When you don’t speak a language, don’t sound like you speak the language

I appreciate the help from Christoph and Voo in refining my German. But that reminds me of a story about a friend of a friend.

She was in Japan to visit some friends. Although she speaks English and Mandarin fluently, she doesn't know any Japanese, so her friends taught her how to say "Sorry, I don't speak Japanese." She managed to say this sentence quite well despite learning it purely phonetically.

One day they were walking down the street as a group, and a gentleman approached and asked her for directions. She responded with the only sentence she knew: "Sorry, I don't speak Japanese."

The gentleman was offended by this response and began scolding her for her rudeness. "Look, if you don't want to talk to me, just say so. Don't pretend like you don't speak Japanese." Since he was scolding her in Japanese, all she could do was stand there bewildered while this guy yelled at her.

Fortunately, her friends intervened and explained to the gentleman, "No really, she doesn't speak any Japanese. We just taught her that one sentence."

The lesson I took from this story was that when you don't speak a language, it's important to sound like you don't speak the language. In a way, it's a good thing that my German is a little bit off. That way, the person I'm talking with knows that my German is not all that great.

Examples: During a trip to Germany, I discovered that when I asked a simple question, people would answer in rapid-fire German, overflowing my internal parsing buffer. During my trip to Sweden, I applied the lesson from this article, and found that people switched to simpler Swedish and spoke more slowly. As a result, I had little difficulty understanding what people were saying to me. (Of course, it didn't help me understand what they were saying to each other.)

Comments (35)
  1. Christoph says:

    I sympathize. I recently took a trip to Switzerland, where they essentially speak German, but with a thick accent and quite a lot of different words. Whenever I talked to someone in German, I got an answer I was usually only able to understand in retrospect. ("Oh, so you said I'd have to pay 10 Francs, not 2…") It was then that I decided that on my next visit, I would just pretend to not understand German at all and speak English instead…

  2. JS Bangs says:

    I have the same problem in Spanish. I barely speak any Spanish, but my pronunciation is good enough that when engaging in conversation people dramatically overrated my ability to understand them. I usually just fall back on English.

  3. Paul Parks says:

    The phrase "Ik spreek geen Nederlands" has a built-in phonetic landmine that would tip off a native speaker pretty quickly.

  4. I know someone who trains stuff internationally.

    He makes it a rule to learn "Hello, my name is [Bob], and I do not speak [language]"

    He got taught the Norwegian from that by someone (possibly the taxi driver) on his way to a training session.

    He'd had candidates coming up to him and asking how long he'd been over for, since he'd got a strong regional accent from a neighbouring area. The person he learned it from had the strong accent, which he copied when learning the phrase.

  5. Dave says:

    Brings to mind this classic Kids in the Hall sketch: http://www.youtube.com/watch

  6. Mikael Vejdemo-Johansson says:

    The danger with being sufficiently foreign in your pronunciation of Swedish is that Swedes will very happily switch to English for you at the last provocation. We had an Australian exchange student living with us when I was in high school (Gymnasium), and he spent quite a lot of time trying to learn Swedish while he was here. He got more and more frustrated with the experience, however, since the deep immersion language learning simply was not available to him — as soon as he TRIED to use his Swedish knowledge, everyone would immediately and “helpfully” switch to English when talking to him.

    [I think I have to my advantage the expectation based on my apparent ethnicity that I don't know much English either. (This was on the other hand a disadvantage when I was in Beijing.) -Raymond]
  7. Matt says:

    There's also an obligatory Family Guy reference here…http://www.youtube.com/watch

  8. Mason Wheeler says:

    The three most important phrases to know in any language:

    I don't speak [language].

    Do you know any English?

    Where's the bathroom?

  9. Jonathan says:

    Much like the old UI design advice – when your program is 10% done, make the UI look 10% done. Otherwise, PHBs and other non-techies will assume that a finished UI means a finished program.

    Joel Spolsky on the subject: http://www.joelonsoftware.com/…/fog0000000356.html

    I also found out that, at a store, asking in perfect-Mandarin "What is this?" results in a perfect-Mandarin answer I stand no chance to understand. They did dig my accent (or rather, my learner's CD's actor's accent).

