Language Fluency Denial YKTTW Discussion

Language Fluency Denial
A common excuse to avoid speaking to someone about something, even though it never works.
(permanent link) added: 2011-07-23 22:21:04 sponsor: alciefrederic edited by: gallium (last reply: 2015-10-10 10:08:32)

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A surprisingly common way to duck out of a possibly uncomfortable conversation is to claim you don't speak the language. It seldom works, but it's often tried.

Common failure points include dropping the "I don't speak X" into the middle of a conversation when you've been speaking X just fine, or making the claim in a language the other person is fluent in and that person obligingly switching to the other language. It's often Played for Laughs. A Completely Unnecessary Translator may be called in to "help".

A subtrope of Language Barrier. Compare to Hiding Behind the Language Barrier, when one person really doesn't speak the language and is deliberately cut out of the conversation as a result.


  • In this Bud Light commercial, the man teaching English as a Second Language is only teaching his students how to order a Bud Light in different parts of the country. He also teaches them that when someone asks them for a Bud Light, they should say "No Speak English".

Anime and Manga

  • Comedian Jasper Carrott played a practical joke on British holidaymakers in Spain by pretending to be an incompetent Spanish waiter who understood no English, bodged orders, spilled drinks and generally exasperated people. Hidden cameras would catch the action as the holidaymakers got progressively more annoyed. However, one clued-up Butt Monkey saw through the set-up the very first time Carrott replied with a suspicious ¿Que?
  • In one of Margaret Cho's early standup routines, she said this was a benefit of looking Asian, you could avoid talking to strangers by giving a shy giggle and saying "Oh, I don't know".

Comic Book
  • In "Return to Xanadu", an Uncle Scrooge comic by Don Rosa after the Ducks have accidentally flooded Xanadu:
    Xanaduian man: "Honorable Scrooge! Do YOU know anything about this?"
    Scrooge: "So solly! No speakee lingo!"

  • In Bachelor Mother, lower-middle class Polly is nervous when rich boy David issues a last-minute invitation to be his date for a high-society dance. He thus introduces her to his friends as a woman from Sweden who doesn't speak English. They speak faux-Swedish gibberish to each other throughout the evening.
  • In Toy Soldiers the Colombian villains are Hiding Behind the Language Barrier by speaking Spanish. They ask one of the students, Ricardo, if he speaks Spanish. Ricardo denies being able to speak the language. When the villain says in Spanish to shoot him anyway Ricardo yells "No, wait!" revealing himself.
  • Spoofed in Sahara when Dirk Pitt and friends are waylaid by Malian troops. (Dirk's just buying time.)
    Dirk: I'm sorry, I don't speak English.
    Malian soldier: [laughs] You are speaking English now!
    Dirk: No, I only know how to say, "I don't speak English" in English.
  • David does this in Delivery Man when he's informed that the children he's fathered through anonymous sperm donation have filed a lawsuit to learn his identity.

  • In Wanted: Dumb or Alive, a woman pulled over in Idaho gave the officer a helpless smile and said in German that she didn't understand English. The officer in question banished that smile by responding politely "Heute ist ein glücklicher Tag für Sie."note 
  • In Wolf Hall, the protagonist Thomas Cromwell has developed a fluency in a number of languages, which he often puts to use in his professional life. However, early in the novel, Cardinal Wolsey inquires about Cromwell's knowledge of Castiian Spanish for a mission involving Henry VIII's attempts to divorce Catherine of Aragon. While Cromwell actually is fluent in the language, he pretends to have only basic knowledge because he knows that the assignment would not bode well for his advancement.

