You know what they say about assuming right? Well, if you assume that someone doesn't speak a language, and say things you wouldn't want them to actually hear, you're going to end up with egg on your face.
Here are stories of of people overhearing what they weren't expected to understand in another language.
Many thanks to all the Redditors who responded. Check out more answers from the source at the end of this article!
I speak Dari, one of the two official language of Afghanistan. On a trip I overheard two Afghans. One was telling the other to be careful, Detroit was more dangerous than Kabul.
My grandma could speak Arabic fluently. One time we are out and some women behind us in line are mocking her calling her tacky, making fun of her bad dye job etc. She turned around and said in Arabic "I may be tacky, but at least I'm not stupid enough to assume nobody can understand me." They were so mortified.
I speak french, but not completely fluently, although I am a french/american citizen. At my first girlfriends house for the first time eating dinner with them. We go upstairs afterwards and her little sister (2 grades below us) comes in as we are selecting a movie to watch. Well they are Canadian and speak french at home a lot. The girl comes in and starts talking about how I am cute and so forth to her sister. And then her sister banters back about how she agrees and then turns to me and asks me in french if I agree. I responded in french that it I appreciated it. Cue bashful run up to her room.
I lived off that high all year.
Working at a front desk with two co-workers who were related. They are speaking Spanish and one of them is talking about how she thinks I'm weird/act too professional all the time". She then asks "where is the stapler?" in Spanish. I picked up the stapler and without looking at her I extend my arm to pass it. She then asks if I speak Spanish and understood the whole conversation. I told her I speak fluent Italian and took Spanish classes in school.
Another story. At the mall eating McDonald's when I was a teenager. Bunch of old Italian guys hanging around the food court and one asks "how can he eat that crap?" In Italian, While looking at me. I look up and stare at him. I say "because I'm really hungry" in Italian. All his buddies started laughing.
I was waiting in line with my sister to take a boat tour in California and ahead of us was a group of 5-6 German-speaking people. The wait to board the boat was long and they got to talking. At first, it was about how nice the weather was, and then it turned to how annoying Americans can be, especially "fat, dumb, tourist Americans."
They cracked a couple of jokes having to do with American stereotypes. While this was happening, the line started moving and people started boarding the boat. But the group was too wrapped up in their own jokes to realize it. So I finally turned around to them, and in fluent German asked if they were part of the tour and if they were getting on the boat. They stopped dead in their joking tracks and said yes. So I replied that they had better get a move on, because the dumb, fat, American tourist standing right behind them wanted to get on the boat too. They all looked really embarrassed.
I'm Mexican but I studied my college degrees in the US. When I was studying abroad in Germany I only spoke English to my German classmates. 4 months in, one time we were waiting for a train at a station and a group of young south american tourists were being loud and just waiting beside us. I could understand every word they were saying (except for some slang) and they suddenly start talking crap about our group. I don't blame them at all they were just bored at the train station trying to pass time but I smile and look at them. One of the guys looks back and says in Spanish: "Do you not like what I'm saying you jerk?" I respond in Spanish: "It's been a long time since someone insulted me in my language."
The guy has a speechless look on his face and all his friends look at me. We have a laugh and soon after that both our groups sat together and had a nice time talking, their English was good enough to have small chat with.
Not me but my mom's friend. Her and her aunt were on a bus. A very sickly looking woman sat in front of them. They just started talking between themselves and said something along the lines of "that lady looks like death."
She turned around and in Polish said "I have cancer."
I'm Japanese and live in Japan, but I went to college and law school in the States so I'd like to think I speak fluent English. It's always pretty funny when foreigners realize I speak English because there are so many bilinguals in Tokyo that you'd think they'd learn by now that talking crap in English isn't going to be as discrete as they think. Anyways, I have two, one is a pretty feel good one and the other is the typical "talking crap" ones.
First is when I was drinking in a pretty small town in Niigata prefecture. It's not known to get too many foreign visitors except in the winters when ski/snowboard season picks up, but this was in the spring so I was actually quite surprised when I walk in to an izakaya and a foreign couple is sitting at one of the tables. I was alone so they seat me at the counter and I order a couple of yakitori and a sake. As I was waiting I could hear the couple behind talking about how none of the things that came were what they ordered/expected and that its so difficult since no one seemed to speak English. Now the Izakaya we were at was like a hole in the wall, no pictures and the menu was handwritten in Japanese so I could understand how difficult it would have been. Anyways I come over and to their delight I translate the menu for them and help them with their order. I ended up sitting and drinking with them that night and still message each other on facebook!
