We learn from our mistakes!
Everybody makes mistakes. As you learn English, you are bound to make many mistakes, usually because you did not understand what was said, or you learned something incorrectly. But as long as you learn from it, you will become a better English speaker.
Here are incidents of English blunders that show even smart people make mistakes when it comes to language or cultural differences. Before you make the same mistakes, we hope you learn from this and become a better English speaker.
This happened when a Korean businessman opened a chicken restaurant in Ulaanbaatar*, Mongolia. Every day, he served chicken to his customers, but the customers did not seem to be pleased at all. So, he asked several customers if there is anything else they needed. All of them said “I want a chicken.” He did not understand. “I thought I gave them chickens. Why do they ask me to serve them a chicken again?”
One day, an American man came in and ordered chicken. The restaurant owner cut it up and served it on the plate. When he saw it, the American man said, “Finally, I found a restaurant where they serve chicken on a plate.” The restaurant owner asked, “What do you mean? Chickens are always served on a plate.” The American man answered, “If you go to other restaurants in this city, they serve a whole chicken. They do not cut it to pieces.”
The restaurant owner finally understood. When his customers said, “I want a chicken”, they wanted a whole chicken that was not cut to pieces. That is the Mongolian style. Mongolians generally want a whole chicken.
When you cut up the chicken, it will be “some chicken on the plate”, and you are no longer able to see if you are getting the whole chicken. Remember, “a chicken” is one whole piece, and “chicken” are some cut-up pieces. The restaurant owner finally understood what Mongolian people like and he changed the way he served his chickens.
A difficult task for companies selling their products to foreign countries is coming up with a good name for their product. If you name a product without understanding the meaning in the local language, you may be making a big mistake. This happens often in large corporations.
GM, a large car manufacturer, made a car named “Nova”. The Nova was a small economy car intended to sell internationally. However, the president of GM noticed something in the sales figures. This car did not sell well in South America. This is usually due to the difference of preferences of customers in the design of the car. Some designs are more popular in some areas of the world, and unpopular in others.
During a sales meeting one day, a vice president who spoke Spanish was present. When the president said they needed to change the design of the car in the new model to improve sales in South America, the vice president replied, “the design is fine. I like it.” The president responded, “but the sales figures show that we have to do something.” The vice president said, “ yes we need to change the name of the car.” The president was puzzled. The vice president explained, “well, ‘No Vas’ means “do not move”. Spanish speaking people would definitely not want to buy such a car.
A famous computer company in Japan developed a new computer system and named it Fujitsu Advanced Computer System. Fujitsu decided to shorten the name as many Japanese companies like to do. So they shortened it to FACOMS. Fujitsu started sales of this new computer in North America. However, the North American operations president was Japanese, and he did not pay attention to the name. He did notice that American sales people were calling the new computer system F-A-C-O-M-S, spelled out by letter. However, during meetings and conferences with Japanese engineers, the Japanese engineers called it “Fxxx them”. The American sales people were noticeably silent when this happened.
One day the president asked why the American sales people were calling the product F-A-C-O-M-S, not the way the Japanese were calling it. One sales person finally spoke up and explained what this sounded like. “Them” can often be shortened to sound like “oms”, when spoken quickly in English. Combining FAC in the front, which sounds like “Fxxx”, the product sounded vulgar. When the president heard the explanation, he immediately called Japan to ask to change the name to “Advanced System”.
Everybody loves their morning coffee. To get it right, you need some cream. One company that created coffee cream powder was very creative. In fact, they were so creative, they even created the name of their product. Cream Powder was shortened to be named “Creep”. Obviously, this name was created by someone who did not speak much English. After spending millions of dollars on TV advertisements, the company successfully captured a large market share.
One morning, several employees gathered together for a cup of coffee before the intense day of work ahead of them. “Creep” was provided free for all employees to enjoy. One new employee from America was also there, and stared at the bottle of “Creep”. A Japanese employee looked at him and said, “this product is so successful in Japan, we are planning to bring it to the U.S. market.” The American employee immediately said, “wait a minute, you are not serious, are you?” The Japanese employee responded, “yes, why not”? The American employee said, “we need to change the name. Nobody wants to put creep in their morning coffee in the U.S.” The Japanese employee was surprised. “What? Why not?” The American employee explained to him, “check the dictionary before you bring it to the U.S. market.” They reconsidered the name of product because creep means a strange person in English.
