Ten ways a second language can make you look like an idiot

ways a second language can make you look like an idiot

In season six of Modern Family, crotchety old Jay and his Colombian wife, Gloria, are arguing over her son’s Spanish tutor. When it brings up a bigger issue—that Jay doesn’t understand how hard it is to always speak in a second language—Gloria snaps that she is very smart in Spanish. Seeing her point, Jay decides to give lessons a try. Later, when he apologizes to her (in Spanish), she hugs him and laughingly says, “Oh Jay how I love it, now you sound like the stupid one!”

I wish this wasn’t so right! Until you’re fluent, some of your personality and smarts are unavoidably lost in translation. There are just too many opportunities to look like an idiot.

Keep reading for ten tongue-in-cheek ways that learning a second language does you no favors.

You’ll seem crazy opinionated. Because, when you don’t have the proper adjective at your disposal, you’ll reach for handy intensifiers like very and really. They always work with whatever word you have on hand. Yes, you’ll get your point across, but likely with more force than intended.

You’ll become less fluent in your native language. Short-term memory can only handle so much. It’s inevitable that you’ll find yourself grasping for the proper word in your native language from time to time. Don’t worry, you can fill the gaps with umm and like, as you swear that you know what you’re trying to say, only in Spanish. Wow, pretentious and a dummy? What an interesting combo!

You’ll laugh at jokes that aren’t that funny. Understanding a joke is the definition of mastery in a second language. So when this day finally comes, you’ll laugh ridiculously hard at the simplest jokes because you’re so damn pleased with yourself.

You’ll talk way too much. Each day with your second language will be different. When you do happen to get one of those magical good days, you’ll want to talk to anyone about anything. A perfunctory how are ya? is all that’s needed to spur a dissertation on the weather and where you found cheap beers and what you’re doing for the next holiday weekend. Take it easy on the grocery clerk and go find someone looking lonely on a park bench.

You’ll seem too big for your own britches. Here’s how it goes: you mention offhandedly that you speak a decent level of Spanish. But then you order a drink and the waiter uses some slang word. Now you’re tripped up (conversational skills plummeting!) and everyone thinks you have a very healthy opinion of yourself. Setting an expectation only invites fate to present you with a person who speaks like the Micro Machine guy or who uses all the slang you don’t know or who has an unintelligible accent. Just avoid the topic from the get-go.

Your translation won’t work. The same way that most colloquialisms and jokes in Spanish don’t translate into English, the same is true with the reverse. Save yourself the confused looks and poach some Spanish material instead.

You’ll become a liar. Not on purpose, though. It’s only because there will be times you won’t have the necessary words to fully express your opinion. Sometimes you’ll be flustered and simply cobble together whatever sentence ending you can. It’s fine. Personally, I don’t believe these lies count.

You’ll have a hard time switching back and forth. The months you spend ingraining Spanish pleasantries into your repertoire will stay there. To the point that, when you visit your home country (or a place that speaks a different language altogether), you’ll respond in a robotic fashion with  and gracias to people who don’t actually speak Spanish.

You may adopt a new personality. A huge part of learning a second language is imitation. That said, take a good look at your teachers. It’s almost a guarantee that you’ll pick up a few of their habits, whether it’s tone or cadence or slang. This is how I found myself calling a hotel front desk and asking for an iron in a high pitched, cheerleader-y voice.

You’ll respond blindly. If you’re not fluent then you have to pay attention to a conversation all the time. There’s no zoning out to think about the best bus route home or what you want for dinner. A lot can happen in the ten words you missed. When it comes time for your response you have two choices: ask your conversational partner to repeat themselves (always recommended at doctor visits and with food orders) or take a chance and shoot out a response. Quizzical looks mean sorry, try again.

Learning a new language (or any kind of skill) is definitely a healthy check to your ego. Do any of these sound familiar to you? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

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