Nobody's Perfect

"Nobody' s perfect" - the last words of the Marilyn Monroe film Some Like it Hot are all too true when we speak a foreign language. Everybody makes mistakes when they talk to foreigners no matter how good their command of the language. Here are a few amusing mistakes made recently by learners of English. We have also included a couple made by native English speakers desperately trying to learn Polish.

Piotr and Monica

I don' t remember my own mistakes as clearly as I remember those of my girlfriend. Once when she was in a restaurant in America the people she was with decided to order duck and recommended she should do the same." Dog?! Are you going to eat dog?!!" Monica asked horrified." Yes" , they answered without a blink, looking confused by Monica' s strange behaviour.

"That' s impossible! You can' t eat dogs, it' s not humane!" she answered with disgust. Monica felt really nauseated. It took them a while to work out that they were speaking about two different kinds of animal!


I once made a horrendous spelling mistake in English. My teacher, she was Polish, asked us to write a short composition on two issues: we had to describe our ideal partner and contrast it with a description of the type of person who we really could never be with. I made a mistake in the second part, writing:" I could never ever be with a fat man who has a long, long bird." What I meant was of course broda - 'beard' , but it came out 'bird' , which in English slang can mean the same as ptaszek in Polish! The teacher' s reaction as she read it was hilarious - she first blushed, but afterwards she just burst out laughing, because she realized that my purpose was not to offend her or to amuse the class - I simply had made the mistake of confusing two similar words!


I am an English teacher so I' ve heard a lot of mistakes and slips of the tongue made by my students. Those most spectacular are mainly caused by literal translations from Polish into English. Very often a word has different meanings in one language and can be used in different contexts, but in another language it has only one meaning or use. Often these differences can lead to very silly mistakes. One of my students did this when he translated" Czuję do ciebie pociąg" as" I feel a train to you" . He simply looked up the word pociąg in the English dictionary and took the first meaning which is the railway vehicle, instead of the second which is attraction towards a person of the opposite sex.

A mistake of the same kind was made by a girl who was trying to describe a successful person. She said that such a person should have" the power of puncture" - what she meant in Polish was siła przebicia. She didn' t think that the Polish word przebicie with its two meanings of a puncture, as in a hole in a tyre and strength and resourcefulness, was not identical to its English equivalent. The funniest mistake I remember though, was when a student thought the word 'selfish' could be translated into Polish as sprzedawca ryb - fish salesman.

One more outrageous thing I recollect was a mistranslation I heard on Polish TV. It was an American film. Two guys were laughing - one couldn' t believe the story the other was telling him, and said," You' re pulling my leg!" - a very common idiom, which basically means" you' re joking, or your making fool of me" . The Polish translator obviously didn' t know it because he translated it literally as" Ciągniesz mnie za nogę." The worst and funniest part was that a viewer who doesn' t know the idiom would never understand what is going on as nobody was literally pulling anybody else' s leg!


When my boyfriend was doing a language course in England he used to hang out in the pub with his British friends. He had already had a few beers when a friend asked about the stereotypes in Poland concerning typical Brits. Krzysiek said," You know, a businessman in a grey suit with a bowler hat and a parachute." The Englishman was flabbergasted and asked," Why a parachute?!" Krzysiek answered with full conviction," Because it' s very practical. There' s always lots of rain in England." The English guy was even more astonished. In the end it turned out that Krzysiek had simply forgotten the word 'umbrella' and replaced it with a word similar to the Polish parasol. An easy mistake to make!


I have an English girlfriend and very often she laughs at what I say in her mother tongue. Last year I visited her family in England. They asked me what our national dish bigos is made of. I said it is" pickled cabbage, mushrooms and virus meat" . First they stared at me in amazement and then they burst into loud laughter. Of course, I meant to use the word 'various' rather than give the idea that the meat is infected!


I didn' t actually understand the most stupid mistake I made in Polish until I discussed it afterwards with some Polish friends. I was in a butcher' s shop and I wanted to buy some chicken breasts. So I asked for 200 grams of piersi z kurczaka. The woman behind the counter looked at me for a second and then burst into howls of laughter. She ran round to the other side of the shop to say something I didn' t understand to a colleague. Then they both laughed their heads off for a couple of minutes, leaving me very confused. Eventually the woman returned to serve me and I got my chicken. Not understanding what could have happened, I asked a friend what I' d said wrong. He asked me to say 'piersi z kurczaka' for him. So I said it:" piersi z kociaka" . He explained to me that I' d asked for 200 grams of kitten breast!

An Irish friend of mine also made a mistake while trying to buy something. It was winter and he wanted to buy a hat. So he walked into a hat shop, pointed at a hat and said" Proszę kanapkę" . The shopkeeper didn' t respond." Kanapka!" said my friend again and pointed at his head. Finally the shopkeeper responded and gave him the hat he wanted. It wasn' t until he was out of the shop that my friend realized he' d been asking for a sandwich for his head rather than a czapka!