There is something of a rule in basic fiction. If a conversation between characters A and B about person C and a simultaneously held conversation between either A or B with C comprises two different languages, the likelihood of person C knowing the language of persons A and B is directly proportional to the amount of trash Persons A and B talks about person C, and vice versa.
When two characters talk about someone else who is present in a language the third party supposedly doesn't speak, and the third party turns out to speak that language just fine, it's a Bilingual Backfire.
Related to Bilingual Bonus and (sometimes) Obfuscating Stupidity. A Completely Unnecessary Translator may be employed by the Genre Savvy to take advantage of this. Multilingual readers will realize that this is Truth in Television. See also Right Behind Me, for when the speaker wrongly depends on distance rather than dialect to leave the target of their remarks in ignorance.
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An ad for... something had two women in a café discussing a rather good-looking man at their table in Irish. Turned out he also spoke the language.
There are multiple very similar commercials about people, frequently women, unexpectedly knowing Morse code:
There was a Swedish Army commercial, shown in Britain on Tarrant on TV, in which two Army recruits sit on a park bench and tap out sexist remarks about a passing girl in Morse code. Guess what — she taps out a snappy comeback on a nearby lamp post. Yes, there are women in the Army too.
In a similar commercial, two women sit on a park bench and two male Army recruits are passing by. The insulting thing they tapped out on the bench in Morse code was that one of the guys was going to take one of the women and the other guy was going to take "the spare". The two women then tapped out something to the effect of "I don't think so" and "Get lost", and they walked away as the sound of gunfire played on the soundtrack. Whoops, turns out the two women (quite feminine in their soft pastels and pleated skirts) were in the Army too! (It also aired on an edition of Carrot's Commercial Breakdown.)
This may be the famous promo for the British Army, the one which describes "learning things others don't know."
A similar Snapple juice ad featured two students trying to communicate by snapping the vacuum seals on their bottle caps, until the teacher interrupts them with a message of her own.
Another Morse Code gag shows up in a beer commercial from the early 90s: a man uses an LED light to signal to a woman in a bar that he finds her very attractive. Unfortunately, between her and him is a crusty old sailor who does not take kindly to being hit on...
There is a Dutch commercial wherein a family enters an Italian restaurant, and the waiters talk about them quite rudely. Cue the father turning around towards them and saying "Hey, pastaclown, if you're done talking to your girlfriends, perhaps you could spare some time for us?" in fluent Italian.
Inverted in an ad for Meteor that had an Irish guy try to chat up a girl in Spain by getting his sister to feed him pick up lines in (bad) Spanish, "I admire your dentistry" and "Are you homeless". Then it turns out the girl is actually English, doesn't understand Spanish and finds the language sexy.
A 2012 ad for Honda is set in a dealership. The customers start speaking subtitled Chinese (probably so the salesman won't know how much they want the car). They switch to English to tell him they'll take it. He tells them in Chinese to follow him and they'll start the paperwork.
Hisako (in untranslated Japanese): It's shameful that a killer gorilla passes as a teacher here. Logan: Aren't you shaming your ancestors with your constant complaining?
Wolverine's fluency in Japanese was first revealed in a similar case. The team was stranded in Japan, there was some huge disaster going on, and there was a newspaper left in there telling precisely the bad things going on. Everybody was surprised that Wolverine (who was still a bag of surprises) understood Japanese. "You Didn't Ask, Bub".
In X-Men/Alpha Flight #1, Northstar, who's Québecois, tells Rogue to leave him alone in French. She at first replies in English, then adds, in French: "By the way, sugar, we speak French ourselves in the Mississippi Bayou Country. Can't crowd me out that way." They develop something of an Odd Friendship after that.
There have been at least two other times where Northstar's teammates caught him mouthing off in French.
Lula (in German): "I bet that when you aren't serving dishes, you like to wear women's clothing."
French waiter: "No, actually I study German at the Sorbonne."
In a Judge Dredd story where McGruder negotiates closer ties with Traktorfaktori, Traktorfaktori's attendant Judges make several comments on Hershey's and Dredd's backsides in Russian. Hershey and Dredd respond angrily, in perfect Russian.
In Maus, this happens on a date between Anja and Vladek; Anja is speaking to a mutual friend in English about what she thinks of Vladek, not knowing that he also speaks English. This is a positive example, though, since she likes him.
In a rare, touching example, in X-23, Laura's martial arts tutor spends their lessons talking to her like a normal human being when not speaking English, in direct contrast to his superior's wishes. After this goes on for some time, his superior demonstrates he also knows the language the instructor is using and forces Laura to kill him.
In Astérix and the Goths, a Gothic raiding party has captured Getafix and taken him to their Kuningaz, Metric. Metric tells his interpreter, Rhetoric, that "if he refuses [to show his magic], he will be executed, and you with him." When Getafix refuses, Rhetoric says that Getafix will show it when the time is right. Rhetoric then flees before the deception is unmasked, only to run into Astérix and Obélix, who he ends up turning in to Metric. Then, Getafix still says no, but Rhetoric says yes again. Then...
Getafix: [In Gothic] O Gothic Chief, your interpreter is deceiving you! I never had any intention of showing you my magic. Metric: [is in too great a rage to speak] Rhetoric: (terrified)He speaks Gothic. [sic] He speaks Gothic.
In Batman: Bane of the Demon, Ra's Al-Ghul will converse with Talia in various languages such as Urdu and Farsi when in front of Bane. As it turns out, Bane is indeed smart enough to understand what they're saying.
In Superman & Batman: Generations, BJ and Mei-Lei had told their son Clark that they met in Vietnam during the war. In actuality, BJ is Clark's stepfather. They speak Vietnamese in front of Clark for years without teaching him. Only when BJ wants to pass on the mantel of Batman does Clark reveal that he learned Vietnamese from a classmate and knows that he's adopted. He doesn't feel right becoming Batman (not being a true Wayne) and chooses to become 'Knightwing' instead.
In SymbiosisBulbasaur insults Ash, Misty and Brock in front of them since he's a Pokemon and he thinks they can't understand him. He constantly accuses them of being spies or idiots until Ash gives him a piece of his mind.
In Zany To The Max, Jakko Zarner explains plans to his siblings, Takko and Zot, in Finnish, not knowing that Sikko understands Finnish as well (he thinks she only understands English and Japanese, Sikko being an "Animeniesque"-looking character), and also not knowing that she's even listening in.
In Shatterheart when Mokona gets too far of range for Syaoran and Kurogane to speak to each other, Syaoran uses to this opportunity to tell Kurogane that he has a very nice voice and finds his native language pretty. At first, it seems that Kurogane did understand him, but turns out he didn't. Syaoran lampshaded that would be contrived for Mokona to go back in range just as he says something embarrassing.
Films — Live-Action
In Lifeboat, Willi, the U-boat captain stuck on a lifeboat with a bunch of Americans, pretends he doesn't speak English—until a storm comes and he starts barking orders in perfect English.
In a deleted scene of the Indian film Ra.One. The story starts out in London, where you wouldn't expect people to know Hindi. Unfortunately for Prateek, the school bully he was insulting in Hindi also knows a bit of it.
Prateek (in Hindi): If we do everything, what will this fat buffalo do?
Bully (also in Hindi): I know Hindi. A bit.
Prateek (in English): Oh crap.
There's that scene in Braveheart where William Wallace catches Longshanks' advisor insulting him to Princess Isabelle in Latin and French:
Advisor:(to Princess) Sanguinarius homo indomitus est, et se me dite cum mendacia. [He is a bloody murdering savage. And he's telling lies] Wallace: Ego nunquam pronunciari mendacium! Sed ego sum homo indomitus. [I never lie. But I am a savage] Wallace:(to Princess) Ou en français, si vous préférez? [Or in French if you prefer?]