  10. saveddijon says:

    For Japanese, there's another wrinkle that makes things worse:

    If I understand correctly, phrasing in Japanese inflects depending on who you are speaking to: whether your interlocutor is older/younger, more important/less important, male/female, family/not family, etc. (I don't know the details.)

    However: learning ONE phrase won't cut it. Chances are the phrase will be incorrect for the class of person you are replying to, and the result may very well be perceived as an insult.

  11. Ñop says:

    @Mason Wheeler

    You don't really need to know "Do you know any English?" in other languages. You can say it in English and assume any non-English answer means "no".

  12. Mason Wheeler says:


    True.  But that was mostly meant as a joke…

  13. Max says:

    Ñop: that assumes the answer is either yes or no. In practice I found that, "parle inglese?" ("Do you speak English?", in Italian) is likely to elicit "un poco" (a bit), while "Do you speak English?" gets a shrug or a "no" (that's an Italian "no", not an English one).

  14. Joshua says:

    saveddijon: However: learning ONE phrase won't cut it. Chances are the phrase will be incorrect for the class of person you are replying to, and the result may very well be perceived as an insult.

    I would expect the smashed-up grammar would get the point across all by itself in that case.

  15. @Max says:

    Nitpicking… and quite on topic with today's post – it's "Parla Inglese ?" [more polite] or "Parli inglese ?" [more direct].

    The first form as I said is more polite, as in what is usually used when approaching an unknown person. Still nobody with a carbon atom in their brain would get offended if you use the second, as it's quite obvious that it's a difficulty in language and not an act of over-friendliness.

    (I hope you don't get offended either, for the correction).

  16. tsrblke says:

    It helps to also not look like you would speak a particular language.  When I was in Nerja Spain I was approached by a German couple (it's a very popular British/German tourist area, much like the European Florida).  They presumed based on my blonde hair and blue eyes I suppose (I'm mostly of german ancestery, with just a hint of Irish that only amplifies it) that I must be from Germany.  After I said (in English) "I don't…uh..speak..German" they yelled even louder and pointed at me.  I tried my best sputtering of "No sprechen Deutsch" assuming that'd at least get the point across.  They huffed some more, pointed (at what seemed to be my hair?), said somethings that sounded angry and walked off.

    Never could figure out what they wanted.

  17. GrumpyYoungMan says:


    Not really.  As long as you know the forms of address and politeness of Japanese used for business, you can get by just fine for visits.  If you work/live in Japan long enough to form various professional and personal relationships, the other forms come into play but at that point you would need to be making a serious study of the language anyway.

  18. JM says:

    I only speak two languages fluently, but I'm very good with phonetics. This causes no end of bewilderment from people who assume that if you can pronounce a few sentences perfectly (or, in the case of languages that are "pronounced as written", read entire texts), surely you must speak the whole language. They tend to look at you as if you're pulling their leg or deliberately holding out on them. Presumably these people would be mystified by parrots too.

    An easy way of avoiding trouble is to mix in a strong foreign accent when you say "I don't speak [language]". The appropriate accent depends on what foreigners are best liked by the listeners…

  19. GWO says:

    The lesson I took from that story is that there's at least one Japanese gentleman who isn't the sharpest tool in the box, and has the social skills of a thermonuclear device.  Anything other lesson is over generalising from one unpleasant idiot.

    I only speak two languages but I can say "I'm sorry, I don't speak <language>" in five or six others (admittedly with varying degrees of fluency).   Seems a common courtesy to learn *at least* that much before visiting a foreign country.

  20. TC says:

    I went to Japan a few weeks ago for the first time. I learned Japanese 30 years ago, and it all came back to me. But I found that I could ask questions much more fluently, than I could understand the replies! So to the people I met, it must have been something like this: You're walking down the street. A stranger approaches and says, "Excuse me, can you direct me to the nearest branch of Barclay's Bank?" You reply "Sure, go down there 50 meters, then turn left." The stranger then looks confused and says, "Sorry, no spikka da english !!"

  21. Tom West says:

    Having a Finnish mother and thus having heard Finnish all my life (but never learned it), I too managed to get very odd looks from my "I'm very sorry, I don't speak Finnish" phrase.  However, Finns being Finns, no-one ever said anything – long looks were about the whole of it.

