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As a foreigner in an English speaking country, I meet people in several situations, business and social.

As you are introduced to conversations, you sometimes get lost because of lack of fluency in the English language.

Sometimes you feel your conversation partner is alienated, thinking you are a moron that doesn't understand him.

How can I introduce myself beforehand, and then remark in the conversation that I'm not an idiot, in fact I'm a really smart guy, I just need to improve my English conversation to demostrate that?

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    Do you know for a fact that they think you are challenged in some regards or do you just assume they think this? Can't they just be simply annoyed by the difficulties they face when communicating with you instead of thinking you are an idiot? Could you maybe be specific with an example? Are we talking about some guy on the subway? Did he call you stupid? What exactly are you talking about? – Raditz_35 Feb 1 '18 at 8:50
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I am an English-Speaker living in a town where English is not the main language. When I moved here, my ability in the local language was intermediate and I was too shy to show how bad I was. I tried to hide that I didn't understand, I tried to pretend that I was fluent when I wasn't. This made people think I was really slow and stupid.

I realised that I was fooling nobody. Everyone KNEW I was English from my accent, and I was just shooting myself in the foot by pretending to know more than I did.

Even when you do state "English isn't my first language", they still don't know how good you are. There is a whole range of speaking abilities between knowing nothing and fluent. I tried telling people, but it didn't actually help because they didn't know what to do (Use simpler words? Talk slowly?). So this is what I figured out.

Don't try and pretend to know more than you do

You may not make this mistake, but I did so I'm putting it in for completeness. They probably can tell from your accent that you're not first-language English. If you don't know what they're saying, don't nod in any case and guess. Don't try and come across as fluent when you're not to impress them. It will have the opposite effect, because they'll be confused about where your ability is (nothing? fluent?) and in the worst case, they'll think you're fluent and just really slow.

Instead, ask clarifying questions

If they say something that doesn't make sense, ASK what it means.

What do you mean by ...
What does x mean?

This does a couple of things. It (1) allows you to clarify their meaning (and improve your vocabulary), (2) it indicates to them that when you don't understand, you will ask, and (3) it attributes any mistakes you make to your language ability (and not your intelligence. In fact, you sound more intelligent because you're actively engaging in learning the language!).

If you accurately represent your understanding by asking them when you don't understand, they'll get a much better feel for your level of ability and will trust that when you get lost, you will say something.

Learning a language is a humbling experience, but people are really forgiving.

I have always found myself to be more critical of my ability. I'll have a conversation with someone and feel absolutely horrible about it, and then ask my husband (who was present) about it later and he'll say he didn't notice any big mistakes at all. Yes, it is humbling to mess up with some grammar, but also many many native speakers use bad grammar all the time and don't even notice or care. Many people are appreciative of the fact that you are taking the time to learn their language in the first place.

It isn't necessary to bring up the language difference, but if you want to, tell others you'll ask if you get confused

I've found it isn't always necessary to bring up language most of the time. Most people figure it out just because of my accent and the questions I ask. If you want to speed up the process or say something, you can tell people that you'll ask questions if you don't understand, and that they're welcome to correct you (if you're open to corrections).

"English isn't my first language, but I will ask you if I don't understand anything and you're welcome to tell me if I make a mistake"

This way, (1) you're justifying your language mistakes, (2) they're not expected to change the way they speak for you, and (3) they can trust that you will say something if you don't get it.

No matter if you choose to mention it or not, if you accurately portray your ability by asking questions and not pretending you know more than you do, they'll figure it out on their own pretty quickly and are probably going to be more helpful and forgiving than you think!

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    I am in exactly the same position as @Stacey. A useful trick I have found (particularly when talking with local officials etc) is to repeat what I have been told in my own words. This will take much longer (I can't really handle the equivalent of "I would have liked to go swimming but ...", it becomes something like "At that time, I want to swim but..."), but it gives the other party an opportunity to check I have understood what I need to do/what they are going to do. – Martin Bonner Feb 1 '18 at 14:25
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    @MartinBonner I'm at the stage now where I'm mostly advanced in my second language so I can make grammatically correct sentences that are okay, but I find what gives me away (apart from the accent, of course), is that I lack nuance in my choice of words/word order. A lot of the time I'll say something technically correctly, but it just feels very "English" to a local ear. For example, in English we naturally start with time. Yesterday, I.... If I do the same in my second language, it gives me away as an English person immediately because native speakers just don't start sentences like that. – user6818 Feb 1 '18 at 17:19
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    "people are really forgiving." Some people are. I've once seen someone sucker punch a guy because he didn't like his accent (in kansas). I think there is a lot of animosity towards people who don't know English in the US. – user3316 Feb 1 '18 at 20:11
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    @AytAyt I don't live in the USA so am completely unfamiliar with the USA culture. My experience has been the opposite. No idea where the OP is but thanks for the insight. I would hope that it's just a vocal minority that gives a bad impression. – user6818 Feb 1 '18 at 20:42
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I know this might have to be dependent on context, but I have met people who speak English as a second language, and who have introduced themselves by saying

Hello, my name is ______, it's very nice to meet you. Please forgive me but I am just learning English and at times I might ask you for clarification.

