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.
- 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".
- Ling Yao, a Xingese prince visiting Amestris, uses this excuse in order to avoid paying for all the wreckage he's caused in Fullmetal Alchemist. Ed doesn't buy it.
Ling: I so solly, I no speak much language of this country! Ok, bye-bye now!
- Vladimir from Shounen Note can speak Japanese fluently, as his grandmother was Japanese, but pretends not to speak much for kicks.
- In Love Live! Sunshine!!, Mari attempts to dodge an awkward question from Kanan by lapsing into English and claiming to be unable to speak Japanese. (The dub instead has her speaking Italian.)
- Comedian Jasper Carrott played a practical joke on British holidaymakers in Spain by pretending to be an incompetent Spanish waiter who understood no English, botched 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 stand-up 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 "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 Lucky Luke, one Indian that ambushed a convoy is pretending to not understand English. Luke spots him when the stagecoach interrogates them and the Indian is blushing at the obscenities.
- In The Sandman, a drunken sailor approaches "Emperor" Joshua Norton's chamberlain, Ah How, asking him (in a racist way) if he knows where the nearest Opium Den is. Ah How bows and says, "Vellee sollee. Speekee no Engrish." As the sailor stumbles off cursing, the chamberlain resumes speaking with Norton in fluent English.
- In Swamp Thing, the sleazy photographer Howard Fleck, looking for the title character who's recently returned to Earth, asks the Cajun swamp resident Gene LaBostrie for help locating him, promising him money. LaBostrie, although bilingual, simply spreads out his hands, says "Eh?" and paddles away, out of respect for the Swamp Thing's privacy.
- Love Worth Waiting For: Mulan is only learning English, so she's still a bit shaky, but she sometimes pretends to be less fluent than she actually is.
- Marinette pretends not to understand English in The Seven Misfortunes of Lady Fortune when a drunk businessman tries to hit on her during Gabriel's funeral.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 Hangmen Also Die!, Czaka pretends not to speak German in order to allay suspicions of collaborating with the Nazis. In fact, not speaking German had been his alibi once previously, when the Resistance was betrayed two years ago.
- 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 Overboard, Bobby's nephew Jason likes to troll rich white clients by pretending to be a Mexican immigrant with no knowledge of English.
- 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.
- In Sierra Burgess is a Loser, Sierra pretends to be deaf in order to avoid talking to Jamey. It quickly backfires, as Jamey has a deaf brother and is fluent in ASL (while Sierra isn't).
- 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.
- In Bright, Tikka, a teenage elf on the run from a terrorist cult, spends half the movie pretending she doesn't understand or speak English until she decides she can trust LAPD officers Ward (a human) and Jakoby (an orc). Luckily Jakoby took two years of Elvish in high school.
- The Alice Network:
- When Captain Cameron asks Eve whether she speaks German, she tells him she doesn't.
- In order to be hired at Le Lethe, Eve must pretend that she doesn't speak any German. (German-speaking waitresses aren't employed at Le Lethe for the reason that German customers must be allowed perfect privacy.) It would be suspicious if she spoke English, so she pretends that she doesn't speak that either.
- In Cheaper by the Dozen, the narrator notes that Chew Wong'snote English fluency abruptly deteriorated when someone tried to criticize him or order him around, when he would launch into a Foreign-Language Tirade and stalk off.
- 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.
- This is done in The Tamuli — twice, by different characters, although for mostly the same reason: by invoking this to bring in a Completely Unnecessary Translator they get more time to consider their responses (in the second case it also doubles as obscuring to his court how intelligent and learned he really is). In the first case the person being unnecessarily translated figures it out (she recognized that the other's face showed signs of reacting before the translation was actually said) but plays along until the other admits it, in the second it is pulled off flawlessly.
- In Confessions of a Taoist on Wall Street, Sun I justifies the presence of his silent partner Aaron Kahn at a one-on-one hostile takeover meeting by claiming Kahn is his interpreter. When the executive Sun's meeting with points out he seems perfectly fluent in English, Sun says, "Excuse please, could you repeat?"
- Fifth Business: When the protagonist encounters a childhood acquaintance who's living under a new identity, the acquaintance rather lamely tries this multiple times, switching to a different foreign language whenever the protagonist reveals himself to be fluent in the previous one. Finally he has to give up and acknowledge that they know each other.
- 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]
Lester: English, motherfucker!
- Two of a Kind has Mary-Kate trying to scare off her father's date by speaking Spanish to her at the front door. The woman instead thinks it's cute.
- Saved by the Bell has this exchange courtesy of Lisa and Screech (who it should be pointed out have known each other for years).
Screech: Oh Lisa, Lisa, Lisa...
Lisa: Lisa no in casa!
Screech: I love it when you speak German.
- Ted tries to pull this in Father Ted after accidentally swearing at Bishop Brennan on the phone.