    However, the Kids in the Hall sketch hit home.  It's easy to make fun until you actually experience someone saying "Sorry, I don't speak English" with no trace of an accent.  It's really quite hard to imagine that you're not being put on.  It's one massive instinct fail.  I think she realized that I initially didn't quite believe here and it probably didn't help when I helpfully walked the woman into the fish store ("poisson") half a block down only to realize she was probably looking for a liquor store ("boisson") just around the corner about 10 minutes later.  No wonder she looked confused.

  22. Drak says:

    In France, be sure to learn the phrase 'Je ne comprend pas Francais' (or something) and not 'Je ne parle pas Francais'. They don't care if you don't speak French (because you do, you said it to them in French!), but if you don't understand French, you might be lucky enough that they will deign to speak English to you.

  23. TC says:

    @Drak: A few years ago, on my first trip to europe, I asked a guard at the Gare Du Nord for help. He replied coldly, "I don't speak english" – in perfect english. I remember thinking, "Thanks, &^#$head". The fluency and lack of accent made me disbelieve him. Now I wonder if he really didn't!

    A friend of mine says that in France, you should always say (in english): "Excuse me, do you speak Australian?" This tells them that you're not a hated english pig. They allegedly reply, "No – but you australians speak english, no? we speak english!"

  24. Dave says:

    He makes it a rule to learn "Hello, my name is [Bob], and I do not speak [language]"


    He got taught the Norwegian from that by someone (possibly the taxi driver) on his way to a training session.

    And when he says it people respond "I'd prefer it if you didn't fondle my buttocks".

  25. Dave says:

    The three most important phrases to know in any language:


    I don't speak [language].


    Do you know any English?


    Where's the bathroom?

    Yeah, that's good to know beforehand.  Once you get to Portugal you find out that there's a rather limited number of uses for things like "sono l'antichristo".

  26. Dave says:

    A friend of mine has a related problem, he's half-Japanese but barely knows any of the language, and occasionally has Japanese folks get quite upset at him because he's deliberately choosing to be rude and not speak his native language with them.  I'm not quite sure whether he can fix this by looking less Japanese…

  27. SimonRev says:

    A few months ago, I was traveling to Sweden from the US and had to transfer planes in Paris.  The worker at passport control seemed extremely irritated that I didn't speak any French, despite the fact that I had no intention of visiting France at the time. (Nor, to be honest any real desire to carry on a conversation with the passport control worker)

  28. Yoshord says:

    Lesson learned: Dye hair before traveling abroad.

  29. real deal says:

    No, I don't speak any AMERICAN english.

  30. cheong00 says:

    @GWO: Instead of learning that many way to speak "Sorry, I don't speak <whatever> language.", I found learning to "shoulder shrug" when hearing something you don't understand an effective alternative.

  31. cheong00 says:

    @saveddijon: As I understand, there is a book regarding tones in Japanese language. The conversions listed there as Level3 is said to be appropiate to be used in most situations. (It might make you sound unnecessarily humble, but that seldom do any harm).

    And because most Japanese classes taught in foreign countries are taught using feminine tone, it's generally accepted some forms of traditionally feminine speaks (for example, refering to myself as Watashi in conversations) are now gender neutral.

  32. mpz says:

    I never really understood why "I don't speak <your language>" is one of the first things taught to language learners. If you want to learn the language, surely (barring emergencies) you want to keep the conversational partner speaking his or her own language as much as possible.

    Now if you're a tourist, it doesn't make much difference if you can say it correctly or at all; the fact that you don't speak the language comes across anyway (and as noted, if you say "I don't speak Swedish" in perfect Swedish, you're more likely to be misunderstood as not wanting to speak it). You'd be better off learning simple greetings, saying thanks and two all important phrases for further language development: how to say "Could you repeat that?" and "What is this called?".

  33. TC says:

    @mpz: "the fact that you don't speak the language comes across anyway"

    Yes. In europe, one of my travel partners was annoyed that everyone spoke english to him. He said, "how does everyone know instantly that I'm english?". My guess was, they *didn't* know he was english – they just knew he *wasn't* dutch, german or whatever (depending on where we were), so they swapped to english as a lingua franca.

  34. Gabe says:

    Does anybody know how to say "You're overflowing my internal parsing buffer" in German?

  35. @Gabe says:

    "Sie lassen meinen internen Sprachpuffer überlaufen." It's not entirely word-by-word because I would think that "parse buffer" is not that comprehensible to "normal" people, even in English.

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