This way, you can communicate that you are aware of how you might come across, and the fluent speakers are also given the opportunity up front to be more mindful of what they say.

I also want to note that there's absolutely no need to apologise for not being a fluent English speaker, but many English-speaking people in North America would interpret that as a polite acknowledgement of the language barrier, so that's why my example is phrased the way that it is. I can't say for sure if other places are the same, so perhaps someone else could confirm or deny this.

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    I don't know of any situations where it would be necessary to ask forgiveness. I'm also unaware of situations where it would be a bad thing. – Wayne Werner Feb 1 '18 at 13:49
  • @WayneWerner it might be useful to note where you're from, so that OP has an idea of where this type of response is useful. :) – kem Feb 7 '18 at 0:39
  • Southern USA, Arkansas in particular. Though anywhere I've been in the US (both coasts, and many places in between), I would be surprised if it were necessary. But I also agree with J.R. that it would be considered polite – Wayne Werner Feb 7 '18 at 5:50
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If you're in the USA, where most of the country only knows English (and thus have never experienced the reverse situation), there probably isn't a lot you can do. For Monolingual English speakers in the US, their main experience with people who don't use the language very well has been with people who are either mentally challenged, from a non-favored dialect area, or just downright dumb.

As an Engineer I work with a relatively high amount of people whose native language isn't English, and I've caught myself doing this many times, usually when I get to know someone well enough that I'm forced to revise my estimate of them way upward. (There are some dumb engineers too though!)

Really the only sure-fire thing you can do is to be your smart self, and eventually people who deal with you regularly will figure it out. There isn't a lot you can do about that first impression though, other than keep working to improve your pronunciation.

My guess is that in England it isn't quite as bad, as more people there probably have the experience of trying to express themselves in a second language, and in dealing with people whose native language isn't English.

  • On the plus side, I see from your profile you're from Spain. If you go somewhere like Miami or San Antonio, being fluent in Spanish will be a great help. – T.E.D. Feb 1 '18 at 15:12
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    You basically say that people in England have more experience with immigrants than people in USA. How ironic. – Agent_L Feb 1 '18 at 15:43
  • @Agent_L - The word I used was "guess". I have no actual experience living in England, and freely admit I could be way wrong on this. However, we don't live right next door to a lot of densely populated wealthy countries whose primary language isn't English. An Englishman can hop on the chunnel train and be in a non-English speaking country within a few hours. A large amount of Americans don't even live within 500 miles of the country's border, and very very few live within easy travel distance of Mexico or a non-English speaking Caribbean country. – T.E.D. Feb 1 '18 at 15:54
  • @T.E.D. It depends. Not all immigrants. I used to know plenty who never got good at English nor cared to be and to be honest didn't need to. – Tycho's Nose Feb 1 '18 at 16:14
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    I don't know if I should take exception to your allegation, or declare myself an exception to your broad-brush statement. Either way, it made me cringe, and my blood boil. Most of the non-native speakers I've befriended (and there have been far too many to count) were international students – starting in high school, and continuing through college and graduate school – or well-established professionals who were anything but "mentally challenged, from a non-favored dialect area, or just downright dumb." – user12334 Feb 2 '18 at 22:05
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Example, if they say something really fast or a sentence which have a few words you can't understand, ask them clarify what they mean and give the reason that you're new to English as a language.

Another way would be to ask questions pertaining to the subject of the conversation which show intelligence and higher thinking (etc etc) which will show that you are not dim-witted but rather just have issues with the language the conversation is being carried out in.

i feel the same with foreign languages. And i personally try to pass my inadequacy in the language with humor while simultaneously asking for clarification.

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Stacey writes:

They probably can tell from your accent that you're not first-language English.

Maybe not (I've seen that mistake get made many times). They're especially unlikely to figure this out if they have met many people who are uneducated or mentally challenged, and very few who are very smart/maybe experts in other languages, but still not good in English.

Even if they can tell English is a second language, it doesn't mean they have any empathy or idea of what it means to be smart and expert in another language if you can't express yourself well in English. This is more likely if they haven't traveled to places where non-English languages are common.

Such ignorance is especially common in the US.