Unfortunately, the Latin is poorly phrased (and more like bad Humanist Latin than bad Medieval Latin). And since Wallace died in 1305, they should've been speaking Old French (which pronounces all its final consonants, among other differences).
Jackie Chan pretends not to understand English. Allegedly inspired by the Real Life first meeting between Chan and Tucker.
And in the second movie, Carter tries to tell a Chinese taxi driver to follow Ricky Tan's car, but the driver keeps responding in Chinese. Frustrated, Carter gives him some money and asks, "You understand that?" The driver looks at the money and says, in English, "Now you're speaking my language."
The third movie also exemplifies this trope when Carter first flirts with Genevieve.
In The Alzheimer's Case: Vincke and Verstuyft, using Dutch, agree that main character Leddo (who they think only understands French) looks like "he's spent two years lying face-down on the rail tracks." Leddo later bids them farewell with a deadpan: "I'm going to spend two more years lying face-down on the rail tracks."
Mako Mori:(to her boss, in Japanese) He is not what I expected.
Raleigh Becket: Better or worse?
In George of the Jungle, one of the guides makes it very clear that the other guides only speak Swahili. Until it eventually comes to light that they're all completely fluent in English.
Variation: in The 13th Warrior, the Norsemen constantly talk about Ahmed in his presence, because he doesn't know their language. This trope comes into play when he becomes fluent merely from observing them, just in time to give a witty response after they've insulted his mother. On the other hand, Ahmed is a scholar who already knows at least four languages, and it's implied he had a month or two of observing in which to learn, gradually picking up a word here and a phrase there. Early on, he communicates with a Norseman using Latin.
In My Fellow Americans, the two main characters run into some Mexicans. One strikes up a conversation, insulting the other man, but after the Mexicans leave the scene the other comes back with: "By the way, yo hablo español muy bien. Dickhead."
The Basterds' and Frau von Hammersmark's plan of infiltrating the theatre involved them speaking Italian as the Germans do not know the accents (and they wouldn't have to repeat the bar incident), but one of the people they meet is Hans Landa, who knows Italian and is pretty much able to confirm his suspicions about them by their atrocious accents.
Earlier in the film, Landa was cautious about this trope but finds that he didn't need to be concerned because the family under the floor didn't react to any of the English he and Pierre La Padite spoke.
Done by Cynthia Rothrock's character in the Hong Kong movie Righting Wrongs, when she is insulted by hoodlums and told it's a compliment; one of the hoodlums tries to think of an insult and she gives a suggestion, revealing she speaks Chinese, then beats them up.
Hungarian movie Valami Amerika ("A kind of America") revolves around a Hungarian director of TV commercials and video clips, who's trying to convince an American producer of his skills at directing in order to get funding for the movie he's written. Of course, the producer is actually of Hungarian birth, which is revealed at the very start of the movie to the audience, but only much later to the characters.
Used as a plot point in the Spanish-language film Ladron que Roba a Ladron ("Thief who Steals from a Thief"). One of the titular thieves pretends not to speak English to an American security guard, who snaps at him "You're in America, speak English." The thief then hears them talking about the security layout of the building, and as he leaves, shoots over his shoulder "Excuse me, senor? You're in America. Speak Spanish."
Taking Lives has one as well. Two of the characters consistently talk in another language, often insulting Angelina's character in some manner. If one pays attention, they can see her reacting early on. Eventually she responds in the same language, leading to a reaction that you may or may not consider "classic" for this particular trope.
In Bon Cop, Bad Cop, Bouchard casually abuses Ward in French... until during a meeting with their respective supervisors, Ward reveals that he speaks excellent French and even lived in Paris for a while.
David Bouchard:(surprised) Tu parles français? [You speak French?] Martin Ward: Non, je ne parle pas français. Je me suis fait installer un gadget au cerveau and I see subtitles under people when they speak. [No, I don't speak French. I had a gadget installed in my brain et je vois des sous-titres sous les gens quand ils parlent.]
My Life In Ruins has this in the embarrassing direction, as the heroine stands complaining about her life in English while standing in line with a group of Greeks, including her bus driver:
... and I haven't had sex in forever...
Forever is a very long time.
She then asks in general how many there understood English, only to have half the crowd raise their hands.
In the original version of The Taking of Pelham 123 Walter Matthau is showing a group of Japanese businessmen (representing the Tokyo Metro) around the New York subway command centre. Throughout, he addresses them in various insulting ways, such as: "Come this way, monkeys!" At the end of the tour, they thank him - in fluent English.
Invoked and parodied the 90's comedy-parody Fatal Instinct: Lana and her lover meet in a park to plan a murder. Since there's an old black guy sitting on the next bench, they carry out their conversation in Yiddish. When the old man offers some advice, Lana gawps at him and asks "You speak Yiddish?!" He replies "No, but I can read the subtitles."
Averted in the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral, when Carrie and Charles encounter his deaf brother while out shopping. The two men proceed to converse in sign language, during which Charles complains about Carrie's impending wedding and makes nasty comments about her fiance (he's in love with her) while his brother "comments" on her "beautiful breasts", all the while telling Carrie that they're offering compliments and congratulations. One watches the scene expecting that any minute now, it will be revealed that Carrie knows sign language herself and has understood everything—but it never happens. (It would have been really surprising if she had, as the sign language used in the US isn't related at all to the one used in the UK.)
George Clooney's character introduces Dr Kelly to his Russian contact, who says to Clooney in his own language, "A beautiful woman with a PHD. You're way out of your league." She butts in to reply in Russian, "You have no idea."
Clooney hands Kidman a list of names of Russian military personnel -in Russian. On her remark that the list is useless, Clooney says that the list is in Russian, only to be told by Kidman that the list is missing ranks and other details, in fluent Russian.
In The Love Bug, Tennessee speaks to Mr. Wu in Chinese (or an approximation of it), and Jim asks Tennessee to ask Mr. Wu if he would let him drive Herbie in the El Dorado race, with the condition that Mr. Wu will keep the winnings. This prompts Mr. Wu to say, in English, "Now you speak my language!".
In What's Cooking, a film about four families on one street corner at thanksgiving, the Hispanic family are introduced to the Vietnamese boyfriend of the daughter. While fetching down a high up dish in the kitchen, all the female relatives compliment his 'looks', and are very embarrassed when he turns out to speak perfect Spanish.
In Simply Irresistable, Sarah Michelle Gellar plays a chef who runs a small restaurant in New York. She's given a chance to step in and replace a celebrity chef at a brand new, big money restaurant. The celebrity chef's staff pretty much hold her in contempt. The sous chef, who probably expected as the "second in command" of the restaurant to step into the top spot when the celebrity left, says loudly and in French, "The truffles are probably wasted on her!" Later in the film, this trope is brought into play as Gellar's character issues her orders for the night and begins with, "You... the one who thinks I don't know how to speak French... you're in charge of the truffles. That way I won't waste them."
In Maid In Manhattan, Christopher Marshall and Marissa are gossiped about by two elderly Frenchwomen while sharing the elevator with them. He then pulls this trope by addressing them in French, much to their dismay—they call him a "pig", even though he has politely invited them to join them for a walk..
In Au revoir les enfants, set in Occupied France, Julien and Jean become lost in the woods at night, until they are rescued and returned to their boarding school by a group of German soldiers. When they arrive, one of the other pupils exclaims, "They've been arrested by the Boches!", using a French slur for Germans, to which one of the soldiers replies in deadpan French, "Can the Boches have their blanket back?"
In the third Riddick movie, Santana tries to insult Dahl in Spanish. She immediately beats his face in when she hears it.
A version in The Namesake. When a character talks to her French friend in. . .French, it triggers her mother-in-law's (correct) suspicions that there's more to the relationship.