Ted: 'oo eez zis? Zere iz no 'Crilly' 'ere! [hangs up]
- In a Saturday Night Live sketch, a video rental customer brushes off an annoyingly chatty clerk with, "I'm sorry, I'd really love to chat but unfortunately I only speak Spanish."
- In Kim's Convenience, the Korean-Canadian Janet's subplot in the Season 2 episode "Sneak Attack" starts when her response to getting caught sneaking into a film festival is pretending she doesn't speak English fluently. This leads the security guard to think she's a North Korean dissident filmmaker named Janat. Unfortunately for Janet, this ruse comes back to haunt her when she keeps running into the security guard at the convenience store.
- In Frasier, Woody from Cheers is visiting Frasier in Seattle. He likes Seattle, but not spending time with Frasier, and pretends to have left. Frasier spots him in a bar; he hides in the bathroom, responding to Frasier's knocking with "No habla Ingles", When Frasier indignantly asks him "What does this mean?" he replies through the door "It means I don't speak English."
- 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!"
- While Sucio Dutch Mantel did know Spanish and simply refused to speak it, his alternate gimmick Zeb Coulter acted as if he knew none whatsoever.
- Umaga was fully capable of speaking English, as anyone familiar with his previous "Jamal" gimmick would know, but chose to speak exclusively in Samoan until he inexplicably started antagonizing CM Punk and challenged him to a "Samoan Strap Match".
- After becoming the first Japanese man to join the otherwise anti Japanese gaijin Power Stable Bullet Club, Yujiro Takahashi began to deny interviews by pretending he did not understand Japanese.
- 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 about this alien plot, and thus save the good people of Springfield.
Apu: I'm sorry, sir, but I cannot speak English. I only speak Hindi.
Bart: But you're speaking English now.
Apu: Yes, I learned these words phonetically.
Bart: Well, you're just scared of getting vaporized by the space monsters.
Apu: Up down! Up down! Go, hot dog! Button my undershirt! Blah-blah-blah!
- 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 BSoD 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 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, señor." 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.
- Early on in Paradigm Shift, a mid-ranking Triad gangster gets captured by the police after a shoot-out and pretends he doesn't speak English in order to buy time so his buddies can destroy some evidence. Unfortunately for him, one of the protagonists grew up in Hong Kong.
- 8-Bit Theater:
- In this comic, Black Mage and the idiotic pirate captain Bikke has this exchange.
Bikke: Yar, you thar.
Black Mage: [turning to look at Bikke] Er, uh. I'm sorry, stranger, but I don't speak English.
Bikke: If'n ye no be talkin' the English, then how is it ye to be talkin' to the Bikke.
Black Mage: Well, I'd explain, but as I said I don't speak English.
Bikke: Well played.
- The wood elf Thief also does it to the dark elf Drizz'l in the same page.
Drizz'l: [toward Thief who isn't looking his way] You there, whom I can't be bothered to ask to turn around.
Thief: That's good, as I'm too much of a hideous non-elf human to turn around.
Thief: Also, I don't speak English.
Drizz'l: [throws arms up in the air] Bah! You're not worth the effort of examining in further detail!
- In this comic, Black Mage and the idiotic pirate captain Bikke has this exchange.
- Stand Still, Stay Silent: While in Iceland, Emil, who's only really fluent in his native Swedish, first tries to get out of an inteview by legitimately saying he doesn't speak Icelandic. When the reporter turns out to know Swedish as well, Emil uses some of the little Finnish he knows to pretend to not know Swedish. That doesn't work because the reporter has a few smatterings of Finnish as well, making Emil give up and choose to be interviewed in Swedish.
- In El Goonish Shive, Nanase tries this in an effort to get Melissa to leave by telling her in Japanese that she doesn't understand English. When Melissa asks her a question Nanase slips up and answers in English.
- 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.
- In Groom, Delphine is trying to sneak a homeless guy into the hotel past the suspicious concierge Martin by pretending he is a DJ. She claims that he is Estonian to explain why he doesn't respond to Martin's questions, so Martin tries talking to him in Estonian. Then she claims he is deaf as well, so Martin tries Sign Language. Subverted when Martin admits that he only knows French Sign Language and not Estonian Sign Language, so he lets them go.
- On Futurama, Bender uses this excuse when Cubert asks why a delivery company needs a bending robot.
- The Simpsons:
- Discussed in "I Love Lisa", when Homer suggests "I no speak English" as one of several ways for Lisa to let Ralph know she isn't interested in him romantically.
- In "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.
- On Rocko's Modern Life, Heffer and Filburt pretend to be foreigners to avoid punishment for a spree of ding-dong ditching, which they let Rocko take the fall for. When they're on the news, Heffer declares "Me llamo Francois" while Filburt says that he doesn't speak English.
- 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.
- In July 2017, President Trump claimed after meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Abe and his wife that the latter couldn't speak a word of English, even "hello". However, she had once delivered a speech in perfect English. Many commentators wondered whether she had told him that to avoid talking to him.