Foreign languages can be used as a secret code, but it’s not always a good secret code


Some years ago, I went out to dinner with a group of friends to a Chinese restaurant, and when the check was delivered to the table, one of my friends looked at it and handed it to me. "It appears to be written in some sort of secret code."

It was written in Chinese.

I pointed out that they probably chose the worst possible code in the world, seeing as they chose something known to over a billion people.

Using a foreign language as a secret code is common when walking around out in public. You can say whatever you want about the people around you, and you can have a certain degree of confidence that your secret code will not be broken if you choose a language sufficiently obscure relative to the situation.

A colleague of mine told me that in his college days, he went on a trip to Germany with a few friends, one of whom spoke German. (I'm led to believe that knowing German comes in handy in Germany.) They boarded a train and introduced themselves to a pair of German students who shared the cabin with them. The German students spoke English, so there was some opportunity for small talk, but eventually the conversation petered out and the two groups conversed among themselves.

The German students started talking to each other about their cabinmates, saying things that were not entirely complimentary. The German-speaking member of the other group leaned over to another member of his group and announced in a stage whisper, "They think we don't understand German."

The German students promptly shut up.

Comments (41)
  1. steven says:

    I remember speaking Dutch with my (also Dutch) friends on the tube in London. We were quite surprised that the people around us laughed at certain times during our conversation. When we got off, one of those (quite British) people said, in heavily accented Dutch, "thanks for the company".

    You never can tell in advance just who understands your spoken language. I was quite relieved we never said anything offensive about those people. Since then I’ve assumed the policy of always making sure to be polite even when I think the person I’m referring to wouldn’t understand it. They just might…

  2. Nathan_works says:

    In a Paris restaurant, seated family style (long tables, so you’ll probably have strangers to one or both sides), our group was seated next to two Japanese students. The students had finished their meal as we made our order. The Mrs (non-Japanese, studied it as her foreign language in HS and college) surprised the students by asking if they enjoyed their meal, in Japanese.. Surprised/flustered them so much, they forgot their rucksack.. (They later retrieved it)

  3. Brian says:

    It would have been even funnier if he said it in German.

  4. mvadu says:

    In Las Vegas airport, we saw an Indian couple busy in PDA(Public Display of affection). I commented about them to my wife in Kannada (a south Indian language) assuming it must be a hard do break code, but my wife stopped me from completing my sentence saying "You never know which part of the India they are from".

    I thanked her when we saw them speaking to each other in Kannada when they passed by us just 10 minutes later.

  5. Medinoc says:

    That’s what we call a Bilingual Backfire.

  6. rs says:

    Being Chinese myself, I can say that many of those checks are actually written in a Chinese code that’s unintelligible to non-restaurant workers (this code is faster to write). As an English example, it’s like writing a large pizza with pineapple and ham as "LPzPaH". Yes, it’s Chinese, but it’s just very hard to figure out.

  7. BA says:

    Nailed it.

    My incredibly poor German skills save the day once again.

    http://translate.google.com/translate_t#de|en|sie%20denken%20wir%20sind%20nicht%20deutsche%20verstehen

  8. gedoe says:

    In The Netherlands its being used in a commercial now :)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aXUmxIqqn0Y

  9. Michael says:

    I have always wanted to do this.

  10. mare says:

    Now, combine that obscure language with an obscure dialect ;)

    But the fun part starts after the return home – I always need a few days to get used to the fact that people on the bus/train/in the street understand me again.

  11. JC says:

    Every week, my buddy and I go to the same Chinese resturant for lunch. I never told the waitress that I actually finished high school in Hong Kong, so in theory, my Chinese is likely better than hers. They actually think I am Korean, even though I heard and understood everything they said, including what they said about the tips we put down every week.

  12. Clovis says:

    LPzPaH: Reads like a typedef for a Windows API.

  13. Shawn says:

    Today, I flew from New York to San Fransisco with my wife. We were seated apart and were texting each other about our seatmates in Spanish. I told her the ass of the woman next to me was oozing under the armrest and making my leg sweat. The oozer told me that lots of fat asses can read Spanish. 6 hours to SF. FML

    http://www.fmylife.com/miscellaneous/2177396

  14. Kazi says:

    Haha, there is no risk if you speak Hungarian :-).

