Ask Babs: Why Don’t Native Speakers Ever Want To Talk To Me In Their Language?

This month: an aspiring polyglot talks to the hand. Also, how to swim your way out when foreign curse words land you in hot water.

“Ask Babs” is a new advice column for people who made embarrassing language mistakes (and are desperately trying to redeem themselves). If you’re cringing your way through a new language, Babs wants to hear about it. To appeal to her divine wisdom, email with your awkward language questions.

Estimado Babs,

I like to think that I’m on my way to being a bonafide polyglot, but for the time being, it doesn’t seem as though I’ve passed muster among the native speakers of my studied languages. I really, truly believe that immersion is the fastest route to fluency, but whenever I try to speak to people in their native tongues, they answer me in English.

I’m sure there’s a reason why this keeps happening, and it’s probably not because I’m that terrible at rolling my r’s. What social cues am I missing here? I don’t want to be That Guy.


Trying Not To Take It Personally

Dear Trying,

You know what our blessed lord and holy representative would say: “There is no try. Only do.”

This applies not only to you not taking things personally, but also to your mastery of Greek, or whatever.

Clearly, you’re taking it personally despite all of your efforts, and I’m willing to bet that your efforts wouldn’t move the needle on a scale sensitive enough to weigh feathers.

Why are you doing this, anyway? Because you love connecting with others? Because you fancy yourself the kind of person who would know 14 languages? Because all of life is one long, insatiable slog for approval? Because you just really like to learn? Are you in it for the chicks? Is this about Personal Growth™?

I suggest that you gently feel your way around the edges of your polyglottal dreams and learn to recognize the jagged little corners of your ego. When you act from your ego, you’re fishing for reasons to feel dejected. But when you act from your heart, you’re genuinely happy to see the look of forced politeness cross someone’s face as they attempt to sidestep your stiff, beginner-level small talk and cut to the chase.

Unfortunately for you, putting people on the spot like that is not something you can necessarily avoid if you’re going to make progress. Everyone who’s good at anything has sucked at it previously, and you have to lean in to the sucking, rather than attempt to bypass the sucking by pretending you’re already a practiced and finessed speaker of languages.

Other people might actually be more amenable to being your surprise study buddy once you drop the pretense and own up to the fact that you’re still kind of a newb. Try beginning your conversations with a disclaimer: “Hey, I know my French is completely unintelligible, but I need as much practice as I can get, because I need to hurry up and get to the point where I can feel vindicated in carrying myself like a pretentious college boy.”

It’s true that you should never forget where you came from, but in your case, I think the remedy lies in remembering that you’ve barely left the gate.

Never give up,


Ask Babs

Dear Babs,

You know how there’s that thing where it’s a lot easier to swear in another language, because when you’re immune to the emotion behind the words, you don’t really know how offensive it sounds to a native speaker? Anyway, I may or may not have called my friend a puta yesterday, and she’s not having it. I think this is the maddest she’s ever been at me.

How do I make amends?


Cringing Gringo (Cring-Gring)

Dear C.G.,

I’ll tell you how to make amends, but first, let’s talk about your upcoming rap debut under that amazing moniker. Really though, think about it.

After Lil Cring takes the nation by storm with his shockingly catchy banger about his multicultural capers — featuring a female vocalist who crudely but artistically speaks for your friend — your real amiga will soon hear your voice speaking directly to her through the airwaves.

This is the only way you’ll be able to reach her during her Time Of Icy Silence, because only public song and dance routines get through to people when they’re really mad at you, and this is the way it works both in movies and in real life.

Of course, you could also reach out to her like a normal person and tell her what you just told me, which is that you’re a bumbling, lovable oaf of a Spanish speaker, and you truly didn’t mean what she thought you meant. You might also want to demonstrate your wokeness by mentioning something about the gendered and racial dynamics of your exchange, and how you inadvertently perpetuated an icky power imbalance through your careless joke.

And if hearing you use those words will be a dead giveaway that you wrote to an advice columnist for help, you can always just hold a fake, silly trial where she pounds the gavel like Judge Judy and sentences you to four months of verbal abuse.

To dishing it out and taking it too,


Learning is the best preventative measure for language accidents.
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