Anyways I'm in a small city outside the 23 ward which has a pretty prominent language school so there are a lot of foreigners in the area. I used to bartend when I was younger and one of my coworkers from that time had opened a small bbq restaurant in the area so I decided to stop by and congratulate him. There was a couple of American guys, probably in their early 20s just completely trashing this place saying its not authentic and that they did it better in Texas or wherever they were from. So after I had finished talking with my ex coworker I turn around and tell the two American men that if they wanted authentic bbq they should just go back home to America, no one is subjecting you to this restaurant.
I was in South America, and had made friends with a guy who was living in Paraguay, but was originally from Jordan. He spoke like 5 different languages. I asked him if he could help me out buying a cell phone. So we are shopping around, we stop at one place with 2 middle eastern guys selling cell phones. They say some things in Spanish, then some things in Arabic, and then my friend just says, "let's go." I asked him what happened and he said the guys said something in Arabic along the lines of "ohh we'll screw these guys over" To which my friend responded, in arabic "is that right? you're gonna screw us over?" I thought it was really funny.
I speak fluent Hungarian, and the thing about the language is it's so obscure that Hungarians will always assume when abroad that no one else can understand them. As you can imagine, this can backfire spectacularly- I grew up in the USA, and I've heard marital spats at Walmart that frankly never should have left the living room, serious goodbyes between lovers that were awkward to hear, all sorts of things like that.
The best story in this genre though is my mother's, when she and my dad were enjoying their first Christmas together. They were in a small village in Austria in the early 80s, and for Christmas Eve when they went out to dinner there was a man in the restaurant with a dog sitting at the table (like, guy putting food on the plate in front of his dog, dog eating it, etc). My mom proceeded to spend a lot of time telling my dad how disgusting and unsanitary this was of the guy to do etc, and when guy and dog finished their meal he just went up to my parents' table, said "kellemes karacsonyi unnepeket kivanok," and left. In Hungarian, this is the polite way of telling a stranger you wish them a merry Christmas.
My grandparents were Romanian Jews living in Europe during WWII. Post-war they fled to America via Italy, and lived in Italy for several years. Now, they largely spoke Romanian, but my grandpa could understand Italian as well. My grandma had a variety of serious health issues throughout her life and at this point (they were probably in their twenties) she had to be taken to an Italian doctor. Thinking they spoke only Romanian, the doctor told his nurse (about my grandma) "she's a Jew, let her die".
Well my grandpa understood this and was able to seek out a more underground doctor to save my grandmas life. She lived into her 80s.
I'm an American but my Dad and his family are from Switzerland so I've had to learn some languages other than English if I want to keep up with my grandparents and cousins conversations. I've got pretty poor with my French but good enough that I can still listen in on other people's conversations. But, I was never expecting to be able to use this skill or surprise anybody's secret conversation since I live in Texas.
But lo and behold, one day I was out shopping with a couple friends - one who also speaks French and German. I'm disabled from an accident that deformed my left leg - it's pretty obvious and people do tend to stare but that doesn't mean I'm going to go around covered up in pants all the time. It's too darn hot here! At lunch we overheard a mom talking with her son at the table next to us. The boy was about 7 or 8 years old and was totally fixated on my leg and the leg brace I wear - just typical kid curiosity and I was probably one of the few disabled people he's seen.
The little boy was asking his mom what happened, why that girl's leg all messed up, why does she have to wear that brace. The Mom then starts talking crap about American's and tells the boy I probably lost it in the war while killing a bunch of helpless people. She then goes on about how American's are unhealthy, dumb, and should stay out of other people's business.
My friend had gotten up to go to the restroom and came back and just casually asked how the meal was - in French. I answered her back and the mom looked mortified as it dawned on her I had heard the whole conversation. I wasn't rude but I did take the opportunity to tell the boy - who was legitimately concerned. I explained that I was injured in an accident but I'd be okay. So, I got to surprise someone being a jerk and got to show a little boy that disabled people are just regular people, so win-win.
I was touring some old dungeons in Germany. It was just me and my family, and an older German couple. They were kinda dissing my country the whole time, thinking we couldn't understand them. We got to a room where they locked people by their feet and the German man said to his wife and the tour guide in German "This is where you should go if you can't speak German". I turned to him and in perfect German replied "then it's a good thing I can speak German". The look on his face was priceless.