The Monuments Men: The Allies capture a group of Germans who were transporting stolen art to Germany. The German-American refugee soldier Epstein quietly listens on as the Germans' captain and his XO (who switched uniforms before being captured) talk about where they took it. Then Epstein walks up, and in fluent German promises the captain that he'll give Hitler his regards when they take Berlin.
In Lords of the Bow, Chen Yi provides transport to Khasar, Temuge, and Ho Sa. Chen Yi puts up a pretense of only speaking Chinese, but when they get to his house and the travellers begin discussing how to deal with him, he decides to reveal that he also speaks decent Mongolian.
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris has a story about this. Sedaris is an American expat living in France, and while he's on the Paris subway an American tourist starts talking about him to his (the tourist's) girlfriend, saying that he smells bad and telling her that he is a pickpocket. At one point he tells his girlfriend that the man Sedaris was with was his partner for theft; the man is Sedaris's boyfriend. Sedaris never confronts them - he just spreads the story worldwide.
In Mary Stewart's The Merlin Trilogy, the title character is captured by some bandits who are discussing in their language what to do with him, thinking he doesn't understand. They'd been trying to start a fire and having no luck, because it'd been raining all day and the wood was soaked. When Merlin finally let them know he spoke their language, all he said was, "Stand away from the fire." Then he showed them who he was and what he could do to them by igniting a massive fire with a glance.
The Bulgarian Minister of Magic in Harry Potter does this just to humiliate Fudge. Apparently Fudge's sign language was funny.
Fudge: Wait, you can speak English?! I've been trying to mime things all day!
In Jingo Unseen University awarded visiting Klatchian Prince Kufurah a "Doctorum Adamus Cum Flabello Dulci", Doctor of Sweet Fanny Adams. It's made clear that the visitors are quite as learned in Latatian as the Ankhian scholars.
Later in the book: The Klatchians are smarter. When the Prince meets with Lord Rust he first introduces a local proverb in Klatchian, which actually is just "Can you understand me?" When Rust's translator can't figure it out (Rust had chosen an interpreter who could read Klatchian fluently, but couldn't speak it), he starts with the insults, again pretending they are proverbs. "As we say in Klatch, I can't believe this man"."
Likewise, in Unseen Academicals, a dwarf shopkeeper pretends not to speak Morporkian and amuses himself by insulting his customers in Dwarfish. At least, until Nutt calls him out on this behavior in letter-perfect Dwarfish.
And, in "The Fifth Elephant", Vimes notices an Uberwaldean guard who claims not to speak Morporkian watching him and realizes that he must understand Morporkian after all. Just to double-check, he tells his interpreter to tell the soldier that he has a fly on his nose, and sees his hand start to move toward his nose before he catches himself.
In Making Money, Vetinari tells Moist "Pas devant le gendarme" and Detritus says helpfully, "Dat mean no talkin' in front of me." Unusual, because (as a troll in a temperate climate) Detritus is generally considered a bit slow. That said, it's implied (or out and out stated) several places that he's Obfuscating Stupidity and is generally much more clever than he lets on. (In this case, it's likely more that Detritus is "street smart" and knows Vetinari than that he actually understands "Genuan.")
In his autobiographical novel, My Happy Days in Hell, György Faludy tells a story about two retired Latin teachers, who publicly talked to each other in Latin, criticizing the totalitarian dictatorship of 1950s Hungary. However, a professor of Classical Philology heard them, and informed the authorities.
In Eric Ambler's novel The Light of Day, the Anti-Hero gets captured by the Turkish State Sec and his interview is being conducted in French, a language both he and the officer speak. At one point, he starts ranting in English, and the officer reveals he's fluent in that language as well.
Played with in The Shadow pulp novel "The Golden Pagoda". At one point, the Chinese crimelord Li Hoang personally executes the guard who not only failed to keep Harry Vincent prisoner, but begged for mercy. He wasn't begging for mercy, he was reporting events accurately and almost screwed up The Shadow's plan. "Li Hoang" was an imposter, who didn't speak a word of Chinese. The Shadow does, knew exactly what the guard was saying, and realized what the real situation was.
Averted in The Death of the Vazir Mukhtar, when the polyglot protagonist turns out to not know Tatar, allowing the two tatars to mock him behind his back in the Tbilisi bathhouse.
In the Circle of Magic quartet by Tamora Pierce, when the four main characters first meet at Discipline Cottage, Briar rudely asks why Daja, a Trader, is wearing red for mourning. After Daja explains, she looks over at Sandry, who also speaks the Trader language, and says in that language, "And he is a kaq" (a very rude word for a non-Trader.) Briar immediately says in Trader-talk, "I haven't spent my life with my fingers in my ears. And I'm not stupid."
In Rudyard Kipling's Kim, many Indians amuse themselves by acting subservient to the British while hurling terrible insults at them in Hindi. At one point a street-sweeper does this to Kim, who is dressed as in European dress, which turns out a mistake. In a later chapter, when Kim speaks disparagingly in Hindi about a couple of Europeans in their presence to the lama, the lama gently chides him that it is unworthy to take advantage of other people's ignorance in that way.
A sci-fi example occurs towards the end of Barry Longyear's Enemy Mine when the human hero is traveling to the Drac homeworld and fluently and profanely responds to a fellow-traveler Drac's insults; the Drac's companions have to physically restrain him.
In the opening section of The Vor Game Miles Vorkosigan never lets on to a bunch of Greek speaking soldiers who have been insulting him that he understands every word they're saying.
In the first Magic Kingdom of Landover novel, Magic Kingdom for Sale— SOLD!, Ben is negotiating with the leader of a tribe of dangerous and brutal crag trolls, using his court wizard Questor Thews as a translator. When negotiations go badly, he's forced to threaten to summon the king's champion, the Paladin, to defend his party. When Questor voices doubt about this, Ben angrily insists that a bluff is their only chance to escape at this stage- and Questor notices that although the troll leader doesn't speak Landoverian, he apparently understands it. And then things get bad.
In The Company Novels, at one point Mendoza and her fellow go to Venice, where they make whoopee in a canal boat. The gondolier comments loudly on the action to his fellow gondoliers, assuming the pair don't speak his language. After they're done, Mendoza tells him in his own language exactly what he can do with his pole. And doesn't tip.
In Malevil, temperamental old woman, La Menou, is not pleased that another old woman, La Falvine, survived World War III and will be living with them. She proceeds to rant at Emmanuel for bringing La Falvine home; accusing her of being too old to work, gluttony because she's fat, and an incestuous relationship with her Evil Poacher son, all in their regional patois so that the "foreign" woman won't understand. La Falvine bursts into tears, argues back in patois, revealing she's a local and a distant cousin.
In A Desert Called Peace, when Carrera is drowning his sorrows over the wife and children killed in a terrorist attack, he demonstrates to a woman insulting him in Spanish that he, too, speaks the language, in spite of a conversation with the woman's friend being in English.
In one of the Perry Mason novels, Perry is being arrested. He advises Della, in legal terminology, to track down a particular witness. When she does, she finds a note saying "Just because a police officer has a cauliflower ear, doesn't mean he didn't take debate in high school."
Julius Caesar and Mhorbaine both do it to each other in Emperor: The Field of Swords. Mhorbaine initially speaks only in Gaulish, preferring not to let Caesar know he understands what the Romans are saying in Latin. For his part, Mhorbaine is unaware that Caesar's Spanish scribe, Adan, happens to know Gaulish, which means Caesar is able to find out the Gauls are talking about when they think they're in private.
Played with in Shogun. Blackthorne and Mariko speak to each other in Latin when they don't want to be understood by Japanese or Portuguese speakers. Unfortunately, some enemy samurai are Catholic, and they also speak Latin. Blackthorne figures out who was eavesdropping by reciting a prayer and waiting for an "Amen".
