Jeremy Hunt’s Chinese/Japanese gaffe and what we can learn from it

Jeremy Hunt’s slip of the tongue made headlines the other day: “My wife is Japanese – my wife is Chinese. Sorry, that’s a terrible mistake to make.” Here is our take on the story, from a linguistic point of view.

Before we’d jump to conclusions about Jeremy Hunt’s slip of the tongue, it’s worth to take a look at the circumstances.


Hunt speaks Japanese. He studied the language for two years when working in Japan as a language teacher in the 90s. Hunt’s wife, Lucia Guo, comes from Xi’an in China. They’ve been together for over 10 years and have a son and two daughters. One would assume that he understands a thing or two in Chinese, and possibly, he can also speak a little.


The fact that Mr Hunt spoke in Japanese at the state banquet with the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi indicates that he feels more comfortable in Japanese than in Chinese, and as it was a common language of understanding between the two, they agreed on speaking Japanese with each other.

So the whole situation in which the now famous “My wife is Japanese – my wife is Chinese. Sorry, that’s a terrible mistake to make.” happened is a rather complex linguistic scenario and clearly, it was a slip of the tongue that can happen to any of us really who speaks multiple languages and is exposed to different cultures on a regular basis.
Mr Hunt was visiting China in a bid to strengthen trade ties with Beijing. While his gaffe is clearly a little bit embarrassing, one can only hope that the Chinese were understanding and were not offended.


This BBC article sums up why confusing Japanese with Chinese can be perceived indeed a bit offensive. Just one little remark: if you speak multiple languages, and live in a multilingual relationship, you’ll know that number 2: He was talking about his own wife – how can he mistake his wife for Japanese? – can happen all too easily. It’s not about mistaking her, it’s not about disrespecting her, it’s a plain, simple and harmless slip of the tongue:

Jeremy Hunt Tweeting

If you embark on a language learning journey, your path will be paved with such uncomfortable moments that can lead to the occasional embarrassment. But if you can turn those moments into opportunities for a bit of humour and laughter, you can break the ice and connect on a different level with your partners.

What are your thoughts? Leave a comment below and let us know.

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