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Nikola
Community Tutor
I'm not stupid, I'm just foreign
Learners, if you don't understand this post, read the easy version in blue. You don't have to be proficient in English to comment.

If you've ever lived abroad while not yet being able to communicate more complex ideas in your target language, you might have experienced frustration and felt like people couldn't see the real you. It's almost as though you were offering the world a very limited version of yourself. It makes you feel like a bit of a nuisance. You don't understand jokes, never say anything profound and you speak in a way that makes others question your intelligence. This seems especially true for those surrounded by native speakers who have never really spoken to a foreigner before or haven't tried learning a foreign language themselves. To them, awkward speech equals cognitive deficit. They will speak slower and louder to you rather than try using different words. You might have met them. I'm sure every country has them.

I'd like to know if you've had the opposite experience. Did someone believe in you at a stage where you were still struggling to express yourself? Did they see you as smart, likeable or funny? How did it make you feel?

Easy version:
Do you live abroad? Do you have problems communicating with native speakers? Sometimes, people think we are stupid because we don't speak very well. We don't understand jokes. Our real personality doesn't show. Do you know this feeling? Is there a person (a friend, a colleague) who knows that you are intelligent but you just can't speak very well? Tell us about this person.
May 4, 2020 9:38 PM
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Comments · 46
This is a very interesting topic, and one I think many people can relate to!

In my early 20s I worked as an au pair in Italy. I was an absolute beginner in the language, and was struggling to make friends. I was fortunate that a very patient and inspiring person asked me to do a language exchange with her (if it weren't for her, I'd never have had the confidence to learn the language!)

She invited me to her birthday picnic, with a lot of people who didn't speak English. I tried to communicate in Italian, but found it tiring after a while, so sat quietly and observed. Her friend, who spoke little English, noticed I had withdrawn, and came and sat with me. She had a book of photographs which she opened without saying anything. We sat together and looked at the pictures, each pointing things out that we thought were interesting, speaking both languages and some how communicating.

I still think about this scene sometimes. She stepped out of her comfort zone and found a way to include me. I try to remember this example in my own life.
May 5, 2020
I can’t help but mention those Americans, both the customers and the coworkers I met on my way while working one summer at a Dunkin Donuts in New Hampshire. My English at that time wasn’t really fluent, I lacked some everyday and work-related vocabulary but in all the 3,5 months that I worked there, never did I get any harsh comment or mockery about my English skills. People would just explain me the meaning of words, or show the relevant object without being nasty or looking at me as if I was stupid. To tell the truth, I never really understood why they were so patient and helpful with me, especially given the fact that that part of the country and the state hardly has any foreigners. Normally you’d expect locals to be more tolerant to foreigners if they’re used to living side by side with them. I don’t know. that experience gave me a huge boost of confidence in myself and my English skills which impacted greatly the way I’ve perceived English.


May 5, 2020
@Nikola: I grew up bilingual, with a strong emphasis on German from the age of 4 (hardly spoke Slovene at all after that, which is also why I rate myself as B1; I can hold conversations about everyday things, cooking, the weather, go shopping, ... but not much else). As for the downvoting - that can't be helped (and it doesn't really matter to me that much), not everybody likes everyone, and that's OK. They may be annoyed because I had proficiency before I moved. They may be annoyed because I mentioned it. Maybe they don't like me for something I said somewhere else and just downvote whatever I do as a matter of principle; there are nasty vengeful creatures out there, and smacking others anonymously is the perfect weapon for those types. I was just trying to answer your question honestly.

As for the people in Slovenia - I think that they just didn't really care all that much =} even after I told them about my "cultural background" in an awkward manner.

P.S.: You always bring up interesting topics ;)
May 4, 2020
I have certainly felt like a dumb when I tried to speak a foreign language esp. when I put a lot of efforts into improving the language.

My observation is different from yours. If people ever treat you/make you feel like a handicapped person, it's because they lack imagination i.e. putting themselves in someone else's shoes. That's who they are. I have met a lot of people who were patient and sometimes extra kind with people who were attempting to communicate in a foreign language, even though they didn't have much exposure to foreign people/language. It's because who they are. Finally, I have seen people who were fluent in several languages and looked down on people who could not speak any languages except for their native language too.

Most people were kind and patient enough to help me when I was struggling to communicate, and treated me as someone "at the same level" so to speak.
But also some people just ignored me/waved me off (literally) as soon as they knew I was a foreigner who was answering a question/making a request. I was flabbergasted at the treatment and the rudeness of the people. But those people would treat anyone badly if it's a nuisance for them, regardless of language fluency.

I think we can all agree that "native speakers" do not equal "smart" no matter how fluently they speak the language. The topic and contents of the speaker matter. Once they are at the intermediate level, their level of education and intelligence come through even when they are not able to speak as fluently as native speakers.
May 8, 2020
David, this wasn't meant to be a survey. I asked people to share their positive experiences so they did.

I really don't think I should have to justify that a widely recognised phenomenon like this affects everyone just because you decided that foreigners are an exception. I have no reason to believe that they are and I've seen enough of this to know it's a real thing. We've just had different experiences from different environments, it's not a matter of "right" or "wrong", not that you like using these words anyway ;)
May 7, 2020
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Nikola
Language Skills
Czech, English, German, Italian, British Sign Language (BSL), Swedish
Learning Language
Italian