According to a 2006 survey from the European Commission, about 56 percent of people worldwide consider themselves to be multilingual (meaning that they functionally speak at least two languages). The numbers aren’t quite so hot in the United States; only about 15-20 percent of U.S. residents consider themselves bilingual.
Perhaps that’s why some people assume that they can speak their minds freely, provided that they’re not actually speaking English. Unfortunately for them, bilingual people do exist. Fortunately for us, these multi-lingual mishaps often make for great stories, particularly when people get called out on their rudeness.
We collected a few of the most interesting anecdotes from several Reddit threads on the subject, then edited them for length, clarity, and grammar. If you speak several languages, these stories will make you think twice before cursing out those rude people at the bus stop (or the restaurant, or the break room, or…well, you’ll see).
1. The trick to a great bilingual confrontation: Don’t say too much.
“I was in a Las Vegas buffet with my parents, aunt, and uncle when I perpetrated a perfect cross-cultural beatdown on an older Japanese couple sitting at the table next to us,” wrote Reddit user Crunchrapsupreme. “My aunt and uncle are pretty large, and had an appropriately large pile of food on their plates—as did the rest of us.”
“We’re all white-bread Americans, and I’m sure the couple had no idea that I had been studying Japanese for three years, and my dad had taken enough Japanese to pronounce things that I passed to him on a napkin.”
“While we were chowing down, I overheard the couple saying things like, ‘It’s so disgusting how much they eat,’ and ‘No wonder those people are fat,’ while casting occasional glances at us. I discreetly passed my Dad a note telling him that I was going to say in Japanese, ‘This food is so delicious and plentiful!’ and that he should respond, ‘Yes, it is delicious!’ loud enough that our neighbors would hear.”
“We execute our plan to perfection, and the couple turn white as sheets, drop their forks, and bolt simultaneously from the restaurant without saying a word. If I had wanted to be more of a [jerk], I would have asked them to pass the salt.”
2. Most bilinguals wait for a while before revealing themselves.
Hey, that’s what makes for a great story.
“I was sitting in the break room eating lunch when, out of the blue, my table is commandeered by my Hispanic co-workers, gossiping about other coworkers to themselves in Spanish,” wrote Redditor 1994bmw.
“After 15 minutes of awkwardly listening to them sling dirt, I get up to leave, and they ask—still in Spanish—’How awkward would it be if the gringo could understand what we’ve been saying?’”
That’s when you drop the martillo.
“I responded—also in Spanish—’You don’t know I speak Spanish?’ They were mortified, and one of them let out a really high pitched cackle of a laugh. I felt more respect from all the Latinos at that job after word got out that I was a hispanohablante.”
That’s Spanish for “Spanish speaker,” in case you’re wondering. Of course, if you’re bilingual, you probably know that already.
4. If you’re going to be gross, expect some retribution.
“I speak Farsi, or Persian,” wrote Reddit user ram1n. “While in college, I was waiting in line at Subway to order, and there were two other Persians behind me complaining about the girl in front of me taking too long to order her sandwich. They began to comment on how hot she was and all of the naughty things they’d both do to her.”
That’s disgusting behavior, regardless of whether anyone else can understand you. Fortunately, another Farsi speaker was within earshot.
“I’m standing there smirking, fully aware that these guys have no idea that I know what they’re saying,” ram1n wrote. “She finishes her order, pays, and as she leaves, turns to the guys behind me and says in Farsi, ‘Your mothers would be ashamed to hear how you talk about women,’ and leaves. I was as surprised as they were, but the difference was that they looked mortified while I was trying not to double over with laughter.”
Yeah, we didn’t see that one coming. Fortunately, it doesn’t stop there.
“I order my sandwich, and on my way out, I smirk at them and say in Farsi, ‘She’s right, you know,’ and catch their returning looks of utter horror as I walk past them.”
5. Apparently, some people aren’t above talking trash at a bachelorette party.
User Sakura10 was living in the United Kingdom when she went out with friends to a nice restaurant for a bachelorette party.
