Foreign languages can be used to impede communication

One of the reasons people give for studying a foreign language is to increase the number of people one can communicate with. But what people don't mention is that foreign languages can also be used to impede communications, and that can be just as useful. (Be careful, though, because it can backfire.)

During my visit to Sweden some years ago, I was walking back to my hotel room from the Göteborg train station. I had spent the afternoon visiting the nearby city of Alingsås, whose claim to fame is that they are the birthplace of the man who introduced potatoes to Sweden, although he is probably more greatly celebrated for introducing a related process to Sweden: the technique of fermenting potatoes to make alcohol. Anyway, the reason I was there was not to learn the history of potatoes in Sweden, but rather to pay a visit to one of my Swedish readers.

Oh, wait, I was telling a story. I was walking back to my hotel from the train station, and as I crossed one of the plazas, a man approached me, speaking unaccented American English. He said, "Hey, you look Chinese. We have an organization for Chinese people, and the meetings are conducted in Swedish so you can understand!"

Okay, let's see if we can add up everything wrong with this situation.

  1. We're in Sweden, and I "look Chinese", so he decides to speak to me in English?
  2. He's speaking English in order to convince me to attend a meeting conducted in Swedish.
  3. If I'm Chinese, wouldn't "the language I can understand" be, um, say, some variation of Chinese?

I didn't feel like pointing this out to the gentleman. I just wanted to get back to my hotel, but he kept following me, repeating his spiel. I stopped and mentally enumerated the languages I knew how to speak.

  • English: Obviously he knows English. He's speaking it.
  • Swedish: We're in Sweden. There's a chance he knows Swedish.
  • German: Göteborg gets a lot of German tourists. The tourism signs and tour buses are trilingual: Swedish, English, and German. So there's a chance he knows German.
  • Chinese: Seeing as he's assuming that I'm a native Chinese speaker, yet he's speaking to me in English, it's a pretty safe bet that he doesn't speak Chinese. Especially if I pick a minority dialect.

I turned to him and said in my parents' native dialect, "I'm sorry, I don't know what you're saying."

He was apparently not expecting this, because he paused for a moment before saying "Oh, Thai people are welcome, too." I guess he took what I said and tried to map the phonemes to English and somehow came to the conclusion that I said, "I'm not Chinese; I'm Thai."

I merely reiterated my claim not to understand what he was saying and continued onward. He decided not to follow me any further.

I use this technique whenever I don't want to talk to somebody. And the trick works both ways: In Taiwan, when people try to talk to me and I'd rather not deal with them, I speak Swedish.

Comments (24)
  1. TJ says:

    Maybe he just felt like messing with travelers. I know people who say strange things to total strangers just for their own amusement.

    [Nope, it was definitely some sort of recruitment drive, as there were several people in the square doing the same thing, handing out literature, etc. -Raymond]
  2. Someone You Know says:

    What do you think the odds are that when he said "Thai" he actually meant "Taiwanese"? This is a fairly common source of confusion for uneducated people in the United States.

  3. Neil (SM) says:

    The man in the story strikes me as a dimwitted con-artist of some sort.  

  4. You could answer in Esperanto.  Nobody speaks that.

  5. Bob says:

    I generally have found that a cold "Sorry, I’m not interested" said in the language of the speaker without breaking my stride is quite effective.

  6. dave says:

    The technique works for me, too. I just speak English to Americans…

  7. Boris says:

    This reminds me of a medicine I once saw which was manufactured in Germany for sale in Russia. The entire label was in Russian (except, I think, the name of the manufacturer was in German), but there was a single line of English on the bottle: "Made in Germany". It was not repeated in German or Russian anywhere else on the bottle. Someone please explain that one to me.

