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Photograph ©2018 by Brian Cohen.

They Don’t Realize That You DO Know What They’re Saying: Languages

“I bought a used car in Costa Rica 20 years ago from an American missionary. He was bilingual, and told a story of arriving at an airport in Honduras, and taking a taxi with his wife to their destination. There was a driver and another person in front, and they started discussing in Spanish how they would rob the couple once they got to a deserted location. They stopped that ride pretty quickly!”

They Don’t Realize That You DO Know What They’re Saying: Languages

The paragraph you just read was this comment which was posted by FlyerTalk member Jaimito Cartero in this discussion pertaining to people who assume that you do not speak the language which they are speaking and not realizing that you understand what they are saying…

…and this phenomenon can occur at any time — whether you are visiting a foreign country; or perhaps this has happened near where you live.

Here is another example which was posted by FlyerTalk member jimquan: “Many years ago I took my parents sightseeing in Paris and wound up at the Marche aux Puces (flea market).

“We were walking along and my high school French language skills alerted me to the fact two guys were about to snatch my mother’s purse.

“I stepped in as they started the distraction of wiping something off her coat, gave the hitter/lifter a shove and ruined their heist.”

If English is your native language, having the reverse happen — in which you speak English and assume the people around you will not understand you — is more difficult, as with greater than one billion people, English is arguably the most widely spoken language on the planet in terms of area coverage and the combination of both native and non-native speakers…

…but in terms of the number of people who speak a language, that is debatable: some sources cite English; while others cite Mandarin Chinese as the language which is most spoken by native speakers. The difference of speakers between the two languages is a paltry 100 million people — give or take a few million.

Here is one more experience as imparted by FlyerTalk member powerlifter: “I have a friend who speaks perfect Arabic. He was having a meeting in Dubai when someone walked in, and said why are we doing business with this filthy American in Arabic. The other person said in Arabic ask him yourself as he speaks Arabic. The person was embarrassed and turned a bright red.”


For some additional fun, please read this article pertaining to which languages place as second or third most popular in each country — and what stories they reveal about the diversity, history, and deep roots of each country.

My experiences were rather boring and uneventful as stories: basically, I would be in an elevator or some other enclosed place where two people would be speaking French to each other; and I would just simply greet them in French before either they departed or I departed. Sometimes that action would spark a friendly conversation in French…

…so I will ask you: have you ever had an experience in which people spoke a language in your presence — automatically believing that you will not understand anything that they say when you actually do understand them?

If so, please impart your experience in the Comments section below.

Photograph ©2018 by Brian Cohen.

  1. Have had this happen many times to me in Greece Switzerland Germany Israel Not in Italy though Happens Im fluent Greek Hebrew German Schwyzerdeutsch etc as wel las Aussie English Just aske them in their own tongue what id you mean – that generally puts them back in their box ;-))))

  2. What a sad post… How about you write about airlines firing people or not serving Dom in J…. Oh wait, everybody else is doing that too. Or you could just write when you have something relevant to post.

  3. Twice on buses. Anglo looking guy of mostly UK descent. Was riding a city bus home from the university campus when 3 Spanish-speaking women got on board a stop later and sat on the side bench across from me. They quickly began talking about a guy that was seated closer to the front, (Guess I’m not good looking enough) arguing over who got him and who had seen him first. I smiled as I continued reading the paper. One of them noticed me kind of laughing and asked in Spanish, “hey, do you speak Spanish?” Without looking up from my paper, I just nodded back. They were mortified.

    Years earlier on a bus in Argentina, I was with 3 other American college aged guys and we’d been speaking English when we got on. 2 of us had seats while two of us were hanging from the rails. The back bench of the collectivo was occupied by a group of young women who quickly began talking about who got who. I noted the conversation and clued in the 3 with me, the closest of whom then turned to the young women and asked in Spanish if they had the time. Quite surprised, they asked if we spoke Spanish and our guy told them, “well, since we live and work here in Argentina right now, it would be hard to survive if we didn’t know what people were saying.” The women said very little after that.

  4. My story is a tad different, but nevertheless illustrates our mutual experience.

    I grew up in NJ and went to college at Rutgers. During that time, I was blessed with the opportunity to go skiing in Austria. The first time around, my friends and I had difficulty conversing and even paying the bill since we could not speak German. As a result, I was resolved in learning German in college to prepare myself for the next Austrian ski trip. I took introductory German and that was more than sufficient to get around when I travelled back to Austria.

    Fast forward to a few year after college, I had a piece of photographic equipment that I wanted to sell in NYC. A number of the big stores have Hasidic Jews working and managing the stores. I asked a salesman what could the store offer for my equipment. He showed it to his manager, and they started conversing in Yiddish. I did not realize that Yiddish and German were very similar, and so, I was able to follow the conversation. The conversation ended, and they agreed to offer me $35. I was fine with that until the manager turned to me and said $30! I immediately responded, “But you just told him $35!” They were both astounded by my words while their mouths were open. The manager left my sight and the salesperson went to write up the paperwork, and I received $35. 🙂

    Over the years, I have learned four additional languages, and I have found this to be particularly helpful in life.

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