Language Fluency Denial
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. Also compare Elective Broken Language
, when a person who perfectly knows the language nevertheless chooses to speak in a grammatically improper or idiosyncratic way.
Anime and Manga
- 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".
- 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".
- 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.
- Played for a gag in Mon Oncle Antoine, when Jos, a Francophone Canadian miner, has a confrontation with a supervisor who speaks to him in English.
Supervisor: (in English) I'm telling you for the last time, you understand? The last time!
Jos: (in French) That may be sooner than you think.
Mario: What did he say?
Jos: I don't know. I don't speak English.
- 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 (2005) 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.
- Spoofed in Bon Cop, Bad Cop, as with so very many language tropes. When Ontario Provincial detective Martin Ward reveals in front of a room full of Sureté du Québec detectives that he actually is fluent in French (and thus massively owning the Quebecois cops, who all think they've been Hiding Behind the Language Barrier the entire time they've been mocking him in French), he plays this trope:
Martin: Non, je ne parle pas français. Je me suis fait installer un petit gadget au cerveau and I see subtitles under people when they speak.
Translation: No, I don't speak French. I have had a small gadget installed in my neck and I see subtitles under people when they speak.
- In mystery novel 9 Dragons, Harry Bosch, who is trying to find his kidnapped daughter in Hong Kong, traces her to a cargo ship. He jumps on the cargo ship, grabs a Chinese Mook, and starts barking questions. When he gets no answer he says "Can you swim, asshole?", to which the Mook only replies "No speak." Bosch hesitates and the mook breaks out of the chokehold. When he comes back after Bosch with a knife he says "Can you swim, asshole?"
- 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.
- In A Night in the Lonesome October, suddenly understanding a lot less English than he used to is Rastov's response to being questioned about the missing man.
- 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-Monty 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.
- On an episode of The Wire, done to Lester Freamon and Bunk Moreland during the Terrible Interviewees Montage by members of a ship's crew, at least until Lester and Bunk call them out on it (though they still deny it):
Lester:...Negro, you cannot travel halfway around the world and not speak any motherfucking English!
Crew member: (continues to babble in another language)
- 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.
- 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 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.
- Used twice in the beta version of Katawa Shoujo, both in reference to Shizune (who is deaf):
- Played for Laughs when Hisao decides to learn sign language without telling Misha or Shizune. He hides it from them for a while and begins to notice all the things Shizune is saying behind his back.
- Played for Drama much later. After Misha's death Shizune goes into a Heroic B.S.O.D. and won't leave her room. Later when Hisao confronts her she reveals she's been able to read lips the entire time they've known each other, but she hides it from everyone.
- 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.
- 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.
- In The Simpsons episode "Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield", Marge meets a now-wealthy old friend at the Kwik-E-Mart. When the woman tried to get Apu to pump her gas despite it being a self-service station, Apu pretended to not speak English even though she just heard him talking to Marge seconds earlier.
- 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.
- Stephen Merchant mentioned on The Ricky Gervais Show that he once tried to duck out of donating to a charity by affecting an accent and pretending he wasn't a fluent English speaker. Then the charity worker realized he looked familiar, and questioned if he was Stephen Merchant, forcing Stephen to decide whether he should continue on with the lie or admit the truth. He denied knowing who Stephen Merchant was.