An effective strategy I've seen is a line like, "Sorry, I am an expert in < other language(s) > but still learning English." This may be after someone's expressed difficulty understanding you, signaled by body language they're judging you a moron by your language, or just before you ask for something to be repeated more slowly or in different terms.

Another effective strategy I've seen is demonstrating competence by raising awareness of something specific you've previously accomplished, which is and is likely to be perceived as quite difficult. This doesn't work in all situations, particularly with strangers whom you are likely to only briefly interact with, but it can help with folks you plan to be interacting with for a longer time (e.g. co-workers). It can be included at a time when you're asking for help so it's more humble instead of bragging, but still conveying the information.

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    As an American, I find it rather difficult to believe that many Americans would have trouble telling that someone isn't a native speaker of English... It's usually not a difficult thing to discern from accent, even for people who are very fluent in English, let alone those who are newer to it. Also, I would generally not recommend telling someone that you are an 'expert' in another language (unless maybe you have a degree in or teach that language.) Saying "my native language is x" will usually convey the idea better than "I'm an expert in x language" and will also sound less arrogant. – reirab Feb 1 '18 at 19:06
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    I find it rather difficult to believe... Me too (earlier), but I've seen it happen on multiple occasions, spending time with someone who is very well educated and an expert in a different language, who's still learning English, and observing some of their initial encounters with others. Some who make the mistake are just very tolerant of different regional accents and others are so far removed from international settings (or so young) that they don't even have an accessible, solid concept for the possibility that English might not be the best language of someone they meet where they're at. – WBT Feb 1 '18 at 19:52
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    @WBT - Conversely, I once chatted with a young kid (son of my goalie) who was flabbergasted when I told him I didn't know Spanish. He said I was the only person he knew who couldn't speak it (not true, about half of the rest of my team can't, but I guess he didn't know that). This was in Oklahoma. – T.E.D. Feb 1 '18 at 22:33
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Lots of brilliant question and answers here.

Unfortunately, I believe people are correct that, depending on your locale, there may not be a lot you can do, your only true long-term solution may well be to learn English to fluency.

However, there is one thing you can do in many, many situations, and this one is no exception: show, don't tell. In other words, actually demonstrate your ability to learn quickly! When they use a word whose meaning you don't know, ask them what it means, ask for clarifications to make sure you understand it correctly, then start using that word (correctly and appropriately!) right in front of them. If they're smart enough to realize you didn't know English beforehand, they'll be smart enough to see how quickly you just learned. And if not, well, it's not worth worrying about.

  • Asking what a word means is a really good idea if you are still learning, but is decidedly not a good way to give the impression that you are in fact unusually smart, and neither is using a word in conversation that you don't fully yet understand the meaning of and when using it is typical and when it isn't. The latter is instead a great way to give the impression that you are way dumber than you think you are. – T.E.D. Feb 2 '18 at 17:28
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I lived in foreign language cultures, too. Universally, I learned cultures in Arabic, Japanese, Russian, Ukrainian, and French are all very forgiving if you do not speak perfectly their language. Often, others speak my Native American language and we each speak the others’ tongue and we understand by overlap of common words.

Americans and Brits and Aussies and Kiwis are no different. A critical part of learning is trial and error. In professional circles, I fully expect those you meet will enjoy speaking with you at an intermediate level.

I encourage you to watch Lydia Machova’s lecture, “10 Things Polyglots do Differently.” Primarily, they do not mind making errors in discourse as they learn a new language.

I believe the awkwardness originates from others recognizing a language barrier exists (at some level.) Western culture deals with such things by joking and reducing potentially embarrassing things to lesser importance.

To alleviate any awkwardness, you must be the first to make light of your language skills. Here are some jokes I have used in the past that get laughs and open the door to freely flowing dialogue and even some language tips:

Please excuse me. I cannot speak English well on Tuesdays. I am not yet fluent in English. But, what you are saying is very interesting. I’ve never heard that about monkeys. (When they were not talking about monkeys at all.) Pause with a serious look for a moment then smile and laugh.

Have fun!

  • I've used this: Hey, you don't talk english very well. No, I speak better computing. Let me tell a joke: a man go into a pet shop and say "I want a canary, a good singer for my mother". This is our best one. OK, how much?. Then next day: hey, this canary only has one leg! What do you want it for, to sing or to dance? – Rogelio Feb 4 '18 at 23:19
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Say, "I think I understand your concern, but I want to be sure it is not being lost based on my ability to translate."

  1. This right away sets a tone - the other person has less ability/ skill translating or they'd be speaking your language.

  2. It shows you are self-aware and cuts through the association that forms between a persons ability to speak and our brain attempting to thin-slice their intelligence.

If someone is disrespectful after that, it is probably not related to your native language - they are probably going to be that way no matter what. My two cents. Cheers.

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