Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Speaking a Foreign Language Makes You Less Intelligent

This is a fundamental truth about speaking a language (learned as an adult), but it is often forgotten. And forgetting this truth can have profound social consequences.

I am fluent enough in the Nepali language that I can hold a basic conversation on most topics, and even excel on a few choice topics (mother language education, food, etc.). But speaking in Nepali I just "feel" less intelligent. It takes me longer to parse sentences and longer to respond. I forget words and mix others up and am often laughed at for some amusing mistake. Thinking is just harder to do. It takes longer and it is exhausting. I would estimate that when I speak Nepali I feel about 60% as intelligent as when I speak English (with German I feel about 80% as intelligent and with Spanish I feel about 20% as intelligent).

When I speak Nepali, I am the same person as when I speak English, but the outward manifestation of my personality can be much different. I may be bolder or I may be more shy, depending upon how I face the challenge and constant humiliation of being forced to express myself in a less intelligent (and oftentimes laughably simplistic) way. That is the discomfort and terror of language-learning, and also its exhilarating challenge.

But oftentimes teachers forget this. They teach language as if it were a skill like long division, and not a fundamental means of expressing oneself. They berate their students for not speaking out in class, while forgetting the terror and frustration that they experienced in their own language classes.

And forgetting this truth can have other societal implications as well. It can lead to subtle mental judgments about the intelligence of immigrants or foreigners. When we hear the foreign-accented speech of our own language, we often do not immediately acknowledge that this person is expending a great deal more mental effort to communicate his or her ideas than we are. This person sounds stupid to us even though they are doing something that requires incredible mental stamina and courage.

Coming from a very monolingual society, this is something I need to keep in mind every day that I teach English. The best remedy for that is to get laughed at by a 10-year-old for mixing up the Nepali word for "the day after tomorrow" with the word for "pumpkin."


  1. How perceptive! And that is why I admire your courage to use limited language in order to really learn the language.

  2. this is something i really have to keep in mind while i'm in VN. the education system here is similar to the one you've described - constant pressure and little encouragement - and, well, thanks for posting this, because i was starting to forget it myself.

  3. So true!! I have caught myself falling into that at times, speaking with a non native English speaker and beginning to judge their intelligence almost without even thinking. But then coming back and realizing that it's not their first language and then pondering how I sound to others when I speak Spanish.

    Thanks for another insightful post!

  4. I think intelligent mumbling (talking quickly, emphasizing key words while deemphasizing others, and trailing off at the right moments) lets you pretty effectively avoid sounding less intelligent in a foreign language, up to a point. I work with mostly non-native English speakers and I hear the consequences of this all the time: when real clarity is needed in a conversation (like when an agreement is being made) their communication can suddenly appear to drop many notches in quality for no apparent reason. It's because they were forced by the situation to articulate.

    In the book Breaking Out of Beginner's Spanish, Joseph Keenan argues that doing this hurts your ability to really master the language. If this is true, then feeling less intelligent in a language could lead to a vicious cycle of compensating by intelligently mumbling to sound better, and in turn actually improving slower than a learner who articulates everything clearly. But I guess it's not really a secret that confidence helps a ton with language learning, right?

  5. Learning a new language is a humbling experience! I think it can be delightful in that way.

    Speaking with a spot-on accent (correct pronunciation) helps you sound smarter. I think learning Italian pronunciations early on helped me learn at a quick pace later on.

  6. I think the correct use of discourse markers and filler words in particular does a lot of the work of intelligent mumbling. If you can use 'uh,' 'y'know,' and 'like,' you can sound a lot better. I was actually having a debate at this linguistic conference about whether English filler words should be taught to 5th graders. What do you think?

  7. This same Joseph Keenan book that says intelligent mumbling slows down your learning also says knowing stalling phrases (that work as discourse markers or meaningful fillers) is especially helpful. He recommends knowing all the progressively more verbose forms so you can use the appropriate one: "Well..." -> "Well, you see..." -> "Well, you see the thing is that..." Or "I mean..." -> "That is to say..." -> "That is, what I'm trying to say is that..."

    I think this goes beyond pretending to be conversational and actually helps develop conversational abilities more quickly. It helps you avoid translating entire sentences in your head, start to finish, and blurting out the result all at once from memory. It seems like anything that makes it easier to construct on-the-fly complete sentences would be helpful for becoming conversational.

    I don't see much good or harm from teaching meaningless fillers like "um", because that is not the same as continually encouraging students to say "um" more often. However, it does seem important to continually encourage students to stay within the bounds of a meaningful complete sentence by any means necessary -- even by going so far as to encourage the use of a wide variety of lengthy stalling phrases and meaningful fillers.