Did you know that 'Yes' and 'No' can mean the opposite thing, depending on what language you speak?

Today one of my students mentioned today that she managed to totally confound her neighbour when he came round and said ‘You didn’t receive a parcel for me today, did you?’, and she replied, ‘Yes’, meaning ‘Yes, your statement is correct, I didn’t receive a parcel today’.

He looked at her and said, ‘Well, now I’m completely confused! Do you have my parcel or not?’

Now imagine working in an English-speaking office, not realising that different languages and cultures approach these types of ‘negative’ questions in completely opposite ways.

I did a survey with my students and other teachers I connect with in Preply, a platform I also teach, and the reply you’ll get very much depends on where the person you’re asking comes from. Most Romance languages (e.g. French, Italian) follow the same approach as English, but it’s quite the opposite with other languages.

Things are a lot less clear cut in Chinese—where both could be used, but you’d have to read the person’s expression and intonation to understand if the parcel had arrived or not.

However, even in Spanish it’s possible to get confused..

‘No, sí lo recibí’ ('No, I got it')

‘No, no lo recibí’ ('No, I didn't get it')

‘Sí, no lo recibí’ ('That's right, I didn't get it')

‘Sí, lo recibí’ ('Yes, I got it')... No…. Are you confused yet? Exactly.

I asked students and teachers working on Preply what reply you could expect, in different languages, to the question, ‘Didn’t you receive my parcel?’

‘YES’ meaning ‘Yes, your statement is correct’‘NO’, meaning ‘No, I didn’t receive your parcel’
IndonesianArabic (but see below)

How different languages avoid ambiguity

The Germans are one step ahead of course, they’ve thought of this already, and have a unique word, ‘doch’, instead of ‘yes’, for these negative questions, to clear up any misunderstandings:

Hast du mein Paket bekommen? (Did you get my parcel?)

Hast du mein Paket nicht bekommen? (Didn’t you get my parcel?)
‘Doch’ (meaning ‘Yes, I did.’)
‘Nein’ (meaning ‘No, I didn’t.’)

In formal Arabic, two different words are used to negate or affirm the sentence, but they both translate into ‘yes’ in English.

The two words are ‘Naam’ and ‘Bala’
‘Naam’ (‘Yes, I didn’t get your parcel.’)
‘Bala’ (‘Yes, I did get your parcel.’)

Informal Arabic depends on the person you’re talking to, but they would usually say ‘No’ meaning they didn’t receive the parcel.

Using short form answers in English can help

English speakers aren’t great fans of the blunt ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ anyway, and you’ll almost always hear a little extra, ‘Yes, I have’, ‘Yes, I do’, ‘No I’m not’, ‘No, I haven’t’, to soften the hard reply. They say these short answers so fast, you could be excused for thinking they’re not important—but actually they’re vital for clarifying meaning and removing ambiguity. And in English, there are so many more forms of these than in other languages (usually), so most students need practice to get into the habit of using these.

Not like the French who would reply with just ‘No’ or say a full sentence to explain: ‘Non’ or ‘Non je ne l’ai pas reçu.’

A parcel’s not so important perhaps, when considering the impact of being misunderstood, but change that situation to your company waiting on a million dollar contract back from a customer, and the ambiguity becomes much more critical!

As you can see from this, it’s really important to be able to speak English clearly, and also be aware of how other languages might misunderstand you, especially if you work for a multinational company across many countries, cultures, and languages.

If you’re interested in careers counselling, or English language classes for work or studying, check out my Services page or get in touch with me to find out more.