In Ngaio Marsh's novel Death of a Peer, during a murder investigation, the upper-class Lamprey family decide to converse amongst themselves in French while deciding on the not-exactly-true story they're going to tell the police, blithely assuming that the humble constable left to watch over them won't be able to understand a word. Unfortunately for them, the constable in question lived in France until he was 15 years old, and keeps perfect notes of everything they say.
This happens at King Fulrach's formal dinner in the first book of the Belgariad. Silk and Garion insult the Earl of Seline in the Drasnian sign language, in which the Earl turns out to be fluent. Silk was aware of this, however, and the Earl understood that Silk was just having a laugh at Garion's expense.
In Juliet Marillier's Daughter of the Forest, the main character is Irish but understands English perfectly well. She fluently speaks both languages, except that for most of the book she's not allowed to speak. Three English men pick her up and take her to England from Ireland. She is quite seasick on the way there, and two of the men, though helpful, make comments about it, thinking she doesn't understand. The third one, who knows she does understand, debates how long to let them go on before letting them know that she does, in fact, understand what they're saying.
In I, Claudius (the novel), the young Claudius overhears Augustus and Athenodorus talking about him in Greek. The following ensues:
I cannot remember the epigram exactly, but the sense of it was: "Antonia is old-fashioned: she does not buy a pet marmoset at great expense from an Eastern trader. And why? Because she breeds them herself." Athenodorus thought for a moment and replied severely in the same metre: "Antonia, so far from buying a pet marmoset from Eastern traders, does not even cosset and feed with sugar-plums the poor child of her noble husband." Augustus looked somewhat abashed. I should explain that neither he nor Athenodorus, to whom I had always been represented as a half-wit, guessed that I could understand what they were saying. So Athenodorus drew me towards him and said playfully in Latin: "And what does young Tiberius Claudius think about the matter?" I was sheltered from Augustus by Athenodorus's big body and somehow forgot my stammer. I said straight out, in Greek: "My mother Antonia does not pamper me, but she has let me learn Greek from someone who learned it directly from Apollo."
Thanks to Aide, the titular general of the Belisarius Series can become fluent in languages very quickly just by listening to them. This becomes a critical factor during his mission to India when the Malwa and their allies don't realize until too late that he can speak Hindi, Kushan, and several other languages like a native, and he makes the effort to not let them know this until it's too late.
There's a CSI: NY tie in novel where Lindsay and Stella are processing a scene at a bakery, and the owner uses a derogatory Italian term for a female cop. What he doesn't realize is that Stella speaks some Italian, and though she's rusty, she knows exactly what he's saying.
In Nice Work by David Lodge, academic Robyn Penrose accompanies factory manager Vic Wilcox to Germany to buy used plant. At dinner with the two German sellers he leaves the table to take a whizz and they switch to German and congratulate each other on palming him off with an obsolescent model. Robyn takes leave in elegant German and they realize their scheme has been rumbled, allowing Vic to buy the newer model at the same price. A key point in the novel as this triumph brings the previously mutually antagonistic Vic and Robyn together.
In The General series, Raj Whitehall is already fluent in several languages and knows a bit of others. This comes in handy during his campaigns when he's dealing with various foreign groups and they assume he doesn't understand what they're saying. Among his wife's spies, the former slaves from distant countries also use this to their advantage by not letting on how many languages they speak.
In The Doll, Stanislaw's love interest discusses her love affair with her friend in English, unaware that Stanislaw, who is in the same room, has been taking English lessons to impress her. Later on, the heartbroken Stanislaw wonders if he maybe misunderstood something from their conversation.
In the Polish action novel Całe zdanie nieboszczyka the protagonist knows a lot of languages, but she puts on a show of Obfuscating Stupidity for the gangsters that captured her. They end up frequently discussing their plans in detail right in front of her, thinking she cannot understand a thing.
In Sergey Lukyanenko's Seekers of the Sky duology, Ilmar and another character are taken on a tour of Aquincum (Budapest in Real Life) by a Magyar (Hungarian) teenager named Peter and try to talk amongst themselves in Gallic (French). Halfway through the conversation, Peter offers (in Gallic) to leave them alone, if they'd rather he not hear what they are saying. It turns out that Peter speaks eight languages and is teaching himself yet another one. For some reason, he's not working as a translator.
For reference, these languages are his native Magyar (Hungarian), Roman (Latin, the language of the State), Gallic, Russian, Judaic (Hebrew), Ottoman (Turkish), Germanic, and Iberian (Spanish). The language he's learning is Chinese.
In the Relativity story "August Moon", the titular villain is a powerful telepath. In order to prevent him reading their minds and knowing their every move, the heroes decide to do all their thinking in Portuguese. Thanks to this trope, it doesn't work out so well.
Though it perpetuates some arguable bias about nuclear energy (in the same way the real-life news media's critiquing did), The Newsroom delivers a truly badass example here.
In Breaking Bad, this is first downplayed in one direction, and then subverted in the other direction, while Jesse is teaching a cartel how to make Walter's meth:
Jesse doesn't know Spanish, but picks up on enough words and body language to know that one of the scientists isn't exactly singing his praises.
"So then you know what 'asshole' means. Now get me my phenylacetic acid — asshole."
A kind of example from ER: an elderly Chinese woman shows up with a serious illness that is quickly identified as symptoms from a brain tumor. It turns out that her son and daughter-in-law already know this, but are keeping it from his mother since they thought it would kill her. The doctor disagrees, but their argument quickly becomes a moot-point since they argued in front of the mother and she catches the meaning of "cancer".
Ros na Rún once had an Indian character who spoke primarily in English, while two of the women had a rather insulting conversation about him in Irish. Turns out he spoke Irish pretty well.
When Marco was first introduced, he pretended to only speak Spanish to annoy Turk. Turk eventually goaded him into revealing he spoke English.
In a later episode, Turk decided to surprise Carla by telling her he'd learned Spanish, but then decided to keep it a secret for a bit so he could listen in on her secret conversations and appear to be a more attentive husband. This didn't go entirely as planned.
A sketch from John Leguizamo's short-live sketch show House of Buggin' used this. It took place at a Mexican restaurant wherein a mariachi band was going around to the tables and singing. Subtitles indicated that the lyrics they were singing (in Spanish) were mocking the patrons, such as "Little do you know where that meat came from — enjoy your burro burrito!" And the patrons would clap, and they'd move on to the next table. Until they got to one where the very muscular patrons sang back at them, in Spanish: "We speak fluent Spanish and understand everything you just said!"
The Korean woman Sun Kwon pretended not to understand, when in actual fact she had had English lessons. A very serious use of this trope.
Her husband has this too in later series, but in an innovative way. The time on the Island made him understand English without knowing to speak it too well. After his realization, he eavesdropped on many conversations and reacted in regards with those that concerned him. IIRC, he confesses to his wife a season or two later.
In Phoenix Nights, Corrupt Corporate Executive Keith Lard rhetorically asks one of the club owners if he knows the Mexican for "Help! Let us out! We're burning!" He then walks away... and the club owner translates it behind his back.
In an episode of The Tudors, Anne Boleyn is washing Queen Katharine's feet when Katharine curses her in French, calling her a whore for returning King Henry's affections, to which Anne replies in English that she is no whore.
The show specifically did mention Anne's background in the French court back in the earlier episodes of Season 1 and in Season 2, so this might either have been a mistake on Katharine's part written intentionally by the writers, or Katharine was intentionally insulting her.
The title character of House speaks a variety of languages, and uses this to bust a Chinese teenager who is using her role as translator for her mother to get herself birth control pills. House doesn't let on at first that he speaks Mandarin. He claims he can't speak the language more than a few relevant phrases, but a season 8 episode has him conversing in Mandarin. Hilarity Ensues as House walks out the door.
House: No, you gave her the wrong pills!
