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Caution: 10 phrases you should never say overseas

September 1, 2017 Headline News No Comments Email Email

Many Australians try to use some local phrases when travelling – but are we using the right terms? We don’t necessarily appreciate it if a foreigner utters “put some shrimp on the barbie”, under the impression it’s in common usage.

So what are the phrases we should never say abroad?

With an international team of over 100 linguists, Babbel, which describes itself as “the shortest path to a real-life conversation in a new language”, has compiled a list of expressions and words that travellers commonly use abroad, which can actually be awkward, or even rude.

Coinciding with a Babbel survey that discovered 74% of Aussies have tried to use local phrases while on holiday, the site’s team of multilingual language experts suggests Aussie tourists should avoid using the following cliché words and phrases:

Travel conversation

  • Bon appetit (French) – this near-universal pre-meal expression is actually taboo in polite French society. It literally invites diners to ‘a good digestion’, suggesting that they are so hungry that they are willing to jump at any food offered. This originates from 19th century beliefs that conversation concerning body or bodily functions is highly improper for the dinner table, as is talking about and touching food.
  • Mamma mia! (Italian) – this clichéd Italian exclamation is, in fact, very antiquated, and best used solely for referring to Abba-themed musical films.
  • Du (German) – don’t get your formal ‘Sie’ (you) mixed up with the informal ‘du’ while speaking to a policeman in Germany; calling a government employee by ‘du’ can actually earn you a fine of upwards of EUR 500.
  • Garçon (French) – sometimes misinterpreted by diners as the standard way to refer to a French waiter, the term ‘garçon’ is actually considered patronising and snobbish.
  • Wie geht’s? (German) – rather than a casual ‘what’s up’. With many Germans this common expression will result in a lengthy explanation of what is going on in their life.
  • Zut alors (French) – this phrase is outdated, and generally only used in tabloid headlines. A native French person will find it bemusing, at best.
  • Sacrebleu (French) – the same applies as for zut alors (above).
  • Hasta la vista! (Spanish) – care is needed here. As opposed to a triumphant victory cry while shattering a frozen nemesis into pieces (as popularised by Hollywood here), this is actually a cheery way of telling a Spanish-speaker you’re looking forward to seeing them again.
  • Ooh la laa! (French) – in France, this is an expression of negative surprise, rather than sexual innuendo. It is thus one to keep away from flirtation in France along with…
  • Voulez-vous coucher avec moi? (French) – while the inspiration for many English-language songs, jokes, and impressions, ‘Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?’ sounds very strange to the French ear, and should be avoided at all costs.

Fast fact:   68% of Aussies feel they have missed out on something while travelling because they didn’t speak the local language, and that 96% of respondents found that being able to speak a native language abroad meant locals were more welcoming.

Edited by Peter Needham

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