Live-Action Television
  • Played with in a Big Train sketch where a driver whose car has broken down asks two locals whether they speak English. They reply, in perfect English, that they don't speak English, and start a conversation (in perfect English) about how they really should have paid more attention to their English lessons in school. When the driver tries to explain that her car broke down, they apologise (in perfect English) for not being able to understand a word of it. They eventually tell her there's a village five miles away where she might find someone who speaks English. As she walks off toward the village, the locals jokingly admit to each other that they do speak English.
  • In Friends, while Monica was working at Alessandro's, one of the chefs told her, "I don't speak English" when asked to do something. When Monica tells her that she knows she does, because she heard her speaking English just a minute ago, the chef replies, "Well, I don't know what to tell you", and walks off.
  • Fez tries to use this excuse in That '70s Show when the gang are busted by the Mounties when trying to cross the border with Canadian beer.
  • In I Love Lucy, after Lucy finds out something seemingly incriminating, Ricky says, "No hablo Ingles!" as he heads for the door.
    Lucy: "You hablo plenty of Ingles, and you better start hablo-ing right now!"
  • In one episode of The Closer, the suspect claimed that she didn't speak English, so Brenda had Martinez question her in Spanish. It turned out that the suspect spoke perfect English but barely spoke Spanish!
  • Michael Palin's post-Python TV series Ripping Yarns had an episode called "The Testing of Eric Olthwaite". Eric is possibly the most boring little tit in Yorkshire and has two interests: shovels and rainfall. He notes that his own father would pretend to be French so as not to have to speak to him.
  • In Dexter, Dexter is stalking a victim to prevent him from killing his friend, when he is approached by a couple scary looking thugs speaking Spanish. Since this is Miami, everybody speaks a little Spanish, but at that particular moment Dexter needed to get the heck out of where he was as fast as he could. So he said he didn't speak Spanish. This might have worked, except he was so flustered that he accidentally said it IN SPANISH. Nice one, Dex.
  • In The Dumping Ground episode "Finding Frank", Rick and some of the kids find an antiques shop where Frank's old watch is in the window. When they ask the shopkeeper about it, he says that a girl (who was in the shop a few minutes earlier) has expressed an interest in buying it. Said girl returns a few minutes later, dumps a wad of cash on the counter, declares the watch is hers and scarpers off with it. When the other kids try to confront her, she says "No English", which Rick counters by the fact she spoke good English whilst inside the shop.
  • The Hallmark Hall of Fame Made-for-TV Movie What the Deaf Man Heard is this trope made into an entire movie. The main character comes into town on a bus at 10 years old, his mother has been murdered, and he is alone and scared. He refuses to talk to anyone and the townspeople assume he is deaf. Deciding it is easier he spends the next 20 years living in the town and pretending to be deaf and mute.

  • Bowling for Soup's "No Hablo Ingles" is about pretending not to speak English (by using the title phrase) to get out of various quandaries and responsibilities.
    My teacher asked where my homework was
    And that's when I told her
    "No hablo ingles!"

  • In The Foreigner a man pretends to be a foreigner who doesn't speak English in order to avoid having to deal with small talk at the lodge he's staying at. As a result he overhears many conversations which wouldn't have taken place in front of him otherwise, including a plan to turn the place into a Klan HQ.

Video Game
  • In Ace Attorney, a witness (Olga Orly) tried to avoid testifying by claiming she can't speak English. The judge pointed out to her that she'd been speaking English fluently seconds ago.
  • The start of level six of The Simpsons: Hit & Run has this conversation after it's discovered Kang and Kodos are behind the whole plot:
    Bart: Apu, you've got to help me warn Krusty of this alien plot, and thus saving the good people of Springfield.
    Apu: I'm sorry, sir. I do not speak English. I only speak Hindi.
    Bart: But you're speaking it now.
    Apu: Yes, I learned these words phonetetically.
    Bart: You're just afraid of getting vaporized by the space monsters.
    Apu: Up down! Up down! Go, hot dog! Button my undershirt!

  • In this 21st Century Fox comic a drunkard who caused a multi-vehicle accident yells at a Mexican truck driver who tells him "No hablo ingles, senor." And then asks Cecil if he can do anything to help, in plain English.
Cecil: "I thought you didn't speak English?"
Truck driver: "Not to drunken gringos, no."

Web Video
  • In The Autobiography of Jane Eyre, Suzanna-Maria Ramirez Gonzalez pulls this tactic off successfully. She speaks only Spanish in front of Jane or Grace Poole. Grace genuinely believes she doesn't understand English and this way, she bothers her way less. Suzanna eventually reveals to Jane that she actually speaks perfect English.

Western Animation
  • On Futurama, Bender uses this excuse when Cubert asks why a delivery company needs a bending robot.
  • Discussed in Inside Out, where Riley is called on by her teacher to introduce herself. In a panic, Fear tries to suggest that she pretend to not understand English.

Real Life
  • Sammy Sosa's English comprehension skills got significantly worse during the Congressional hearings on steroid use in Major League Baseball following the publication of the Mitchell Report.
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