Es-stumbling through new languages


Es-stumbling through new languages
by Niki Tehranchi

Hubby, exhausted by a heavy day, still had the energy to put on a tired smile and tell me about his colleague, a first generation immigrant like him, who, in the midst of a conversation, advised him in all seriousness that they should "nick the problem in the butt."

Nick the problem in the butt. Nip the problem in the bud. Just another case of I say po-tay-to, you say po-tah-to in the great obstacle course that is learning a new language for a first generation immigrant. You can get a lot of verbal black and blues while stumbling around trying to get a grip on a new language. We've all been there.

Some funny qui pro quos come to mind. Often, they play out like an episode of Three's Company, with both parties (and sometimes a third party) each giving a different meaning and interpretation to what they hear from the other. My secretary once announced that I had "Foster Farms" waiting to speak to me on line 2. Foster Farms. Like the chicken company? I asked her to elaborate and realized she meant it was someone calling in relation to a case I had been working on, trying to secure a client's juvenile court documents showing he had been in foster care as a child. I picked up the phone and the voice on the other end answered, to my great surprise: "Hi, this is Janice, from law offices of Morrison and Foerster."

When I started learning English at the age of 11, I did not go to an ESL class (not sure why). I sat day after day with a very worn out copy of the Larousse French to English dictionary trying to translate verbatim my thoughts for my English teacher. This resulted in many memorable essays such as "My summer vacation" where I expanded on how "the day was such a good day that I was feeling very gay." Not knowing of course the connotation of the word "gay" in a North American contest.

My mom did attend an ESl class for a short time. A very proud woman, she did not want to let on in front of the others that she did not understand a word of what the teacher was asking her in front of the class. (Why the shame? They were all as badly linguistically equipped as her after all or they would not be in that class). So when the teacher looked at her nodding her head, waiting for a response, my mother proudly responded with a resonant YES in answer to the incomprehensible question. The gasp that came over the class left her a bit shaken but she smiled brightly and kept nodding her head at the teacher. Later, she found out if the teacher had asked if she had ever been in jail before.

A friend's mom was trying to order the delicious French treats known as "crepes" at the local bakery. Naturally, she asked if they had any "creeps" at the store.

Another memorable day was when, at the age of four, I was speaking to my grandmother on a long distance phone call to Iran, after my family had moved to Nice. Nice being a very hot climate, there were a lot of flies and mosquitoes flying around, or "mouches" in French. When my grandmother asked me how things were over there, I enthusiastically responded that things were super except that "khoonamoon por az moosheh." I shudder to think the series of expletives she later directed at my parents for having moved her beloved granddaughter to a barbaric abode run amok with filthy rodents!

One added problem for us immigrants who left Iran at an early age or were born outside, we have stumbling blocks in our so-called native language too.  I once watched in horror as my husband was explaining to a very respectable elder Iranian lady how the "Aghed" who married us also performed the ceremony for his sister's wedding and his brother's wedding. "Ham mano kard, ham baradaramo kard, ham khaharamo kard." He elaborated innocently.   

The journey is not over. It is always continuing, for all of us. We just have to look at the bright side of it and learn to cope with the sometimes awkward situations we find ourselves in.

Please to enjoy Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers singing "Let's call the whole thing off":



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by American Wife (not verified) on

Oh god... I can't quit laughing.  The beach/bitch comment made me laugh and think of this and I almost commented on it but didn't.  THANK YOU IRANdokht!!!  

Husband and I communicated via email and phone for some time before he made the final move to the East coast.  This is one of the clearest memories I have of our HOURS of talking... in that flirty way that lovers do... him making reference to butt chicks....LOL.  Oh god... here I go again. an offensive  or "x" rated conversation by any means... just chatting.  But to this day he'll occasionally slip up and it just endears him to me all the more.

Thank you!!!!


crash in slo-mo...

by IRANdokht on

that was a great description Niki jan, exactly the same reaction that I was picturing :0)

I have this same problem with cheek/chick too. I have to think about it for a second too and if I don't, the questioning stare I get for a second or two is priceless.


