Stupid Tip of the Day: Do Not Speak a Different Language TOO Well…

“The problem I have with language in general is that even if I learn it and can speak it, I may not understand it when it is spoken to me — especially when spoken at normal speed.”

Stupid Tip of the Day: Do Not Speak a Different Language TOO Well…

That statement appeared in this article which I wrote on Tuesday, November 18, 2014. I have recommended in past articles here at The Gate that you learn at least how to say thank you and please in a different language. Sometimes learning those words is easier than at other times. For example, once I learned how to say thank you in Lithuanian, I knew right away that I would never forget it…

…but I am a stickler in terms of pronouncing the words of another language correctly; and when I can say an entire sentence grammatically correctly and without a thick accent, I can feel proud of myself — especially when I receive positive feedback from a person whose first language is the one I am attempting to speak.

However, the drawback is when someone to whom I am speaking initially does not realize that I really do not know the language. One example is when I was at the Arauco Maipu shopping mall in Santiago recently and stopped at a vendor to ask for directions to get to the Monte Tabor metro station.

About two minutes of some of the fastest speaking Spanish I have ever heard — punctuated with a couple of finger points and hand gestures — later, I was more confused than when the question was asked. I really did not want to bother the helpful woman by asking her to repeat herself; but I learned just how valuable the phrase habla despacio, por favor — or speak slowly, please — became for me.

I always thank a person for being patient with me pertaining to speaking his or her native language. She was no exception…

…and yes — I eventually did wind up at the Monte Tabor metro station.

Keep in mind that I never formally learned Spanish as a language. Every word of Spanish which I know, I learned during my travels to countries in which Spanish is the primary language.


There is nothing like seeing the unexpected delight shown on the face of a person native to that country when they see that you have taken the time and effort to learn their language — even if it is only one word…

…and when someone approaches me in the United States to ask me a question in broken English with a thick accent, my own experiences remind me to be patient and to answer that question as best as possible in a way that he or she understands what I am saying. I will even try to speak his or her language for that person to be more comfortable.

When a person apologizes to me for not knowing English better, I usually reply with the truth: “You speak English better than I speak your language!”

I have learned that people around the world are usually patient and helpful when I try to speak their language in asking for information — but I have also learned not to speak it too well if I do not know the language well enough to understand the response.

Photograph ©2019 by Brian Cohen.

2 thoughts on “Stupid Tip of the Day: Do Not Speak a Different Language TOO Well…”

  1. Dr. Stan says:

    Just a suggestion: when you use HABLA DESPACIO, POR FAVOR…you are speaking to a child or a friend or family member. It would be more correct, when speaking to a stranger, to say HABLE DESPACIO, POR FAVOR. That is the “formal” form of address. In cases of danger (robbers, kidnappers, etc.) probably it would be best to use the formal form of address. Just my opinion, as a Spanish-speaking person from México.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I appreciate the suggestion, Dr. Stan.

      Thank you.

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