“There were about 20 of us ladies sitting round a long table, drinking and eating away, when I overhear the future mother-in-law and sister-in-law talking in Hebrew about one of my friends (not the bride to be),” she wrote. “They were saying how unflattering her dress was, she didn’t have the shape/size for it, and she shouldn’t wear it if she’s not a model. I’m Israeli—which they obviously didn’t realize, as I’d only just met them—and I understood it all.”
“Now my friend is skinny and pretty, and her dress was lovely and fit her well. They, on the other hand, were a very snotty and snobbish pair who, incidentally, looked nothing like models and had no right to judge. I also can’t tolerate bullying, which was what was happening, regardless of whether it was direct or not.”
“I pulled some friends aside for a group bathroom break, at which point I told my friends what was being said. They were all as shocked as I was.”
“I didn’t want to spoil the [bachelorette party], and I didn’t want to upset my friend further, so we left it until the mother-in-law and sister-in-law were about to leave. I said ‘Have a good evening, it was lovely to meet you,’ in perfectly accented Hebrew. They had the most awkward expressions on their faces ever. It was hilarious.”
6. Remember, folks: Never make fun of the people who prepare or serve your food.
User TrustMeImALawyer describes himself as a “total white guy” who speaks fluent Spanish. Once, while waiting tables, he served a huge Spanish-speaking family…who proceeded to make fun of him for a solid hour.
“Nothing specific to me, but they were talking about how [awful] my mother probably was, etc.,” he writes. “When I presented them with the check, I wished them a pleasant rest of their evening in Spanish. Total silence. Mumbled cursing. $300 tip.”
You’ve got to give the family credit; at least they realized that they messed up and took steps to make it right. As for TrustMeImALawyer, he says that he doesn’t regret his decision.
“10/10,” he writes. “Would do it again.”
7. If you’re going to say awful stuff, make sure you know your roommates fairly well.
“My friend in college speaks German, and once, he had a German Erasmus student living in his student house,” wrote user Feckin_Cheese. An Erasmus student is basically a foreign exchange student.
“Every so often, her other German friend would come over and they’d [complain] about various people, including those living in the house,” they explain. “Now, my friend never told her that he spoke German, and often, when they discussed the other housemates, he’d be around—watching TV, making food or tea etc. Anyway, one night he came home and she was still awake, making food. He proceeded to have a full-blown conversation with her in German. She moved out three days later without telling anyone.”
We don’t know what she’d said about her housemates, but given that she went with the nuclear option and actually found new living arrangements, we’re guessing it was pretty bad.
8. Sometimes, these situations don’t have a happy (or satisfying) ending.
This story comes from a Reddit user who has since deleted her account; for the purposes of this story, it’s helpful to understand that she’s white, she speaks Chinese, and at one point, she was dating a Chinese man.
“We were pretty serious and had been together for about three years when we ran into a family friend of his mother’s at a restaurant with her daughter,” she wrote. “My (then) boyfriend introduced me to them. They seemed pretty nice, and we sat at a table close enough to hear them.”
“Suddenly, this family friend starts ranting to her daughter in Chinese, saying how disgusting it was that we were together, that I had no right being with someone like my boyfriend, and that my boyfriend should have been ashamed of himself for being out in public with me. Her daughter told her that she didn’t have anything to worry about, and that she wouldn’t do anything as embarrassing.”
We’d love to tell you that this story has a satisfying resolution, but sometimes, simply showing that you’re bilingual isn’t enough to change the script.
“It stung like a b****, but I got through eating and when we left, we said goodbye to them, and I said, ‘Goodbye’ in Chinese. As we walked away, this friend had the nerve to say ‘I don’t care if she understands. At least now, we won’t have to hide how unwelcome she is around here.’ It was the one of the worst moments of my life, and I will never forget it.”
9. Then again, sometimes your bilingualism can get you free stuff.
If you speak another language and you catch someone trashing you, feel free to use it to your advantage.
“My mom stopped by a local sushi restaurant later at night,” wrote Reddit user Flamewarden. “While she was waiting on her takeout order, the chefs started speaking Japanese and basically said, “Give her the old fish, we need to get rid of it. No fresh fish for this [woman].”
