the Colin Powell trap of language learning

January 25th, 2011

colin_powell_speaks_wellChris Rock did a really solid bit a few years ago:

"Colin Powell can never be president. You know why? Whenever Colin Powell is on the news, white people give him the same compliments: 'How do you feel about Colin Powell?', 'He speaks so well! He's so well spoken. I mean he really speaks so well!' Like that's a compliment. 'He speaks so well' is not a compliment, okay? 'He speaks so well' is some shit you say about retarded people that can talk."

Here's the bad news. You are probably Colin Powell.

Here's what you might have been thinking. In fact, almost certainly what you were thinking. You were thinking that here I'm going to study this language, learn to pronounce it right, learn to write grammatically, learn to use the correct expressions and after all that is done I'm going to be competent in the language. I'm going to go up to a group of these people and join in, like I'm one of them.

Unless you're some kind of extreme scholar whose only interest is ancient scrolls or something, you are learning the language to have the social benefits. To interact with those people, to have access to those new social groups. You might be thinking sure they will be able to tell that I'm not one of them; my pronunciation won't be exactly right; my use of the language won't be perfect. But it'll be close enough, and with enough practice I can get really smooth.

But that's where you might be in for a nasty surprise.

And no one told you about this. No one told you that it's not conquering the grammar that's really tough, it's not teaching your mouth to make those new sounds, it's something different.

It's that you're Colin Powell.

You will stand out in a crowd and people can tell. They will give you compliments on how good your language is. They do this because they know you need the encouragement. No one gets told that their language ability is good when it's actually good, that would be absurd. When it's obvious, there's no reason to say that.

It's common for people who have some kind of disability to say that they just want to be treated like everyone else. And therein lies the crux of the matter.

You're not "like everyone else" and everyone else knows that. So you get treated differently, good different or bad different, but always different.

Either people are trying to be helpful and treat you as if you understand less than you do. And over explain things to you. In which case you want to tell them "look, I understand more than that, give me some credit."

Or you get bad different. You approach someone with a carefully constructed message that you know for a fact is completely correct, yet you don't get the response that you expect. You get a short, dismissive response. You get treated almost as if you had said something slightly insulting.

It's that... what you said was understood and you basically made your point clearly, and yet... you don't sound authentic. There is something odd about you, reading between the lines, that makes people second guess themselves. As if you're speaking lines from memory that don't entirely fit the context. As if they're not sure if you know what you're saying. As if they don't quite know how to respond to you, how to interact with you. In short, you are an aberration, an exception to the rule.

And when people are unsure how to respond, they tend to seem a little cold and a little dismissive.

Is there any good news? Colin Powell really never did become president, but you're better off.

You can get beyond this. It's hard to say how long it will take, but if you stick with it there will come a time when your grasp on the language is smooth enough that you do sound like the real thing. Sure, you might still have an accent. And you might still be making mistakes. But your performance will be smooth enough to convince. Convince that you know what you're saying, and that he who is responding to you will be understood, that you can communicate as equals. What is the quickest way from here to there?

I wish I knew that.

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2 Responses to "the Colin Powell trap of language learning"

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Khatzumoto, Khatzumoto and numerodix, Terry Harvings. Terry Harvings said: RT @ajatt: "No one gets told that their language ability is good when it’s actually good, that would be absurd." lol [...]

  2. Blue Shoe says:

    I think there's some truth to what you're saying, but I don't entirely agree. First off, what's the difference between saying "you're a good speaker" and "you speak well?" Because in Colin Powell's case, I think people mean the former, and that is something that can be said about many politicians, including our current president, without it being an empty compliment.

    Second, there are cases where people say "he speaks x language well" and mean it. It just means there's an added nuance, and not necessarily negative. For example, I have a few Japanese friends who speak English well. I'm thinking of one girl in particular - she is like a language genius. When I say it, I think it has the added context of "especially considering the fact that it's not their native language" or "despite the fact that foreign languages can be difficult to master."

    I agree that compliments about speaking a language well aren't always straightforward, and often they are used just to encourage people. But not in all cases, I'd say.