Brendan’s Language Diary: Adventures in Misunderstanding

What We've Got Here is Failure to Communicate

For more about this quote, see Cool Hand Luke.

Language is powerful. If anyone knows the power of learning new phrases, in new languages, for better or for worse, I do.

Learning a few words in Arabic allowed me to communicate one late night with two Eritreans on a subway in Toronto—creating a bond that I think would have been almost impossible in English. I heard the two young men speaking Arabic, so I interjected with what I had learned from a Pimsleur Arabic CD. I said, “عفوا، هل يفهمون اللغة الإنجليزية؟” – “Excuse me, do you understand English.” To their amazement here I was, an Anglo-Saxon Torontonian able to speak Arabic with them. Unfortunately, I was only able to show off a few more pleasantries that I knew: “Thank you”, “You’re Welcome” and “Goodbye,” which I had picked up from some Arabic speakers in Ottawa. Nonetheless it was a thrilling experience.

Another time I was too trusting. I was at a small university café near the library where I was studying, and there were two guys who work there, Urdu speakers from Pakistan, who were buddies. I was becoming pretty confident with some phrases that I had learned in Urdu, so I asked one student-worker in the café to teach me something quickly in Urdu so I could impress his friend, sort of as a trick to amaze him. I naively requested a question that I could ask his friend (who soon learned was taller and stronger). The first fellow taught me a line that sounded close enough to “How are you?” that I trusted him.

I approached his friend at the cash register and asked the question I had been taught. His eyebrows went up and he seemed offended. I had been duped; the joke was on me. Turns out I had asked him how his mother was—clearly not appropriate for a stranger. In my defence, I had no idea what I was saying, and I have been more vigilant about repeating lines until I have confidence in their accuracy.

During another episode, I was saved by Diskuto’s Director of Languages, Pat. I was in an elevator with several people, two of whom were wearing a hijab. We were in a building whose main tenants included multiple English language schools, so I assumed that they were from another country in this building to learn English. I asked something like “Hey, can you speak another language?” to one of the men and he abruptly responded that he was Canadian and could speak English. I was embarrassed and as he left the elevator he said, in a cheeky sort of way “By the way, I can also speak Arabic.” That’s when Pat saved me. Pat quickly responded, in Arabic, “Are you well? Nice to meet you,” which made them smile, and redeemed us somewhat from being linguistically politically incorrect.


Brendan is working on his French, Spanish and Mandarin. He is from Toronto. Brendan has a Masters Degree from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Brendan is confident that learning new languages gives people new insights into different cultures. Email him at

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  1. […] your new languages can backfire on you. On the Diskuto Blog, Brendan relates a few mishaps and misadventures while out road testing his brand new languages […]

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