  8. JCAB says:

    I was born in Spain, but a few years back I spent a year in Århus, Denmark. Over there, while attending Language School, the teacher once tested us by telling us a little joke in Danish (my first!). It went kinda like this (transmogrified into American English):

    "Once, there were two men sitting on the front lawn of a house in some little town somewhere in the American midwest drinking beer, when a car stopped in front of the house. The driver rolled down the window and muttered a question in some language that sounded like Chinese or something. The two men just gave him a shrug and told him in English that they didn’t understand. The driver proceeded to try asking in other languages. German, Russian… who knows, but in the end he just rolled up his window and drove away in frustration. One of the men turned to his friend and said ‘Maybe I should find a school or something and learn how to speak some languages’. ‘How come?’ asked his friend. ‘Well… if I had known more languages I might have been able to help that gentleman in the car’, to which his friend replied ‘I don’t know about that. See… that man spoke like Chinese and German and who knows which other languages, but that didn’t help him any’".


  9. Thursday says:

    Raymond, have you tried to patent the phrase "Social skills of a thermonuclear device"? :)

  10. ulric says:

    This is probably how the third Hostel movie will start.

  11. greenlight says:

    @Someone You Know: That’s not a mistake a Swede would make. Thailand is one of the top tourism destinations for Swedes. In fact, when the tsunami hit, Swedish were the non-local people most affected (/killed).

  12. configurator says:

    There’s also the bad accent approach. Mumble something to yourself, preferably in Gibberish, then say in an awful accent "I don’t speak <insert language here>", preferably with mistakes too. I say "ne parlon Franchese" a lot in France, and it works every time. I do speak some French though, just not to those people.

  13. Alex says:

    @Boris: "Made in Germany" was used by the British to mark produce made by the enemy in order to promote the home-grown stuff. The plan backfired when the label turned out to be more a sign of quality. That is why you still have the English catchphrase instead of a German one ("Hergestellt/Produziert in Deutschland").

  14. prb says:

    Thailand is one of the top tourism destinations for Swedes.

    So Sweden is full of perverts and child molesters?

  15. Anthony Wieser says:

    A similar approach happened to me on the S-Tog in Copenhagen.

    I think the guy was a scientologist.

  16. Jonathan O'Connor says:

    Never try this approach with a ticket collector on a German train!

  17. Jonathan O’Connor: I know someone who is English but speaks German fluently, who used that approach with a ticket collector on an English train, once. It worked.

  18. Roman says:

    Wow! What should a reader accomplish for you to visit him personally?

  19. Morten says:

    One could also do this:

    I can’t wait to give it a try some day.

  20. Stephen says:

    @Boris: Various treaties require that all products in international trade have the country of origin marked on them in English, even if the rest of the packaging is in some other language.  The customs folks want something consistent so they can quickly process items, even if it’s not in their native language, and most of them worldwide know English by now, so it made sense to standardize on that.  Even if a given customs agent doesn’t know English, there are only a few hundred possible values for that "Made in X" label, so they can simply memorize what the various values (or the most common ones, at least) mean and what duties to charge for that value.

  21. theorbtwo says:

    …beyond English being common, it has a very small character set, and I’d venture to say the most recognizable character set in the world.  (Though there are a few countries whose short English names include an e-accute — RÉUNION, SAINT BARTHÉLEMY, and one ô, CÔTE D’IVOIRE — according to

    I’ll bet the average Chinese-speaker can copy down strings in ALL UPPERCASE ENGLISH and have them be recognizable afterwards then the average English-speaker can copy down strings in Chinese and have them be recognizable afterwards.  This may speak more to how much Chinese people are exposed to English then to how easy a language English is.

  22. Olivier says:

    @theorbtwo: it’s funny to notice that the accentuated country names are all French names.

    And, French language doesn’t require the upper cased letters to keep their accents… so the e-accute could have been removed as well.

    And for the Côte d’Ivoire, it could have been translated to Ivory Coast, but I suppose the countries themselves decide for ther iso short name, and maybe these ones were attached to their é or their ô

  23. Nik says:

    I agree with Anthony Wieser — it was probably a recruiter for some kind of cult, probably a religious cult. The combination of illogical reasoning, pretending to be helpful, and annoying persistence, points in that direction.

  24. CmraLvr2 says:

    That’s funny.  I have language envy…haha

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