7 Things To Do When Monolinguals Want You To Say Something In Your Second Language

We’ve all been there. Your monolingual friends or coworkers find out that you speak or are learning another language and the first thing they want you to do is “say anything!”

They don’t care what you say, they just want to hear your language, either out of legitimate curiosity or to call you out for sounding pretentious when you speak with a foreign accent or proper pronunciation.

The latter seems to happen a lot with French.

It puts you on the spot, it makes you feel nervous, even though there isn’t a chance in hell that they’ll know if any of it is correct, and even though you’ve recited the words a thousand times to yourself, speaking your new language in front of non-speakers can be almost as intimidating as speaking to another actual speaker.

So the next time your curious coworker gets nosy, you can be prepared with one of these:

1). Think about the things you’re currently learning.

Someone just gave you an open invitation to speak your language, and even though they won’t be able to criticize you may as well work on your current learning material.

Hopefully its fresh in your mind. The practice can’t hurt.


So think about the things you’ve been working on lately, be they grammar work, trying to piece together sentences, or perhaps just recite some words with difficult pronunciations. Challenge yourself, not them.

2) Memorize a quote, idiom, short poem or another phrase.

It sounds a lot better than explaining the weather and really gives the impression that you know what you’re talking about, even if you don’t.

Omniglot has composed a nice list of some language related quotes and proverbs in a multitude of languages that you should check out for ideas.

3) Say something dirty.

Typically I don’t recommend using a lot of dirty slang or curse words in your 2nd language until you’re quite proficient and have been ‘coached’ by a native or someone very familiar with the culture. You never know what sort of issues might arise from a slight cultural misunderstanding.
But in this situation it’s not so much of an issue really. These are usually the kind of words they want to hear anyway.

Don’t know many fun vulgarities? Check out the Dirty Everyday Slang series for a plethora of creative insults from around the globe that put “yo momma” jokes to shame.

Dirty Spanish
Dirty French
Dirty German
Dirty Russian
Dirty Portuguese
Dirty Chinese
Dirty Korean
Dirty Japanese

I wrote a complete review of the dirty everyday slang series here that you should definitely check out!

4) Teach them something valuable.

They asked for it, so they can’t complain when they get a short lesson. Teach your interrogators something basic but useful such as how to ask for the restroom, some basic directions, or how to order basic food or drink.

Pepper the conversation with some basic etiquette and rules about code of conduct. It may not matter at all to your friends, but that’s their problem, you’ve proven your point.

5) Tell a joke.

Why not learn some jokes in the languages you study? Not only are they entertaining but they’re a good way to familiarize yourself with some of the ways that grammar can function in your 2nd language.

Here is a short list of some jokes in several different languages. More shouldn’t be too hard to find.

Just make sure you choose a good one. Not all jokes translate into English very well, but yet again, that’s not really your problem.

Korean food 86) Talk about food!

Food is the great unifier. When I was working with ESL learners it was a very frequent topic that always managed to get conversation groups buzzing with activity.

It’s an easy topic that can usually be enjoyed by anyone who eats.

So cook up something to say about some of the foods that are popular in countries where your language is spoken. It might even start an interesting conversation about the culture and customs.

7) Mostly, just try to relax.


It’s really not a very big deal. Sure, they called your language skills into question – so what? You don’t have to prove anything to anyone.

Remember, you’re probably stressing over trying to impress someone with no knowledge of what you’re saying. Heck you could make it all up and spout foreign-sounding gibberish and they wouldn’t know otherwise.

But for the benefit of language learning you might as well do what you can to practice, entertain or perhaps even inspire your friends to learn something new.

So what do you say when someone tells you to “say anything” in your 2nd language?

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Brian is the creator, owner and Apex Editor of Languages Around the Globe. When he’s not hanging around with linguistics nerds and learning languages, Brian works full time at Kolibri Online, a Hamburg based international content marketing and translation agency as a copywriter, human dictionary and general doer of great things.

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Brian Powers

Brian is the creator, owner and Apex Editor of Languages Around the Globe. When he's not hanging around with linguistics nerds and learning languages, Brian works full time at Kolibri Online, a Hamburg based international content marketing and translation agency as a copywriter, human dictionary and general doer of great things.

  • zigazaga

    There is also the opposite when people insist on trying to say “doo shwidanyya” with an incredibly smug and self-important expression, and I have to cringe to pretend that I’m impressed with their pronunciation and vocabulary. Since it means “Good Bye!”, I have started to began to act accordingly.

  • zigazaga

    Monoglot is a better word

  • Katie

    I say in my L2, “Well, what would you like me to say? Something about the weather? How old I am… what?” This way I’m responding as I would in my L1, but in my L2. It feels a little more natural to me than spitting out some random phrase that I know by heart like, “Excuse me please, where is the church?” Like you said, they won’t know the difference though either way.

  • Haha, that’s a great story. I can imagine being put on the spot by your own family can be rough.

    Thanks for your comment and for reading!

  • Esti

    When I ask what they want me to say they usually say answer a really complicated idiom that there’s no way I can translate. So I usually just say “Hi my name is X, I’m X years old, I live in X, I study X”, etc. until they get bored.

    I think sometimes monolinguals really have no idea what it is like to learn another language. Not even master it, just study it for a couple of years. Either that or they’re mean as hell.
    I’m learning French and we have a French cousin who knows some Spanish, but just basic stuff. He came home one day and my parents were talking to him. But instead of trying to communicate as best as they could, my dad decided to only use idioms and proverbs, which my cousin couldn’t understand and they expected me to translate it (which was impossible). I just wanted to eat my chicken in peace 🙁

  • Frank

    I always say, “What do you want me to say?” (in the language they wanted to hear)

  • That’s usually my kneejerk reaction as well, but after stammering at my friend the other night when I was asked I decided that in the future I would prepare an arsenal of handy responses for just such an occasion.

    That’s what inspired this post.

    Your story is great by the way. I sort of wrote the post as though it was directed at individuals living in monolingual (probably English speaking) regions. But of course this applies to people who already speak given languages.


  • Aloka

    actually my experience is more with people asking me about languages I know rather than ones I am (was) learning. noone asked me to speak french when i was studying it but even now i am asked to ‘say something in german’. the most embarrassing time i remember is when i had to read aloud from a german book while my grandparents showed me off to their siblings. of course, had I been the kind who loves attention I would have been happy to do it 😛

  • Aloka

    I’d say something very, very basic like ‘my name is xyz’.