Niki Tehranchi

Monda jan

by Niki Tehranchi on

The bitch/beach is still a problem for me after all these years.  Ihave to rehearse the word in my mind seconds before uttering it out loud for fear of offending! Thank you for your comments.


and one closer to home

by Monda on

little Kenny came over one weekend to announce their trip to the beach, my husband asked Kenny: Stay here Kenny, what are you going to the bitch for?! Come with us to the tzO (zoo in Italian)! C'mon forget the Bitch,... !


here's one

by Monda on

This middle aged guy was almost yelling at a customer service rep at a N.Vancouver store: I don't vant to do too much cheeshan peeshan FOR YOU, I vant my money back! My daughter, 7 back then asked me, oon agha chee goft?! I couldn't answer her, I was laughing so hard, plus I had no idea!

Niki Tehranchi


by Niki Tehranchi on

It was like watching two cars speeding towards each other in slo-mo.  By the time you open your mouth to give the warning, BOOM, it's over!


sweet and witty

by IRANdokht on

what a pleasure to read! I keep picturing your reaction to what your husband was telling that lady.

please write more!


Niki Tehranchi

Ali P and Azarin :)

by Niki Tehranchi on

Ali P!!! That was hilarious thank you.  I am sure you have more stories like that.  Sometimes the cultural divide is so great even if someone speaks correctly.  An acquaintance who had not been to Iran since he was 6 went there on vacation from his adopted home of Germany where he has been living 20 years.  At the local noonvahey, he asked very politely "Mitoonam lotfan yek noon dashteh basham?" The noonvah gave him this contemptuous look like he is a bacheh soossool and replied: "Areh ke mitooni, mamanettam mitooneh dashteh baasheh!"  The poor guy was so confused :)

Azarin, I am so glad I could put a smile on your face even momentarily.  Be careful of reading certain articles in public, like anyway section or comments by Ali P!!! You are sure to get the church giggles :-)

Azarin Sadegh

Thanks Niki!

by Azarin Sadegh on

I read your blog at the library (when two retired russians were sitting too close to me, and couldn't stop talking.) I tried hard to control my laughing...but I couldn't. I laughed - almost loud - and the librarian gave a warning to russians! I apologized, but unfortunately their English was really limited..:) 

Your story seems like the true story of my ongoing struggle with languages since I've left Iran. Plus, these last weeks I've been so down and so gloomy, ...but not today! Not this afternoon.

Thanks! Azarin

Ali P.

Works the other way too

by Ali P. on

    A German lady, who was married to an Iranian, and moved to Iran with him, told me once, after learning a few words and feeling somewhat competant,she  went to get a skirt and have it fitted by the local taylor. She had tried to tell the taylor to make the waist of the skirt a bit larger, since she had a wide behind. She had used her limited vocabulary, but the taylor had blushed, and she took it as cultural shyness. Her husband died laughing after she came home and told him what she had told the taylor:"aaghaa, iin koocheekeh...kooneh man goshaadeh!"

Niki Tehranchi

LoooooooL @ Chicken Helper :-)))

by Niki Tehranchi on

I forgot to mention how I would tell anybody that listened that I spent my summer days at the bitch (beach).  I still have to pause before saying that one.


Firouzeh Dumas, whose new book was featured here recently, had an episode in her first book Funny in Farsi when her mom and her go to a hardware store and ask the salesperson for "elbow grease" because they were told by someone that was what they needed to get some sort of stain out of the carpet.


Thank you all for your comments!


I asked the manager

by Mazloom on

..., "Do you need any chicken helper?" When I was looking for any kind of a job in the restaurant's kitchen. That was a lung time ago, lung lung lung time ago :Q)


straight translation from Farsi

by AnonymousTheMrs (not verified) on

I don't think they're called "secretaries" anymore. Aren't they receptionists? administrative assistants and etc????


so very enjoyable

by American Wife (not verified) on

I dread to think of what someone would say behind my back about my Farsi... such as it is! 



Jeesh Daram

a pleasure to read

by Jeesh Daram on

Very sweet and entertaining... thank you