We Asked, You Answered: Lost in Translation

We all know learning a new language is hard. It can also be humiliating, rewarding, alienating, and exhilarating. We asked all you bi-, tri-, and multi-lingual speakers out there for your experience and advice!

By The Editors

What’s the one spelling you never get right, no matter how fluent you are?

Acommodation, accommodation, accomodation?

Beautiful — it has to do with the three vowels together


Complementary/complimentary, this/these


None on my iPhone 🙂



I’m a very good speller. I think being multilingual generally makes you better at languages.

What’s the most embarrassing mistake you made when you were first learning a new language?

I’ll keep on repeating the (wrong) answer more and more animatedly, and feel more and more irritated for not getting the expected reaction to what I’ve said. Then it’ll turn out I misunderstood the question in the first place..

Not being able to use the words witch and which correctly comes to mind.

My first language is English, but this didn’t stop me from saying “standing novation” instead of “standing ovation” for the better part of my life. I was in my early teens when I realized my mistake — I loudly commented that the word “novation” was spelled wrong in one of those quizzes they show at the movies. My friends had a ball with that one.

In Romanian “pussi’ means kiss.

While learning Catalan in Barcelona, I referred to an exam I took as my ‘ex-lover’ due to a mispronunciation. The choice of words and my phrasing translated what I said to “Yesterday I got f***ed hard by an ‘ex-lover.'”

Early on I didn’t know there was a difference in pronunciation of v and w. So vice versa became wice wersa.

Asking for a kitten, instead of chicken at a restaurant.

What’s a word from your native tongue that just can’t be translated into English? How would you define it?

I find it’s more often expressions that are hard to translate. The English language is so rich in words.

Frekja (Icelandic) – (ed. note: Google translates this to “bitch” which it is NOT, more so a difficult, disagreeable, argumentative person)

German: schadenfreude (happiness at someone’s misfortune) , Romanian: dor (longing for someone you miss very much)

Tapas. You guys got the concept all wrong.

Taarof (Farsi) – (ed. note: a term describing social etiquette in Iranian culture; think of it as excessive southern hospitality where guests are offered food incessantly and relatives won’t stop fighting over who pays the bill)

Nenna (Icelandic) – a verb meaning you don’t want to, have the desire to, too lazy to, too tired too – it means all of it at the same time

Duglegur (Icelandic) – a common adjective meaning hardworking, diligent, but more as a personality trait than a description of action

To’borneh: Lebanese dialect of Arabic that means “may you bury me.” It’s a sign of affection – moms love to use it.

What’s the best piece of advice you have for people learning a new language?

Get comfortable with giving up on your well-chiseled grownup identity. You won’t be able to be funny or clever for a while, so try to channel your inner two-year-old.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, it is the nature of the beast.

Speak it with as many people as you can and don’t be embarrassed to make mistakes.
Don’t give up!

Embrace embarrassment and you will be unstoppable.

Listen to NPR.

Do a little bit every day, and make it fun — if you like music, then listen to music in your target language and study the lyrics, watch foreign movies, read foreign magazines or websites, change the language on your computer.

Let go and learn (as you go).

Alcohol is your friend.