Chinese girl: You... can speak Mandarin?
House: Not much. I can say "Hello", I can count to ten, and I can say... (*turns to mother, in Mandarin*) Congratulations, you're a grandmother!
In one episode of How I Met Your Mother, Ted bumps into a woman he used to date, but dumped because she talked too much, and her new boyfriend, who turns out to be deaf. While she attempts to interpret between Ted and the boyfriend, Ted is communicating with him through sign language behind her back.
In the flashback where Ted first met Barney, Barney tried to convince a date that Ted was deaf, not knowing that Ted knew sign language. Turns out that the girl knew sign language, so when Barney tried to have Ted chat him up in sign, Ted told the girl that Barney was lying to her and to give Barney a fake number.
One episode revolved around Elaine getting George's father to come to her Korean nail salon to translate the insults they were saying about her. It turned out one of the women who worked there was his old girlfriend from when he was a religious icon salesman in Korea.
George and Jerry attempt to invert this trope. When talking about asking Jerry's deaf girlfriend to use her lip-reading talents to find out why George's girlfriend dumped him, the two keep trying to hide their mouths so that she can't figure out what they're talking about—but she does anyway.
Happens occasionally on Stargate SG-1, understandable considering Jackson knows something like 30 languages.
Colonel Fanboy Mitchell manages to catch Jackson on this in one episode, when Jackson and a Chinese diplomat are conversing about the team in the latter's native tongue. They insult him in Mandarin, only for him to reply "Screw You" in Mandarin. This is a double backfire, as the Chinese diplomat's Chinese is completely incomprehensible (the actress is actually Japanese, not Chinese- why do they so that so often?) and Daniel's Chinese is perfectly understandable, if a little accented, as is Cameron's.
Inverted when they go back in time and are captured by the US military of 1969. The officer in charge asks (in Russian) if they are Soviet spies. Daniel naturally responds "Nyet", and then a moment later realized it was a mistake.
In an episode of NCIS, Gibbs, Ziva, and McGee are in a hotel room while a foreign prince from Saudi Arabia and his brother argue in Arabic in the background. Ziva tells Gibbs that they "do not know that I speak Arabic", and then translates for him until the prince's last words, to which she says "That is too disgusting to translate."
Marcus tells Ivanova some of his deep feelings for her in Minbari, knowing she doesn't speak it — and not knowing that she has an eidetic memory, which lets her remember everything he said until she learns Minbari a year later and finds out the meaning.
Delenn and a Minbari Captain are captured by human individuals violently loyal to Earth (despite/ignorant/because of President Clark's recent fascist direction). They quietly start assessing the situation and planning an escape strategy in Minbari, only for one of the captors to interrupt them. (He didn't actually say anything in Minbari, but he made it clear that he understood exactly what was being said.)
Captain:[in Minbari] I think my ropes are loose.
Human:[in English]] Then I'd better tighten them!
In one episode of Frasier, the title character has been trying to win the affections of his matchmaker from her boyfriend. When he crashes their dinner-date, he tells the maitre d' in French that the boyfriend won't be staying; the boyfriend responds, also in French, that he will be.
A variant in the pilot episode of Fringe. We're introduced to Peter Bishop speaking to a pair of investors in Iraq about rebuilding an oil pipeline. He tells them that he speaks fluent Arabic, among his other qualifications. One leans to the other and whispers in Farsi that they should hire him for a substantial amount. Peter replies, "I also speak Farsi. And that amount would be fine."
A variant in the White Collar episode "All In": Peter very awkwardly approaches a group of Chinese women to ask for information. They chatter freely amongst themselves in Chinese, but won't say anything in English to Peter. Turns out he actually doesn't speak Chinese—but he tape-recorded the conversation, and can have it translated.
In an episode of Bones, Booth and Brennan meet the children of a wealthy businessman, who insists that his kids learn Chinese, given the rise of China as an economic power. They turn to each other and start insulting Booth in Chinese. Bones, having travelled everywhere, is able to understand and translates the insult.
A variation happens in Castle, when the eponymous author infiltrates an underground gambling den in order to assist Beckett in a murder investigation. Himself a pretty good poker player, he pretends to be a newbie, a rich writer looking for inspiration for his next novel. The Russians he's playing with talk among themselves in Russian, saying how they're gonna take him for all he's got. While Castle isn't bilingual, Beckett, who is listening via a wire on Castle, has spent several months in Kyiv, Ukraine, as an exchange student and is able to understand them. However, Castle, even without knowing what they said, cleans them out.
In the All in the Family episode "The Elevator Story", Archie is stuck in an elevator with several people, including a Puerto Rican man. He tries to use the elevator phone, while the man tries to get his attention. Archie says "Can somebody translate what I'm saying to this spic here?" The man responds: "Is not necessary, mister, this spic is speak English!" Archie, however, is completely unfazed.
In an episode of Who's the Boss?, Samantha's boyfriend helps her cheat on a French exam. While they're in the kitchen later with Mona, Samantha thanks her boyfriend in French for helping her cheat, unaware that Mona knows French also.
In one episode, Sarah Mackenzie is on a submarine as part of a fact-finding mission to determine whether women should be allowed to serve on submarines. A sailor looks at Mac and says, in Russian, "Do you think they'd look like her?" Another sailor says, also in Russian, "No, more like sperm whales," and they both laugh. Mac, who is fluent in Russian, says, "Let me know if you see any sperm whales. I thought they were rare in these seas."
In another, where she and Harm travel to Russia, two hotel clerks make some crude remarks about him 'being able to afford' a woman like Mac (they are in civies). Mac steps forward and rattles off a quick, untranslated, reply, then tells Harm not to bother trying to look up what she said in his phrasebook.
In an episode of Sea Patrol, the crew were attending a event at a French embassy and when Spider asked for a beer the French waiter pretended not to know English and said, "I'm proud of my bum when I see your face". Bomber came to his rescue and told the guy "Don't mess with me, w***!", and got his beer and one for herself. She then told Spider that she could just speak high-school French.
In one episode, the group went to Russia. Anwar rescued a Russian woman from her abusive household and when she was in his room, he proceeded to talk about the sexual acts he'd like to perform with her. Turns out she spoke English and understood every word he said.
Happens again in the S3 premiere when Cook discovers that the girl he and JJ are hitting on is deaf and a lip reader. Cook covers his mouth while describing everything he'd do to the girl to JJ, only to have the girl's translator sign everything she hears back to her. It does not end well for Cook.
And echoed in the S4 finale when Thomas is pretending to teach Katie French. Cut to Pandora sat outside the bedroom with her new A-level results - including an A in French - and then we get the subtitles showing us what he's really saying...
In the pilot of City Homicide Matt pulls this on an Italian hotel manager reminding him that he's in the middle of a murder investigation. He later reveals that his mother was Italian.
An episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has Klingon soldier stopped by Odo, who happens to have been speaking with Garak at the time. The Klingon says something (roughly translated as 'Does your mother let you walk around in that uniform?'). Garak responds with "I don't think Constable Odo has a mother."
An episode of Just The Ten Of Us had the Lubbock family boarding a Spanish exchange student who promptly made advances to all four of the teenaged daughters, who each believed that they were the first to successfully teach him English—only to have it turn out that he already knew and merely used the supposed language barrier as a tool of seduction. The funny thing is, he reveals this when he gets fed up with two other characters bad-mouthing him for his lecherous behavior (not realizing that he can understand them) and blurts out an angry retort. His satisfaction at embarrassing the other two is short-lived when he—and they—realize that he's just revealed himself to be even more of a jerk than they originally thought.
An episode of Baywatch had a rebellious lifeguard mouthing off in French to a senior lifeguard who was disciplining him. She coldly informs him that she understands French (though the audience never finds out specifically what he said) and promptly ups his punishment.
