What was that you said?

by Mellissa Martinez

In a recent news story, Oprah Winfrey spoke of being slighted in Zurich as she shopped for a purse. According to the much-loved figure, a clerk refused to show her a bag on the grounds that it was too expensive. Not surprisingly, the clerk denies the accusation, saying that she simply described the bag as “more expensive,” not “too expensive.” Could this international embarrassment really just be a case of “too” versus “more”?

The story took on a life of its own, and apologies are now flying. The clerk is sorry, Oprah is sorry and, in fact, the entire city of Zurich is sorry—a public apology has been issued! Although I don’t doubt Oprah’s version, the optimistic side of me can’t help but wonder if perhaps the shopkeeper is also telling the truth. After all, a misunderstanding is defined as a mismatch between the speaker’s intended meaning and the hearer’s understanding. Sociolinguistic studies have determined that the mere existence of a language barrier causes tension. It generates a negative emotional and cognitive response and people are reluctant to seek necessary information. Maybe language is to blame for Oprah’s purse predicament.

English learners have a hard time remembering that ‘too’ has a negative consequence. If someone is ‘too upbeat,’ the listener understands that a negative outcome will follow…too upbeat for what? What happened? If someone is ‘more upbeat’ or ‘so upbeat,’ there is no negative result…good for him. I’ve heard students say that they liked something ‘too much,’ a weekend was ‘too fun’ or a movie was ‘too good,’ to which I usually respond, too good for what? Even my toddler is struggling with ‘too.’ He demands every night that we leave his door ‘too much’ open.

Although adverbs like ‘too’ and ‘more’ are frequent culprits, misunderstandings can also come from unfamiliar vocabulary, false cognates, idiomatic expressions and lack of cultural understanding. The Spanish embarazada, ‘pregnant,’ has been tripping up English speakers for years but, unfortunately, false cognates between Spanish and English have caused much worse than embarrassment.

In the case of a young Florida boy, a language misunderstanding cost him dearly. He entered an emergency room complaining that he was intoxicado. The doctor, who understood the word through an English cultural context, thought that the boy was ‘intoxicated’ and treated him for a drug overdose. In Spanish, intoxicado means ‘generally not well from something that you ate or drank.’ In fact, he was suffering from a brain hemorrhage, which required a much different treatment, and he is now paralyzed.

According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, nearly half the executives at global companies believe that language barriers have spoiled cross-border deals and caused many financial losses.

Although it’s costly for the companies, some well-known global marketing translations gone bad are too funny to forget. The ‘got milk’ campaign was apparently translated into Spanish as ‘are you lactating?’ and the Coors campaign, ‘turn it loose,’ came off as the imperative ‘suffer from diarrhea.’ The Swedish furniture giant Ikea named one of its new desks Fartfull and in the 1970s, an American computer company, ‘Wang,’ was marketed in England as ‘Wang Cares.’ They pulled the add because it sounded surprisingly like the insulting ‘wankers.’

My son’s doctor recently sent me an article (also from the Wall Street Journal) pointing out that even though we speak the same language, there is still a very real language barrier between American and British English. If you need a ‘rubber’ in England, you’re not in bed, you’re at school. People live in a ‘flat’ rather than changing one, a ‘bum’ is a backside, not a derogatory title, and a ‘nappy’ is a diaper, not a sweet little afternoon slumber. One of the funnier language confusions I’ve heard between English speakers came from a blogger who writes that, while at a conference, his female colleague said goodnight and promised to knock him up in the morning.

The next time you see a person struggling with English or find yourself in a country where people don’t speak your language, remember that mix-ups, misunderstandings and misinterpretations are a part of everyday life. With over 7,000 languages in the world, even superstars like Oprah are bound to fall into communication pitfalls now and again.



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