Asking for directions - did you experience something strange or funny while using language abroad?

Of course there were many discussions about unusual experiences concerned with using foreign languages. This time I'd like to focus on asking for directions.

Nowadays everyone has at least one GPS-based application in his phone. A few years ago many people used separate devices serving as car navigation. But over 20 years ago the best solution for a traveler was a good road map, sometimes accompanied by the list of towns and other useful landmarks on our route. And what happened when the map seemed unclear, our written directions appeared to be useless and our electronic devices went out of order? In such situations we had to use our tongue, review quickly the vocabulary needed... and ask locals.
Of course the people are usually very helpful when the stranger asks them for directions, but it may happen that the language we know best is not the language they can speak. And we have to rely on our tourist-level knowledge of other language (or sometimes only on the mutual intelligibility with an other language we know). It may lead to many misunderstandings and funny situations.
The source of problems is usually that we don't understand something the local person tries to tell us. But sometimes the local person seems to be tired of giving directions and gives us something useless, e.g. 'If I were you, and wanted to go to Dublin, I wouldn't start from that place!' (It was actually a joke about American tourist in Ireland, which I heard from a Scottish professor).

If such a situation happened to you, please share it. I will share my stories in a comment soon.

May 2, 2018 9:57 PM
Comments · 8

Well, my story is not about using a language abroad, but it is about asking for directions. A painful issue for me.

It was maybe 5 years ago. I was actively learning Chinese at that time, and there were not too many Chinese tourists in our city back then and there were virtually none native speakers for me to practise. And... One day, we were walking downtown with my brother and suddenly, there are Chinese tourists asking my brother if he speaks English and I felt that this is the opportunity I had been waiting for for so long, so I told him to stop talking that instant and started speaking in Chinese. Then there was a scene which my brother described to our parents as "she clung to them like a leech" because I asked them everything I could only think of and in the end, after receiving "Your Chinese is very good" (oh, at that time I had no idea this is just a polite way of saying "thank you for trying"), I finally let them get to the point - apparently, they were looking for a visa centre. So I recalled the topic "Asking for directions" from my language course and told them, in many details, how to get there. They said, "Thank you very much", I said, "You're welcome, have a nice day" etc. and, even though I was kind of exhausted, I was also extremely happy and proud about myself... for maybe two minutes, because then my brother (I bet even he was impressed by my language skills haha) asked me what exactly they were looking for. I told him that they were looking for a visa centre and there was a PAUSE... and then he told me that I sent innocent people to a Russian language centre for those who apply for residence permit.

May 3, 2018

And a couple of my experiences:

1. When traveling in Yugoslavia (in early 80's) we were surprised that people tell us to go 'pravo' and show the direction straight ahead. In Polish the word 'prawo' means 'right' while in South Slavic languages it;s 'ahead' (I don't know exactly which language it was, so native speakers - don't be angry, please).

2. Once in Italy (in Milan) I asked for directions. The man told me that I had to turn left, then pass 12...13...14... traffic lights, and then turn right. I haven't learned Italian until then so I was not sure if 'quattordici' means 14 or 40, but both seemed to me strange (as a direction given). I counted the lights and on the 14th I really saw the road sign with the name of my destination pointing right!

3. Again in Italy. Late evening I went out of the motorway and was just about 20 km from the town our family lives. But I missed the road sign and found myself in an unknown residential area of another town. I saw a lady closing her car and asked 'Scusi Signora, dove .....'. She pointed a direction somewhere in the field and replied with short 'La!' (there) and went home.

4. In Switzerland... actually nothing bad, but during my German lessons at school  I wasn't prepared to what I heard. And I had to ask twice to repeat the answer, before I could understand it.

5. In France. I don't speak French but I tried to learn some basic vocabulary before going there. Not enough to speak, but it was the good move anyway - whenever I asked for directions in English, I got very nice and detailed explanation... in French.

May 2, 2018
I was visiting a friend who lived in a distant city. He told me never to ask anybody directions on the street. Apparently people are very proud in that country and if they do not know an answer they just give you a random answer that will mislead you. So I downloaded on my phone all the maps I could find of that city. One day I was invited at the house of another friend who is living in an upscale suburb of that capital. I went there by metro and the friend came to pick me up at the metro station. To go back to my hotel, the friend called a private taxi service like Uber. Well, that was an adventure! The driver spoke no English, didn’t know the city in which he was living and didn’t have a GPS. So I monitored him with my phone GPS through the trafic chaos of a Thursday night. My phone’s battery was going down and I was afraid of not being able to arrive at the city center.  It took me more than half an hour and it was really stressful. But I was proud of myself how I was able to use my target language.
May 3, 2018

...And then I realised that he was absolutely right and the visa centre was the other way, and the worst part of it was that I didn't even try to go back and find these people because me and my brother started to laugh like idiots (he was laughing at me and I was laughing because it was such an epic fail). Anyway, shame on me. I still feel guilty about it. But I'm happy to tell you that these people have been avenged. First, when somebody asks my brother if he knows how to get somewhere he usually says, "Don't worry about it, we'll ask Kseniia" (My advice to you: don't leave any witnesses! Just don't); second, people in China are no better than me in this regard sometimes and I can recall at least three episodes of "Oh no I shouldn't have listened to them where on Earth am I???". Well, it's only fair I guess.

May 3, 2018
Once we came back in our hotel after a trip around local suburbs. We took a taxi and I told  driver: " Ambassador" hotel, please". The driver looked at me mistrustfully and asked me: "Could you tell me the address?" After that it was my turn to be surprised. Probably, this guy is a newbie here, I thought. I answered him that I don't know the address, only the name of the hotel - "Ambassador". After a few seconds of silence he began to laugh and then he explained me: " It seemed to me that you are an ambassador..." Then we all laughed together:)
May 3, 2018
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Language Skills
English, German, Italian, Other, Polish, Russian, Spanish
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English, Spanish