An episode of The Golden Girls had Sophia in the hospital and Stan and Dorothy trying to get information. When Stan tries to speak to one of the orderlies, the man tells him in broken English that "the men's room is down the hall" and "the cafeteria is closed". But as soon as Stan hands him a wad of cash, the man instantly tells him in perfect English that "someone will be with you in a moment."
Inverted in an episode of Strong Medicine. A young Frenchwoman is brought to the hospital. Andy offers to treat her since she is fluent in French (and other languages). But when Andy questions the woman about her symptoms, she seems confused by her responses. Suddenly, Andy switches back to English and tells the girl to cut the crap—she's been asking her about pain and/or trouble breathing and the girl keeps responding with "oui" (yes) or "non" (no), essentially telling her that she can't breathe at all. As it turns out the girl isn't French, just an actress, and can't understand a word that Andy's been saying.
In True Stories of the ER, a young female doctor is sent to a Greek woman and her family. Little did the family know, the doctor spoke Greek fluently. The patient only speaks Greek and begins insulting the doctor and refusing tests. Not wanting to offend them, she waits until the woman is cured until she reveals she speaks Greek too.
A variation in Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide. Moze attempted to insult the opposing volleyball team and not get ejected for poor sportsmanship by insulting them in Dutch. However, the it turns out that the referee happens to be Dutch himself and Moze ended up getting ejected from the game.
In the Inspector Morse episode Who Killed Harry Field?, a German witness tries to stall Morse by claiming (probably falsely) that his English isn't up to being interrogated. Morse switches to German and carries on questioning him.
Cousin Skeeter - Skeeter has just...knocked over a T-Rex skeleton or something. A couple of women say-I believe in Portuguese-"The short one is in trouble" as they laugh amongst themselves. Skeeter replies in Portuguese "Hey! I'm not short! I'm still growing!"
During an episode of NCIS: Los Angeles, when a Japanese executive, after belittling Sam and Callen to his entourage and calling a woman in Japan to tell her to "answer the cops questions", Sam informs him in Japanese "You wish I was just a cop." He then takes the phone and converses with the woman in fluent Japanese while the executive stares.
On The First 48 a suspect called his home from the Miami Homicide interrogation room and told his father, in Creole, to hide the murder weapon, even describing it so the father knew what it was. The detectives, watching on a monitor in another room, could barely restrain themselves from howling with laughter as a Haitian-born detective translates this for them with a big-ass grin on her face.
In Season 5 of Weeds, Shane busts out some unexpectedly perfect Spanish while two Mexican drug addicts are attempting to rape his step-sister. "You guys better get out of here before I rape you in the ass with this knife!" is what he shouts, brandishing a knife out of nowhere. Let's just say the rapists quickly scramble away.
On Law & Order, Detectives Briscoe and Green are asking the girlfriend of a murder suspect about his whereabouts. She claims to not know, but when her phone rings, proceeds to talk to the other person in Spanish, obviously assuming that neither detective will understand her. When she hangs up, Detective Green talks to her in Spanish, revealing that he knows the language and HAS understood everything she just said to other person. The audience never finds out exactly what either of them say, but given her Oh Crap reaction and Green's tone of voice, it seems obvious that she was lying and that Green is warning her to cooperate, lest she face jail time herself.
An inverted version. Several deaf persons are suspects in the murder of a doctor who performed cochlear implants. In one scene, the detectives are at a skating rink, observing the "conversation" between two of the suspects. When Goren asks the police interpreter to tell him what they're "saying", the man refuses, but Goren points out that in a public place, the two have no right to privacy. Unfortunately, the two realize the cops are talking about them—Goren's staring at them and his attempts to hide his mouth so they cannot read his lips tip them off, and promptly tone down their signing gestures, leaving the interpreter unable to decipher what they're "saying". A later scene has another suspect "talking" with his lawyer. This time it's the district attorney who demands that the interpreter reveal the details of the "conversation", trying to use the same "in plain sight" loophole, but this time, the interpreter stands firm in his refusal to translate, as that would violate attorney-client privilege.
Another episode had a Hispanic woman warning her little girl in Spanish that "people with big eyes get hurt", obviously fearing for her daughter's safety should she reveal what she knows about a murder. At this point Detective Barek reveals her fluency in Spanish by gently urging the woman to let her daughter tell what she knows.
In a variation, Benson and Stabler see a man pick up a package for their suspect. Benson asks him where he's going with it. The man replies in Spanish that he doesn't speak English. Olivia then says in Spanish, "That's okay I speak Spanish", and then asks him the question again.
Another episode has the team investigation a possible molestation in the Orthodox Jewish community. The Orthodox Jewish leaders attempt to run interference with Hebrew pamphlets and conversations in Yiddish advising community members against cooperating with the secular police. Munch is fluent in both Hebrew and Yiddish, so their attempts are exposed.
And on Law & Order: UK, when a suspect pretends not to understand or speak English, clearly hoping to deter the cops. Only to have Ronnie speak to him in French, thus revealing that he will not be put off, and forcing the man to admit that he understands English after all.
Cold Case did something similar, when Scotty attempted to talk with a potential witness, who pretended not to understand English—nor the fluent Spanish that Scotty then spoke to him in. Only the threat of a call to immigration—no doubt the very reason he was keeping his mouth shut—got him to talk.
A variant in the Republic Of Doyle' episode "Mirror, Mirror". Several scenes establish that Jake Doyle doesn't speak French. At the end of the episode, love interest Sgt Leslie Bennett claims that a francophone police officer isn't her type, then switches to French to say that Jake is her man. Jake asks her what she said, and adds "You know I don't speak French." Bennett refuses to translate and leaves. After Bennett is gone, Jake says, in French, that she is also the one for him.
In an episode of Houston Knights, a Mexican cop who is supposed to be working with the protagonists gets information from a woman in Spanish, and then tells the others that she doesn't know anything. Unfortunately for him, one of the American cops speaks Spanish just fine, and immediately calls him on it.
In the Game of Thrones episode "And Now His Watch is Ended", Danaerys Targaryen and her entourage enter Ashtapor intent on buying a slave army so she can conquer the seven kingdoms. During the sale of the slave army, the slaver Kraznys mo Nakloz pretty much continually insults her in Valyrian. His translator/slave Missandei "cleans up" his statements when she translates Kraznys's words into Westeros. Its only after Danaerys takes control of her slave army does she reveal that Valyrian is her "mother tongue", and she's heard and understood every single crass insult he's made about her. And then she orders her brand new slave army to kill all the slavers and conquer the city for her.
On The Big Bang Theory, Penny sets up Raj with a deaf girl from her gym. The girl starts to take advantage of Raj's money so Penny takes Howard along to help translate her concerns. While, at the gym, Penny tries to diplomatically ask the girl about it but, Howard, distracted by the other women working out, simply signs "Are you a gold digger?" Turns out she was, though.
In Defiance Christie McCawley cooks dinner for her alien future in-laws, the Tarrs. After Datak Tarr insults her cooking in Castithan she looks stricken, then he tries to claim that he was saying some Casti traditional saying and she storms out. Then Alak tells him that he's been teaching her their language.
An episode of John Doe has the police station taken hostage by an ex-cop who wants something from the evidence lockers. As he's planning his escape, he converses in Farsi on the phone. Unfortunately for him, the titular character has the total sum of human knowledge in his head, including every language. Not only does he translate what he heard to his Friend on the Force, but he also explains that the "Bedouin Prince" is not a person but a ship. After his capture, the ex-cop is astonished that his careful escape plan is foiled. John explains how he was tracked down and then adds that he speaks Farsi.
Wee Papa Girl Rappers' 1988 hit "Wee Rule" mentions the narrator being insulted and sworn at in French by someone who doesn't know she's "passed exams in French".
