Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Language is more than words and meanings

As a young man, I remember being taught how to say, "I don't speak Spanish" in Spanish.

This, as it turns out, almost completely defeats the purpose. If you tell someone that you don't speak their language in their language, they naturally assume that you speak their language. The fact that you just told them that you don't speak their language is completely superseded by the fact that you were just speaking their language.


  1. Yeah, I used to work at a law office and one of the things I learned to say was the Spanish equivalent of "I'm sorry, I don't speak Spanish. Would you like to leave a voicemail for [name of person who actually did speak Spanish]?"

    For some odd reason, that would give folks the idea that I could actually understand a rapid-fire stream of the language...

  2. Why? It's so common to be taught the "I don't speak [x]"s for values of x you're likely to encounter that saying it isn't evidence you're lying.

    There was one time I was in the room half paying attention when Mom was watching some movie, and they had an exchange that went something like this:

    Bad guy: Do you know where the MacGuffin is?

    Protagonist: I don't speak English.

    Bad guy: If you don't speak English, how come you can say you don't speak English?

    Protagonist (in fluent English): Because I learned it by rote, obviously. You should only think I can speak English if I can say something other than "I don't speak English."

    Bad guy: You just did. Tell me where the MacGuffin is!

    (Me: *headdesk* Dude, just repeat "I. Don't. Speak. English." louder and slower to anything he says. I mean, come on.)


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