I’m not stupid, I’m learning the language!

Dear Local Person,

Perhaps you don’t intend to be thoughtless, inconsiderate or rude. You probably have no experience of what it’s like to migrate as an adult and have to learn a new language and culture.

Here are a few tips which you might find helpful in future interactions with people like me:

I am neither stupid nor incompetent. Don’t talk condescendingly or treat me like an idiot. My limited English is neither a reflection of my intelligence nor my competence.

I’m not invisible, so please don’t ignore me. If you’re not sure how to communicate, a smile or a gesture can go a long way.

Your accent is as strange to me as mine is to you. Can we ask each other politely to repeat or rephrase so that we can work things out together?

There’s no need to talk loudly, my hearing is perfect.

I make a huge effort all day to communicate in a way that others can understand. Can you make just a tiny effort to help me understand you?


9 thoughts on “I’m not stupid, I’m learning the language!

  1. Ed, you brought back so many memories of what it was like for me to come to Australia, as a child aged six, to start school here in australia without a word of English, of how the school kids were, thankfully, more accepting than the stupid teacher I had (at Toorak Primary School) who slapped my face when I didn’t understand what she had asked of me (since my actions obviously reflected the exact opposite of her instructions).
    Those memories still cause me great pain and ire when I think of her insensitivity to a new kid, let alone a new child migrant.
    Fortunately that same experience helped to shape my (hyper)sensitivity to new students,in general,or new migrants, or Israelis who visit Australia, basically anyone, child or adult who has a difficult time when judged on their ability to be undrstood. These same people who sadly are made to feel that they are less than okay because they don’t speak English from the minute they arrive on our shores.
    You have presented the most important points to consider whenever we encounter someone who does not speak the language, or maybe speaks it with a different accent, or who pehaps makes mistakes in the translation of a phrase, feels foolish or worse, stupid because of the unfeelingness and inadequate preparation of the teacher, school, admin, community or country.


  2. Ed,
    A friend of mine took her baby out for a walk in his pram. While walking by herself, in a Melbourne suburb, she got lost. She kept walking – still lost, and now tearful as well. Finally, she saw a road name she recognised and by following the road, she found her way home.
    An intelligent, capable and brave lady was forced back to ‘childhood’ simply because she spoke (at that stage) 10 words of English and could not ask or directions home.
    Why do I use the word ‘brave’? Imagine trying to catch a bus, ask for a product in a shop, explain symptoms to a doctor, or even answer the phone.
    She and I began our English lessons using pictures, gestures and schoolgirl French as a common language, working together to empower her to live (not just exist) in Australia.
    Thank you for what you have written.


  3. To be fair to the local, they might not have experience talking to a migrant. Explaining is a skill, and a good one to teach kids. Can students explain around a word or concept? Can they use other examples?

    Some people might think foreigners are less than intelligent, but I think most just don’t have the experience to be able to do this.


  4. Thank you for the reminder. I’ve just moved to a new country where I can neither read, speak or understand the local language. So I get your post. Moreover, as a foreign language teacher, I’m reminded all day (every day) just how much our identity and self-esteem can take a beating when we’re learning a new language.


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