Myths & Religion
Older Than Feudalism: Joseph does this to his brothers in The Bible. They don't recognize him, so he speaks Egyptian to them through an interpreter even though he knows what they are saying.
Believe it or not, there was actually a feud based around the Bilingual Backfire; there was a brief period of time where WWE Divas ChampionMaryse would come up to Gail Kim and talk about how great a wrestler she is and how she respects her, etc., and then say something in French. This went on for a few weeks until Kim attacked Maryse, revealed she was fluent in French, and knew the entire time that Maryse was trash-talking her to her face.
Juan Pablo Montoya's first Formula One pole position. ITV commentator Martin Brundle asked him, 'Congratulations, how's it feeling?' Montoya (who is from Colombia) was rude enough to reply in Spanish, then rubbed it in by asking, 'What dyou think of that?!' Brundle's reply? 'Si, es ist muy bien!'
After he was traded to the New York Yankees by the Seattle Mariners, Ichiro Suzuki was asked by an interviewer whether his experiences with the Japanese media prepared him for the tougher press scrutiny and paparazzi coverage he would face in New York. Ichiro, who after playing 12 years in the US does know English, replied in Japanese that that was a rather stupid question. Unfortunately the Japanese translator sitting beside him translated this.
Gabriel Iglesias once told a story about when he drove his kid to school late. He tried to drop him off right in front, which he wasn't supposed to do. When the principal came up and told him so, Gabriel tried to get out of it by speaking rapid-fire Spanish at her. She then proceeds to repeat her instructions in perfect (if accented) Spanish, ending it with "Yo no soy pendeja." ("I'm not stupid")
Ventriloquist Jeff Dunham does an odd play on this. At one point his puppets Peanut and Jose Jalepeno on a Steek begin conversing with one another in Spanish. Jeff complains to them that he doesn't speak Spanish. Lampshaded by the puppets when Jose begins singing The Twilight Zone theme and Peanut remarks "Picture if you will..."
Henry Cho (a Korean-American comedian from Tennessee) has a routine about how he went to South Korea on vacation and was approached by another American tourist who asks him, "IS THIS THE BUS-Y THAT GOES-Y DOWN-Y TOWN-Y?!" Response: "I reckon so. So, what's yer name...?"
In the first scene of The King and I, the Kralahome initially speaks to Anna through an interpreter; however, when she refuses to be treated as a doormat, he starts speaking in perfect English and calls her out on her poor manners and ignorance of protocol.
Happened on the Nuits De Paris sketch of Les Luthiers with French.
Larry Shue's play The Foreigner is made of this trope. A tourist pretends to be a foreigner who doesn't speak English so he doesn't have to have small talk conversations with others. Since he doesn't speak English, people have various conversations in front of him which eventually reveals a plot to drive the owner of the lodge out and use the place for KKK meetings.
In the musical of Thoroughly Modern Millie, Mrs Meers believes that the two Asian brothers working for her can't speak any English. Thus, she has no problem berating them in English and, at one point, mocking them by saying how she has no plan to actually help them get their mother from Hong Kong to America (which was the only reason they were helping her for). The brothers make it clear that they think she's an idiot, and end up having no problem turning her in to the police at the end, with one of the brothers telling her in English "I speak better English than you speak Chinese!"
A number of NPCs from rival but allied factions in World of Warcraft have a long, repeating argument in Netherstorm. At one point one of the blood elves mutters something in her own language that one of the draenei says she understood:
Magistrix Larynna:(in Thalassian) Dor shar'adore da shando! [I'm Surrounded by Idiots!] Anchorite Karja: The magistrix will be happy to know I'm fluent in Thalassian. Your courtesy is not lost on me.
In World in Conflict, a pre-mission cutscene has Colonel Sawyer (American) and Commandant Sabatier (French) arguing, in English, about letting an American officer command NATO forces. Sabatier voices his annoyance in his native tongue.
Sabatier:(in French) You arrogant Americans, think you can run the world as you see fit. Sawyer:(also in French) We have a war to win, and I will do what I deem necessary.
In the PC adventure game The Last Express, Robert Cath speaks English, French, and German, and can understand when two gossiping ladies switch their conversation to French so that they can talk about him when he's in the room.
Luna discovered that while Hobgoblins can't speak English, they can fully understand it. As you can see.
Also happens before that, when Stonewater's group arrives to the Barthis benefit concert and it turns out that Dominic can speak Orcish.
One comic in Exploitation Now had Jordan and Bush hitching a ride on a bus full of Asian girls from an anime con. One of the girls in front of them notices the two and seeing Bush, thinking she a fellow Asian (since Bush is half Asian) starts to mock Jordan in her native tongue thinking Jordan can't understand her. However it turns out Bush can't understand the language but Jordan can and quickly lets the girl know she not amused.
Under the Lemon Tree (now Goblin Hollow) had this happen in Navajo. (It's never explained how a pair of "pretendian" pumas, nor a not-previously-established-as-Native bear, can converse in Navajo, which is widely considered the hardest language to learn if you didn't grow up speaking it, between the paucity of textbooks and its grammatical and phonetic variances from "Standard Average European".)
Tom: Mom, this is Alex Alex: H-Hi. Mom: Hablas Español?note "Do you speak Spanish?" Alex: Wha? Mom: Usa condones. Eres hombre ahora pero todavia puedes quedar embarazada.note "Use condoms. You're a man now [Transexual], but you might still get pregnant [having not yet gone through with the surgery]." Tom: MOM! Alex: What did she say? Tom:You donotwant to know.
This episode of Megatokyo has Piro supposedly translating what Largo is saying to Kimiko, only since what Largo is saying is mostly insane rambling, he is instead making up reasons why they keep Ping around... then Erika, who is also bilingual, shows up.
At one point in The Order of the Stick, the Order is facing a dragon while Vaarsuvius has been Baleful Polymorphed into a lizard from a previous encounter. Vaarsuvius laments their own present uselessness in the encounter to themself, and the dragon empathizes in Lizard. One of the few spells Vaarsuvius can still use as a lizard is Suggestion, which requires a common language between caster and target...
There is a funny strip in Niels where Niels is talking on the phone to his mom, in Danish. Duncan, getting impatient, tells Niels to hurry up in a... rather vulgar way. Turns out that even though Niels is speaking to his mom in Danish, she also speaks English. Oops!
In 21st Century Fox Jack is seeing a North Korean factory that his employers want to buy and some Russians are discussing how the hover tanks being displayed are based on their country's stolen designs and how they can't let the Westerners get their hands on them. One asks the other if it's safe to discuss this with the American fox nearby and the other tells him not to worry as he hacked Jack's translator. Then Jack mentions that he fixed it.
Invoked on purpose in My Stupid Life, an autobiography comic by Mitch Clem, the creator of Nothing Nice To Say. A tattoo artist he's friends with mentions that she's getting a tattoo thats the spanish word for "The Farting Woman", just so she can pretend she was told it meant "The Smiling Girl", and then break down crying when people correct her.
In Part 9 of Lovelace One Two, two students, twins from Quebec, comment on Andi's strange behavior of the past day in French. She replies, with the proper Québécois accent, in French.
Lopez of Red vs. Blue often delivers extremely sarcastic asides in (bad) Spanish, as he knows no one speaks it. Then in Season 12, he finally finds someone who does:
Donut: [Locus] doesn't make any sense!
Lopez: Esto se debe a que es una locura. (That's because he's insane.)
Locus: I am NOT!
Lopez: ¡Alarm! ¡Mierda que es bilingue! ¡Por favor no me mates! (Oh shit! He's bilingual! Please don't kill me!)note This was after he'd called Locus a douche multiple times in Spanish.