Color is something that confuses people in cross cultural situations. This is because it is difficult to translate color with words. A color is a color and there is not an exact way to describe it. Historically, color was one of the most difficult concepts to explain with language. For example, there are many different shades of blue. Someone needs to show you navy blue to explain what navy blue is exactly, and mandarin orange to show what that color is. There is also an intricate color issue between green and blue. In Chinese language, the color blue is often used for a greenish color, and Japanese understanding of the color is slightly different from each Chinese character. The same problem exists between English and Japanese.
In Japan, the traffic signals are blue, red and yellow, but in Korea, they are green, red and yellow. In America, children learn traffic signals as green, red, and orange. When you tell an American person, “you can go at the blue signal”, they would be perplexed. On the other hand, and American person may say, “you need to slow down at the orange light.” A non-American may wonder what orange is. In one incident, a Japanese tourist passed a signal in San Francisco. The policeman stopped him and said, “You just passed the red signal.” Alas, the Japanese tourist said, “the signal was already blue.” The policeman paused for a while, and decided this tourist was a liar, since there is no blue traffic signal. The policeman gave the tourist a ticket with a large fine.
Many people from Asia feel uneasy when they go to a restaurant while traveling the United States. This is because the restaurant employees speak English very fast. Actually, they are not speaking fast. They are speaking at a normal rate, but for Asian people who are learning English, it sounds fast. In order to understand what the waiter is saying and not make a mistake, you usually have to concentrate deeply, making it even more uneasy for you. Adding to the difficulty, there are also cultural differences to overcome. In an American restaurant, other than fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s, they are usually “daily specials” like the house soup, or a special dish.
The vocabulary the waiters use is nothing like you normally learn in English class. The waiter may explain some special vegetables with spices you never heard of, and top if off with cooking methods they don’t teach in English class. One way to have confidence is to know that Americans also feel the same way when they go to a restaurant in France. In a nice French restaurant, the menu is in French, and the waiter speaks French. An American tourist has no idea what the waiter is saying. To avoid making a mistake in ordering, they usually take what is recommended, the daily special. I tell you the vocabulary they use is none of those you normally learn in English class. They explain some special veggies with spices you never heard of and cooking methods that you don’t normally talk about in English.
So you can do the same thing. Ask what the special is for the day. The waiter may give you several options. Pick one, even if you do not understand what it is. Usually, the recommended menu item is delicious. There is another difference to be aware of. In Asian restaurants, if you order a menu item, the waiter does not ask further questions. The American style is to have the customer decide on many aspects of the dish, from the type of salad dressing, to how well to cook the meat, and various types of desserts. Think of it as purchasing a car with many different options to choose from. Being able to choose options is important to American customers.
So the waiter may ask you if you want a super-salad. What kind of salad is a super-salad? If you listen carefully, they are asking of you want a soup OR salad. You do not need to ask the waiter what a super-salad is. You simply need to choose between soup OR salad.
Many people are against the culture of eating dogs. There are some people however in Korea and China that eat dogs. You may see people on TV showing cute puppies, and asking how people could possibly eat dogs. In one episode, a Korean student was shown on TV supporting the anti-dog eating culture. “I like dog”, he said. Everybody just stared at him. The student was confused, so he asked his friend, “Did I say something wrong?” His American friend explained, “You just said you like to eat dog meat.” The Korean student realized “I like dog” means “I like dog meat”, just like saying “I like chicken”, means you like to eat chicken. Pig meat is called pork, and cow meat is called beef. However, dog meat is still dog, and chicken meat is still chicken. The correct way for the Korean student to express his fondness for dogs as animals, would have been to say, “I like dogs”, using the plural form of the world.
Even though the Korean student on TV misspoke, people did not make a big deal out of it because they knew English was his second language. However the problem got bigger when he tried to correct himself. “I like some dogs”, he said. This student now said the same thing as saying, “I’d like several pieces of chicken”. What was the problem with saying that? The problem is the word “some”. “Some” means several pieces, and saying “I’d like some chicken” means you would like to eat several pieces of chicken. As you can imagine, the room got even quieter after the student said this. His American friend came to the rescue by saying, “Would you like some apple? I will cut one for you.” Eating the slice of apple his friend cut for him, the Korean student felt he still had a long way to go to master English.