I'm not the multilingual in this story, but my friend's mom is from Vietnam, but her dad is from the States and is white. For whatever, reason my friend looks like a typical white brunette girl, but speaks Vietnamese with her mom's side of the family all the time and is fluent.
So, one day we got off school. We went to a Catholic high school and walked over to a nail salon a few blocks away to get our nails done. The ladies running the salon were speaking Vietnamese, and according to my friend were talking crap on us the entire time we were there. They were talking about how rich we must be and how, "These little white girls can probably sleep with whoever they want and get ahead."
I was completely oblivious to this the entire time, but as we were about to pay, my friend told me all the terrible things they were saying, so we didn't tip them.
We started to leave and one of the workers said something about how the rich white girls couldn't even afford to tip. My friend turned around and yelled at them in perfect Vietnamese about how if they expect their business to stay open, they shouldn't talk badly about their customers in front of their face. I didn't understand a word of it, but the workers were in utter shock and sheepishly apologized to the both of us.
I was at a party a couple years ago and there were these two really good looking Asian girls. I started chatting one of them up and we seem to be having a good time. Anyways, the party keeps going and we split momentarily (I grabbed myself a beer and her friend came over to talk to her). I hear them speaking in Korean and the one I was talking to was explaining how she thought I was really cute. Her friend starts talking in Korean "that's not a good idea. Don't go after him. He's not that good looking. He just wants to sleep with you. Blah blah blah" (the usual protecting your friends line, which I have no problems with minus the not good looking part).
Now at this point, I'm OK with that and I just try to enjoy the party. However, later on I overhear the same girl again speaking in Korean how much of a lowlife I am and I'm a horrible person with some added vulgar swear words (remember, this person has never met me before today). She was basically describing me as if I was the enemy of all women, how I live in poverty, and trying to label me with as many negative things she could think of. Obviously the girl I was talking to is listening to her friend and is clearly no longer looking at me with interest. Before leaving the party I go over to them and I try asking for her number (just for kicks), which she politely refuses to. I turn to her friend and speak in perfect Korean "Thanks so much for telling your friend about me. It was really nice getting to know you and I'm glad you know so much about me, even though we've never met before".
Look on her face was worth not getting laid.
Happened to me actually, really funny in hindsight
I was in Poland for a holiday with 2 friends. We went outside a bar to smoke, and I said to my friend (in Dutch): "Those girls over there are really hot, should we ask them to join us?" One of the girls turned around, and said in almost perfect Dutch: "You won't find out, if you don't ask."
Cue my friends laughing and me standing there flabbergasted.
Wasn't me but my dad.
We, as good Canadians do, went on a ski vacation to Quebec. While my dad was parking his car a tour bus backed into our van. After seeing the damage, my dad marches on to this tour bus and starts talking with the driver. The driver apologizes profusely to my enraged dad, but when my dad starts asking for his name, employee number, and insurance information, he starts pretending that he doesn't understand English.
My dad is fluent in French so without skipping a beat he continues questioning the driver en francais. The driver was super shaken up by this turn of events and his face turned red but surrendered his information in the end.
Canadian - with an English group in a very french town in Northern Quebec. Waitress talked crap about us, being anglophones, the whole night to her coworkers and the bartender. She was doing it fairly loudly, which I found weird in a bilingual country.
When she came around with the bills I put on my best Québécois accent and said in French "I hope you aren't expecting a tip from these stupid English people, because you sure aren't getting one" and told the group we were leaving.
She chased us out of the restaurant screaming at us in French, I flipped her off and we left.
When I lived in China I went to an international school so would frequently use English with my classmates even though I spoke/understood Chinese. One day, I was walking with a classmate when I overheard these old Chinese ladies talking about how it was obvious we were American because we were so fat. We were both average sized--neither fat nor thin. My friend doesn't understand Chinese so I decided to ignore it since we were just passing by.
Later, we were at the fruit stand and the ladies come around looking to buy fruit. I'm standing in front of whatever they were trying to look at and any time they'd try to move around me I'd shift subtly so they couldn't. I hear one of them start huffing about how she can't get by, and in Chinese I respond with "I'd move but as a fat American it'd do no good." The ladies just looked at me then started laughing and were like "Ooh, the fat American has good Chinese!"