Zig-Zagged in the Furry Basketball Association: Jorge Gonzalez is Argentinian, so it's no surprise he speaks Spanish. However, when his UK-born agent swears in Welsh at her difficulty with the Spanish language, the Gaiman-born Jorge asked her in the same language to watch her tongue—his hometown of Gaiman is a major center of the Welsh community in Argentina. Since then, they've usually communicated in Welsh, since his English is about as bad as her Spanish.
In The Simpsons, Bart and Lisa try to have a private conversation in Pig Latin. Marge mentions that she was using it since before they were born.
Kasnian Soldier: [You can't understand what I'm saying and I wouldn't tell you anything if you could.] Batman: [I can... and you will.]
In Frisky Dingo, ancient Chinese sweatshop worker Old Spice is eventually revealed to speak English after entire episodes of only communicating in Chinese and having Xander Crews (who knew he spoke English) translate for him. This only came to light after Killface insulted Old Spice's "car" (Crews misheard Old Spice, who was actually talking about his wife).
Killface: What does it matter what I say about his bloody car?
Crews: Well, he speaks English!
Killface:... You speak English?
Old Spice: Yes!
This is also played with in Stroker and Hoop, where Columbian drug lords force Double Wide to take them to Stroker and Hoop, who are hiding in The Deep South. On the way there, they talk in Spanish about how they'll kill him before moving onto Stroker and Hoop. Double Wide nervously says he wishes he didn't speak Spanish (in Spanish, no less).
Playing on a similar scene from the film Rush Hour, the first episode of Jackie Chan Adventures has newcomer Jade not speaking English at first, but later it turns out she knows perfect English to the surprise of Jackie.
During a high stakes kickball game on The Boondocks pitting Huey against a team from China, the Chinese team captain Ming tells Huey that if she lose she might go to prison camp. The captain's teammates talk to each other about the lie and insult his play. Anyone with any knowledge of Huey's interests wouldn't be too surprised to know he understands Chinese. Cue Epic Battle Boredom.
Happens once in American Dragon Jake Long between Jake's father and Gramps. Gramps became angry and began to shout in Chinese. The father, to show that he can also play "The Unintelligible", began insulting Gramps in Norwegian. Turns the Gramps also studied Norwegian.
There's an anecdote about Haim Saban that goes as such: During the 80s, Saban was attempting to buy KISS Licensing rights, and was meeting with Gene Simmons with Avi Arad at his side. At a certain point in the meeting, Saban turns to Arad and says, in Hebrew, "now we will gut him." Simmons responded by saying "You asshole, I'm one of you" in Hebrew and walking out of the meeting; his birth name is Chaim Witz, and he was born near Haifa in northern Israel.
American guy: Could you stamp my passport, please? It's a hobby of mine.
Passport checker to coworker, in German: These damn Americans always want something. Look, they've all got booze and bags and t-shirts. Now they want stamps.
American girl: Sir, I'd like mine stamped, too.
Passport checker, in German: I bet that girl was here to fuck guys. American girls become sluts in Europe.
American girl: Sir, that's not very nice!
Passport checker, still in German: I hate it when they know German. Then we can't talk about them!
In short, if you assume someone visiting your country doesn't speak your language and you badmouth them, any consequences that arise are your own fault.
A woman reported a burglary to the police. Partway in she got a phone call from her father and explained to him, in French, about how she and her boyfriend had set up the fake burglary plot. The investigating officer spoke seven languages, including French. What makes her actions even dumber is that this happened in Canada where even in an English-speaking province one should expect many people, especially police officers, to have some understanding of French. After all, it is the country's second official language.
This happens often in bilingual regions of the US—California, Texas, the Southwest, etc. In Florida, one particularly foolish criminal used his "one phone call" to call his accomplices and tell them, in Creole, to dispose of the gun they had used. Sure enough, one of the detectives was herself of Haitian ancestry and understood everything he said. Much like the first example, his assuming that no one would understand him is especially stupid, as this took place in a predominantly Haitian community.
Stalin used a translator when talking with Churchill and Roosevelt. Stalin never let on to them that he knew English.
When George Takei was a teenager, he earned some extra cash as a seasonal worker among mostly Mexican-Americans. The overseers were Japanese-Americans and one day he overheard them talking in Japanese about how they were going to cheat the workers out of some of their rightful pay. Cue young George telling them in the same language that if they did, he'd report them. They caved.
In the end of the 19th century, a French banker visited a Russian factory he owned. There, he saw one man working with a wheelbarrow loaded with material for a blast furnace. He said (in French) "This monkey is working well". However, the worker was actually a nobleman who ran from his house, and knew French perfectly.note French was the preferred language of the Russian nobility. So, he turned the wheelbarrow at him, and drove him halfway across the yard. When the banker had to climb an ore heap, the man stopped and said (in French!) "sorry, the flooring here is too rough to control the wheelbarrow". The flooring was replaced.
Happens a lot with deaf people. Say Alice indicates in some way that she is deaf. Bob and Carly, who see this, decide they can now make snide comments about her with impunity, because, well, she's deaf. She can't hear them, right? Unfortunately, Alice happens to be able to lip-read...
Something similar happened during a football game at Gallaudet University. The opposing team, Norfolk State, talked openly about their strategies, assuming that the Gallaudet team couldn't hear. Norfolk never guessed that they were great at reading lips, and were promptly slaughtered in the game.
Or the other way around. During a chess match against a deaf team, some of the deaf players were using sign language to talk about their ongoing games, which is forbidden. Unfortunately one of our team was responsible in his company for the troubles of deaf people and knew sign language (actually, he knows three sign languages, due to some employees also being foreign).
Inverted by Margaret Cho. She promoting her short-lived sitcom All-American Girl, about a Korean-American family, on a morning news show for a local TV station that was being bought out by Disney. The host asked her to tell the viewers at home "in [her] native language" that they're changing over to an ABC affiliate. But since she was born and raised in the US and is not actually fluent in Korean, she looked at the camera and curtly said in plain English, "They're changing over to an ABC affiliate."
English speakers are more likely to be the victim of this than speakers of other languages, since in most parts of the world there is a pretty good chance that the people around you will have at least some understanding of English. That said, it is pretty common knowledge that this is the case, so any English speakers who are humiliated in this way have only themselves to blame.
This trope is becoming increasingly common in the USA with Spanish speakers as the percentage of the USA's population that knows Spanish increases.
A Korean American grocer tells her husband something negative about an African-American customer, with the addendum "he can't possibly know what we are talking about." The customer tells her, in fluent Korean, that he served in the Army in Korea in 1952. Given that this took place in 1990s, it is a demonstration of an astonishing memory on the part of the customer! It's conceivable he, like some American servicemen, met and married a Korean woman, or kept up studying the language, out of interest or as part of his career.
Disney encourages its cast members to become bilingual, in order to interact more smoothly with the guests. Unfortunately, the guests don't always realize that, and can be very, very abusive toward cast members they don't think can understand. There was one well-known incident where a cook making sandwiches to order listened very patiently as three French guests badmouthed the hotel they were staying in, the food the cook was making for them, and the cook himself while he made their meal. When he handed the sandwiches over, he said something along the lines of "I'm sorry your visit has been so difficult. If there is anything we can do to make it better, let us know." in flawless French. The guests left and apparently never returned to that restaurant for the rest of their stay.
A very weird variation is the bilingual version of O Canada, ostensibly to please both French- and English-speaking Canadians. It might have worked if one stanza was in one language and one in the other. Unfortunately, the switch occurs mid-stanza, making part of the song sheer gibberish for those that only speak either English or French (It's common for crowds in Western Canada to sing the English part, and go silent at the French, due to most of them not speaking that language). The Bilingual Backfire? Those that speak both know that the two versions say completely different things, resulting in Phrase Salad.
Parents in Israel often switch to English so their kid won’t understand when they talk about him. It can get awkward if the kid already knows more English than they think or has an English-speaking friend over; parents are often aware of the new limitation, but might slip up.