In case you can’t read between the lines, they didn’t exactly say “woman.”
“My mom overheard this, and told them in fluent Japanese, ‘You should think twice about what you say. Give me fresh fish, and I want it for free.’”
“The Chefs were dumbfounded and bowed their heads in shame, apologizing profusely. Needless to say, my mom walked out with some really good sushi.”
10. For some reason, many of these stories seem to happen in restaurants.
This one comes from Reddit user Perfect_Tony, who isn’t bilingual—but his friend speaks Chinese and “is married to a smoking hot Dutch lady.” Again, that’s important for the story.
“One evening, they went out for Chinese food. After being seated, he noticed that the entire male wait staff started cycling by their table to get an eyeful of his wife. ‘Okay,’ he thought, ‘Fine.’ It kept his water glass topped off, and it’s not like he wasn’t used to it.”
“He noticed the guys all congregated at the bar, talking and laughing. After a few minutes, he motioned for his waiter and asked to speak with the manager. The waiter asked if everything was okay, but my friend just repeated that he wanted to speak to the manager. Their waiter left and returned shortly with a guy from the group at the bar, who said he was the head waiter.”
“My friend told him that he didn’t want to talk to any of them and that he wanted to speak with the manager. The head waiter assured him that wasn’t necessary, as he could take care of any problem. Through gritted teeth, my friend looked at him and said, in perfect Mandarin, ‘Get the manager right now.’ The color drained from both the waiters’ faces as they stumbled backwards like they were trying to get away from an evil specter.”
“The head waiter dashed off to the back and returned a short time later with the manager. Speaking in English, my friend told the manager that the waitstaff had said some pretty bad things about him and his wife. Figuring his ‘get the manager’ comment was something picked up from Google translate, the manager sought to assure my friend that Mandarin was a very difficult language for foreigners to master, so he was very likely mistaken with anything he thought he may have heard.”
“At that point, my friend lost his cool and switched to full-on Mandarin. He very loudly repeated what he’d overheard the waiters joking about.”
The waiters had made graphic jokes about the couples’ appearance; use your imagination.
“The group at the bar suddenly stopped smiling and became very interested in their shoes. The manager stood open-mouthed and speechless as my friend pointed to each of the waiters and, using the proper slang, recounted what each said they’d do to his wife.”
The takeaway: If you’re going to say terrible stuff and you get caught, just admit it.
11. Even in mostly bilingual areas, some people assume that they’re special.
Redditor leedlebug is fluently trilingual in English, French, and Portuguese, and she regularly encounters uncomfortable (though ultimately hilarious) situations.
“You would not believe how many people think they can get away with talking [trash] about everyone around them just because they’re not speaking the same language as the majority,” she wrote. “People even try talking trash in French in Toronto—French is one of the national languages. We all need to study it in school at the very least.”
“I worked as a charity fundraiser for several years. I found it really funny when people tried to brush me off with ‘don’t speak English,’ because I’d reply with, ‘What languages do you speak?’ Most of the time, I could get by in their language.”
“A few were so impressed that they actually signed up. What was especially funny was when a native English speaker would pretend to speak another language, such as French, and reply ‘Pardon, je ne parle pas anglais’ in French with a thick English accent. I loved calling their bluff by replying in (unaccented, fluent) French ‘Sans problème, je parle Francais. Cela vous convient?’ and watching them balk and flee.”
That roughly translates to, “It’s no problem, I speak French. Is this better?”
“At one point I was waiting for a streetcar in Toronto after school, and listening to two ladies very loudly insulting the pants I was wearing—a cool tie-dyed pair I’d gotten on a trip to Brazil,” she continues. “I was trying to figure out a clever way of confronting them, when my best friend—also a fluent French speaker—ran across the street to meet me, and overheard a snippet of their conversation.”
“She very loudly, and in French, complimented me on my pants, and we proceeded to have a loud French conversation about how some people are dumba****. It was particularly funny, as the streetcar was full of kids from our French high school, and they were all giggling to each other. The look of horror on those poor women’s faces was excellent.”
If we’ve learned anything from these stories, it’s that languages differ, but looks of abject horror are pretty much universal.