  15. Tom says:

    Short-order cooks in America also use a shorthand vocabulary.  See: Head First Design Patterns, p. 26.

  16. Barry Leiba says:

    Kazi: Well, remember this, too: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2YYM209GJoE

    On the general point, a friend and I were in a cab in New York City last year, and my friend was taking out money to pay the driver.  Her habit is to talk about money in French, to be less obvious about it, so she asked me, in French, if I had two singles to supplement the fiver she’d taken out.

    When we left the cab, I asked her why she thought that French would be a good language to use as a secret from a north-African cabbie.

  17. Andre N says:

    That story reminds me of another that happened to me…

    When I was younger (around 15 years old or so) I went with an organized youth group on a trip around Europe. One of the stops was in Switzerland, where me and some friends entered a place that displayed and sold beautiful cakes, chocolates, and other goodies of that sort.

    The employee, a young girl, had been following us for some time. We really wanted to buy something, but the shop was so chic that everything was way out of our price range. We were commenting among us (in Portuguese, of course) how bad it must look for us to look at everything and then buy nothing, especially when we had been at the store for quite a while.

    As soon as we say that, the employee comes to us and asks "So what will it be?"… in Portuguese. Turns out she was an immigrant :)

  18. DaveR says:

    My friend speaks English.  His wife and his in-laws speak Croatian and English.  Their daughter speaks Croatian and English.  He and his family were at the in-laws.  

    Most people were talking in Croatian, when all of a sudden my friend’s daughter exclaims "Daddy is NOT stupid!".  At this point, the father-in-law turns bright red.

    D’oh!

  19. configurator says:

    I was at a dinner at my friends’ house in Israel. His uncle was there – he speaks German, French, Italian, Spanish and English. Me and my friend speak Hebrew and English. His grandmother was there, who speaks Hebrew and German. His father and brother speak German, English and Hebrew; his mother speaks German, French, English and Hebrew. The sister speaks Spanish, English and Hebrew.

    This sounds to me like a riddle – how many languages must we speak so everyone understands, but in fact we spoke every one of these languages, and nobody understood anything during the meal. It was definitely… Interesting.

  20. Paul says:

    I was travelling in Japan, and was in a group with a German guy. He would walk along and say things out loud in German when he saw cute Japanese girls – I asked him what he was saying and he smirked and said "I’m saying really dirty things about them, they don’t speak German so they’ll never know".

    Well he was right behind this one Japanese girl and said something, and she turned around and snapped something in German right back at him. I laughed and said "Did she speak German?" and he said "yes her German is very good". The look on his face was priceless.

  21. Worf says:

    Time to brush up on my tlhIngan Hol (Klingon). It was how I got the nickname that is now my nom de plume online (aka handle – back when we called them handles).

  22. Drak says:

    I always get confused after short trips to the UK. When I get back to the Netherlands and they start speaking Dutch over the PA system it always takes me a few seconds to switch back and actually understand what they are saying.

    @gedoe: remember the older advertisement with the parents and children in the car when a particular English song comes on the radio and the parents happily sing along while the kids smirk in the back?

  23. Bart says:

    Had the same thing in Hong Kong. I had taken the last seat on busy subwaytrain and a young couple (both Asian) conversed in Dutch (my native language) how she would have like to sit there because she was so tired. When I stood up and replied to them in Dutch they were really surprised. Turned out they both studied in Belgium, picked up Dutch there and used it as their private code language. What’s the odds of meeting a Dutch speaking person in HongKong, right? But even they got busted!

  24. Dinev says:

    @configurator: I’ve seen a similar situation, everyone feels really awkward. 7 people: 4 speak English, 2 speak Norwegian, 3 speak German, 2 speak Russian, 5 speak Bulgarian. In the end, they switch languages every now and then, and everyone takes turns to be a translator.

  25. peterchen says:

    Also has to be mentioned:

    http://xkcd.com/257/

  26. Darkstar says:

    Reminds me of a story that happened to a friend of mine, here in Germany.

    He happens to speak Thai quite fluently, having lived and worked there for several years. So one day he walks into a post office and in the queue in front of him, there are these two thai girls who were vividly talking about their boyfriends and their… umm… sexual habits.

    It must have been quite funny, because when he burst out with laughter they turned all red and quickly left the scene.

