to really connect with other people.

Not everyone agrees with me, though.  Some commentators think that slang and idiomatic expressions are not that important in language learning, and insist that communication is the most important thing.  I will explore both viewpoints in this article.

What is slang?

Slang is an informal vocabulary that exists alongside formal language.  Slang words take the place of standard words in informal conversation.  Existing words can be used to mean something different, such as “cool” to mean “good” in English, or they can be new words altogether that have the same meaning as a standard term, such as “nosh” for “food” or “bloke” for “man”.  Slang words can be used to express emotion but can also be used as a neutral descriptor in an informal situation.  It is not usually possible to guess what the words mean without learning them.  Slang can start as a kind of secret language within certain group, such as Cockney Rhyming Slang.  Slang can be regional or generational.  It can be short lived – very popular for a short time and then replaced by something else.  Sometimes, though, the slang used by a certain group finds its way into the national language and is understood and used by the majority of the population in informal conversation.

What are idiomatic expressions?

Idiomatic expressions, or idioms, are phrases or expressions that have a figurative meaning. They are usually formulaic, meaning that their form does not change and only that particular phrase has the meaning intended by the idiomatic expression.  They should not be taken literally as their figurative meaning is totally different from their literal meaning.  Some figurative expressions have their origins in a literal practice that has become obsolete.  Examples in English are “to pull the wool over someone’s eyes” (meaning to trick someone or hide the truth from them), “to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth”, (meaning to hear something about someone from that very person) and “to beat about (or around) the bush” (meaning not to address a subject directly).

Why is it useful to learn slang and idiomatic expressions?

Slang is usually seen as being grammatically incorrect.  It breaks the rules that we learn in textbooks.  So why would you want to learn the “wrong way” to use language?

Language researcher Jane Reed, says that slang is used to create a sense of belonging and help create a community.  If you want to be included in conversations between native speakers as an equal, it is very useful to be able to understand and use slang and idiomatic expressions.  Learning slang helps you use language how it is really used by people who speak it.  Informal language develops stronger connections between people.

Slang and idiomatic expressions are also playful, creative and fun to use.  Some expressions are very suggestive, such as “he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer”, (meaning he is not very clever), or “the elephant in the room” (meaning something that everyone knows about but does not talk about).  That is why slang is used a lot in advertising and literature.  Informal language can help us express emotions that we are feeling in a more “real” way.  A complete understanding of cultural artefacts that express emotion, such as film and music, also calls for an understanding of slang and idiomatic expressions from the period in which they were made.  Expressions used in advertising or literature can even find their way into common parlance.  Anyone who has spent some time in the UK will probably have heard the idiomatic expression “it does exactly what it says on the tin”, meaning that something is obvious.  This comes from an advert that was popular in the 1990s.  Not to mention the array of expressions in English that come from Shakespeare’s works.

Why is it not worth the effort to learn slang and idiomatic expressions?

It is of course possible to have a conversation with someone and be understood without using slang or idiomatic expressions.  Both participants in the conversation can communicate using terms that they share from their knowledge of standard language.  In this way, slang can be seen like a dialect that is shared by a certain group but is not used when members of that group have to communicate using the standard national language.

It is always necessary to have a good basis in the standard version of the language you are learning as you will always be able to communicate.  This is perhaps even more the case if you are learning a world language like Arabic, French or Spanish – there are many regional and national slang or informal words that will not even be known by people from different countries that share the same standard language.

It also depends who you are speaking to as to whether slang and idiomatic expressions are necessary.  If you are at work or at an academic conference, it is probably less likely that you will encounter these types of language forms than if you are having an informal conversation.

If you want to use slang, you must also be careful to use it appropriately and in the right context, to avoid causing offence.  This can be a bit of a minefield.   There can be very subtle differences between when it is appropriate to use informal language and when it isn’t – but native speakers can make mistakes with this too.

Informal language also evolves all the time and certain terms can become outdated, and someone who uses them may sound strange, or even stand out more as a learner of the language.  “It’s raining cats and dogs” is a classic example that is taught to learners of English, but it is rarely used by native English speakers.  It might be less useful to learn little-used informal phrases than it is to use commonly-used, standard terms.

So, what’s the answer?

At the end of the day, whether or not you wish to learn slang and idiomatic expressions depends on what you want to get out of your language learning adventure.  If you want to get by, learning slang and idiomatic expressions won’t really help you, but if you want to interact on a deeper level with people and you want to understand native speakers, a smattering of slang and an inkling of idioms will go a long way.

