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You’re Just Too Polite for Your Own Good Posted by on Mar 11, 2015 in Language Learning, Uncategorized

I have a bad habit that I often fall into when I speak a foreign language: I try to please the listener, at my own expense.

Itchy Feet: Mistaken Identity

Come to think of it, this might just be a bad habit of mine in general, in any language. Who doesn’t want to be seen a good light by the person they’re speaking to? We test the waters with various jokes or anecdotes, pay attention to what the other person laughs at, doesn’t get, or frowns at, and we adjust accordingly. I do this, anyway. Whoever I’m talking to, I want them to feel comfortable in my presence.

But with foreign languages in particular, I often offer this comfort at my own expense, in various ways. I might, for example, use incorrect English on purpose, if I notice the person I’m talking to is doing it, so they don’t feel bad about the errors. If I’ve been mistaken for a native speaker, I might speak really fast or mumble, slurring my words together to give the impression that I’m a totally fluent local, so as not to break the illusion. Worst of all, I often don’t want to interrupt the flow of conversation by asking what a particular word means, so I’ll just smile and nod and pretend to know exactly what we’re talking about.

These aren’t conscious decisions, of course. They’re just habits I need to break.

Using incorrect English on purpose has obvious consequences—my own wife continues to make certain small, silly mistakes because I’ve started using them too. Muttering and mumbling to try to sound fluent isn’t just making me more incomprehensible, it also inhibits my ability to “proofread” myself while I’m talking, taking note of where I’ve said something I know is incorrect, and how to say it right next time. If I don’t ask what a word means, and I can’t grasp it from the context of the conversation, how am I supposed to learn it without carrying around a dictionary?

In language learning, as in life, you’ve got to allow yourself to be uncomfortable. No two ways about it. For me, that means accepting that I might possibly embarrass, surprise, or irritate the person I’m speaking to—even though the most likely scenario is that they won’t mind at all. Most people are perfectly friendly. I just need to get over it.

What about you? Do you try to gratify others at your own expense, or do you have some other bad habits that need breaking?

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


  1. Natália:

    I guess we all make mistakes when it comes to learning a new language. When I first started learning german, I was afraid of making mistakes or saying things wrong, so I wouldn’t speak at all sometimes. And how was I supposed to learn if I didn’t even know what was or not a mistake?
    This is still not easy for me, but I’m trying to just relax and at least make an extra effort to say what I want. And if I don’t know how, I just ask for some help. Like you said, most people are quite friendly and are willing help you out.

  2. Kris Olafson:

    Can you suggest a few positive habits that help retaining language? My most fatal flaw is that I fail to continue reiteration of words or phrases, ultimately it is the reason for not learning any languages I have started learning…for example, Icelandic Tagalog Spanish French and Chinese…. I have also tried to memorize many words or phrases in my travels to Japan and Korea also… Takk fyrir

    • Malachi:

      @Kris Olafson I guess practice is the only good habit. I only retain vocabulary if I actually use it in my speaking. Maybe it’s the same for you!

  3. Aelish:

    I’m sorry, I laughed at this. I don’t think I ever spoke bad English on purpose, but the “smile and nod” thing is WAY too familiar. I did this far too often in China, and it actually got worse the better my Chinese got, not because I’d ever be mistaken for a native (or even fluent) speaker, but because the more I learned the more I tried to just go along with the conversation. I always dreaded the (inevitable) point when I had to admit I didn’t know what was going on. It’s a really bad habit, but pausing regularly to admit your own idiocy is exhausting!

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Aelish You don’t have to apologize for laughing at my comic. This is a safe, laugh-friendly environment.

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