    I guess it’s pretty rare to find someone who speaks Thai fluently here in Germany, they were so used to speaking about private things in their mother tongue.

    -Darkstar

  27. memsom says:

    Am Irish friend once told me about a foreign exchange she went on to Germany. The Irish class were quite new to German, as I remember it, or at least not fluent. The German exchange people would attempt to exclude them by talking in German very quickly. So the Irish, being good sports, started talking to each other in Irish! (US people might call it Gaelic, but Gaelic is what they speak in Scotland and it is related to, but not the same as Irish.) That really ticked the Germans off as they had absolutely no idea what language the Irish were speaking, let alone what they were actually saying. I guess the Germans assumed they only spoke English!

    Another Celtic story. A work mate told me once how he was sitting in a pub in Wales with his cousin. He has a strong Northern English accent and apparently his cousin didn’t have a strong accent. There were some people on a near by table and they started to speak loudly in Welsh about my work mate and his cousin – really being quite insulting. It got too much for my friends cousin and he stood up and shouted a tirade of obscenities at them in fluent Welsh! They quickly left the pub then, tail between their legs!

    I was once on a Swedish exchange programme and my Swedish partner and I went to London on a train. She sat quietly most of the trip whilst two girls sat opposite us prattling away in some language. When we got to London she told me they’d been speaking in Swedish and had had quite a party with some English sailors over the previous few nights! (I had wondered why she was so quiet on the train :-)

  28. Morten says:

    @Dinev: as long as they don’t do this:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysg_FoWOue8

  29. hmm says:

    There must be an archetype of these stories, but I can’t they are. There’s a version of "the speaking x among y speakers and getting caught" in Mark Twain (A Tramp Abroad); Greek lettering for privacy crops up in Roderick Random, and in real life in the Somers mutiny case. The 18th and 19th centuries seem awfully recent, though.

  30. Aaargh! says:

    Ligt het aan mij of is een buitenproportioneel aantal lezers hier nederlands ?

    /Secret message

  31. manicmarc says:

    When speaking a non-native language in a public place, you can also turn the volume way up as the usual need for privacy is gone, as no one else understand you :)

  32. Code Talker says:

    It worked in World War II when the U.S. Marines used Navajo to transmitt messages.  See

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Code_talker

  33. BY says:

    I was at this conference and I happened to walk by Raymond Chen and I said "Raymond Chen 是个大傻瓜", and to my surprise, he gave me a dirty look.

  34. BY says:

    This is too funny. I saw the comments about Navajo code talkers, and I followed the link to read about it. Then I got curious what Navajo sounds like, so I went to youtube.com and searched for Navajo. And what did I come across ? Arnold Schwarzenegger speaking Navajo !

     http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DM2lFawS120

    I couldn’t stop laughing. The wonders of the internet.

  35. Mihai says:

    Another problem: some of the words you use in language A might have some really bad meaning in language B.

    For instance I avoid speaking Romanian in public because the first person singular of "to do" (use quite often) sounds exact like "f**k", black sounds like "the n word" and some other problems like this.

  36. t_sch says:

    It’s very interesting when you go shopping in Benh Thanh market in Saigon. You ask in english for a price and then the sellers talk to each other about how much more they can get out of you. Offering the usual price in Vietnamese can’t get you a bargain but it’s funny…

    Once in a hotel in Hoi An they always shut off the aircon when we left hotel although we told them we wanted a cool room when we return. At the reception they chatted about us and thought we couldn’t understand but then my wife asked our request in Vietnamese and suddenly it worked…

  37. abadidea says:

    Aaargh!: I can’t /speak/ Dutch too well, but I can indeed read it just fine 8)

  38. Q says:

    Navajo and Choctaw were used as effective secret codes in WWII:

    http://www.johnshepler.com/articles/codetalkers.html

  39. Andrew says:

    Kazi: "Haha, there is no risk if you speak Hungarian"

    Tévedés. Tapasztalatból beszélek. :)

  40. LongTimeListener says:

    I work for a German car company.  We had visitors over, and there were two of us English guys in the room.  Over a mid-meeting coffee, the German guys started talking to each other.  I asked my German-speaking colleague what they were saying.

    "They’re insulting my cardigan," she said in a loud voice.

    The guys were unfailingly polite for the rest of the meeting.

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