If you want to use the language you are studying for work or to attend university abroad, then you will need to learn more formal language than informal language.  If you want to settle somewhere and make a life for yourself outside of work or study, it is likely that you will need to learn and use informal language.

This excellent article on slang in language-learning (about English-language learning but relevant to other languages too) is a good summary of this topic.

Where can I learn slang and idiomatic expressions?

It is unlikely that you will learn modern and appropriate slang in textbooks classroom settings.  You can increase your knowledge of slang and idiomatic expressions by using language actively: reading fiction, listening to songs, watching films and talking to native speakers.  If at first you do not understand a term that someone is using, you can of course ask them what it means, but it is also a good idea to pay attention to their body language and to the context of the conversation.  Hot English Publishing gives the English example of when you ask your friend what they thought of a film and they say, “It was wicked!”  Even though you know that the standard meaning of “wicked” is “evil” or “bad”, you can see that your friend looks enthusiastic, which will help you realise that “wicked” means “good” in this context!

There are also a number of online dictionaries where you can brush up your knowledge of slang and idiomatic expressions.  Here is a list by language:

French (PG rating) (user-generated content)

German (user-generated content)


Polish – user-generated content – user-generated content – with audio


Be aware that Spanish is a world language and there will be different slang used in different Spanish-speaking countries:

If you have come across and slang and idiomatic expressions in the language you are learning, please write them in the comments!

Suzannah Young

August 15, 2018

Travelling corner: My bella Italia

This article is to express my admiration and fascination for Italy. I visited this wonderful country for the second time & was so happy to be there and experience all the beauties of it. As I was travelling in breathtaking Tuscany, I was thinking about what I love Italy for: I think I would say that it’s for its amazing architecture, scrumptious ice-cream, many bookshops, tiny pizzerias, delicious sweet shops & cafes, independent bakeries & groceries, smiling people, crazy bike-riders & cobbled streets.

What do I experience when I think about Italy? I smell the fragrance of summer: warmth, flowers, gentle rain in a breeze, forests & freshly baked pizza.

What are your impressions of Italy? Let me know in the comments below.

Kinga Macalla

August 8, 2018

Travelling corner: A giraffe adventure in South Africa

Have you ever considered going on a safari? From the moment you disclose this plan, you are faced with the recurring question of whether you aim to see the big five or not.  Interestingly, once you are on the safari, the focus seems to change. Now the question is: “Did you manage to see any lions”. Obviously, I was massively impressed when I saw lions, but, more importantly, I felt relieved. Now this important box had been ticked, I could fully concentrate on watching out for my true favourite – the giraffe. I love giraffes!

My admiration of giraffes as ‘cute animals’ was not shared by a local South African though. “Giraffes are not cute. They are big. We don’t say ‘cute’ for big animals!” Even for my German ears a rather forthright answer. No offence taken though!  This warning remark could not in the least lessen my excitement about our upcoming tour: We would drive though a game park where visitors are allowed to leave the car and roam freely. Super cool! Soon after entering the park, we were lucky and came across a group of giraffes. Wow!!! They are so beautiful, elegant, and majestic. I was in awe. After a few minutes of watching them, I finally recalled that leaving the car was allowed. So I took my chance and walked up to the giraffes. I was sure they would eventually run off, so I approached slowly, dreaming of the chance of touching them – maybe?  They did not run away though. And, while getting ever closer, realisation dawned on me that, actually, they are not cute after all but rather BIG animals indeed! I even noticed that they were not exactly amused with me approaching.

How did my little adventure end? With some quite agitated giraffes, an increasingly nervous husband – taking pictures of the scene(!) – and myself rushing back to the safety of our car. Prefer a safer kind of adventure? Why not study a language at BLS?

Victoria Holderied-Milis

August 1, 2018

I moved to Russia with my family for 6 months. Interview with BLS Russian Tutor, Natalia

Natalia is one of BLS’s Russian language tutors, who moved to Russia last year to live there with her family for 6 months. I interviewed her to find out more about her experience of living abroad. The interview is available on YouTube. We had great fun recording it (or actually re-recording it as, by accident, we lost our first video and needed to re-record it! We didn’t complain, though, because we had so much fun doing it again!). What did we talk about? We talked about where they lived in Russia, how they packed for their 6-month relocation, how they organised their lives in Russia, what surprised them most, and whether or not Natalia is missing her Russian life now. Curious to find out more? Click the link here to watch the whole interview. Enjoy!!!

Do you have a similar experience, please let us know about your temporary move to a new country in the comments below.

Kinga Macalla