Speaking a Foreign Language Makes You Less Intelligent

 Luke Lindemann*

Speaking a foreign language makes you less intelligent. This is a fundamental truth about speaking a foreign language, but it is often forgotten. And forgetting this truth can have profoundly negative consequences for the classroom.

I do not mean that the practice of learning a language is harmful to intelligence. What I mean is that when we express ourselves in a language that is not our mother tongue, we must simplify our thoughts. To give a personal example, I have been conversationally fluent in Nepali for almost two years, but even today when I speak Nepali I feel less intelligent. I know fewer vocabulary  and the words I do know are simpler than those of my Nepali friends. It takes me longer to parse sentences and longer to respond. I forget words and mix others up and am often laughed at for some amusing mistake (my students were quite confused when I told them that their homework assignment was due ‘pharsi’ – I had meant ‘parsi’). For me, thinking in Nepali is just harder to do. It takes longer and it is exhausting.

When our students speak or write to us in the English language, they are the same students as when they speak Nepali to us outside of class, but the outward manifestation of their personalities can be very different. They may be bolder or they may be more shy, depending upon how they face the challenge and potential humiliation of being forced to express themselves in a less intelligent (and oftentimes laughably simplistic) way. This is the discomfort and terror of learning a language, and also its exhilarating challenge.

As teachers who have long since mastered the English language, we sometimes forget this. We teach language as if it were a simple skill like long division, and not a fundamental means of expressing ourselves. We scold our students for not speaking out in class, for being timid and quiet when their names are called and they must stand up and speak out in front of their friends. But when we do this, we are forgetting the terror and frustration that we experienced when we were students. We are inhibiting their learning.

By teaching only in this way, we make speaking English a terrifying ordeal for the less confident students. And it is almost impossible to develop communicative competence, in which students are able to hold a spontaneous conversation. Without communicative competence, the students may be able to pass the SLC but they will never be able to speak English fluently.

We must also take language into account when considering the medium of instruction for other classroom subjects like science and social studies. Most of the students where I worked spoke Tamang as a first language, Nepali as a second language, and English as a third language. The decision for medium of instruction is a very important decision in a country like Nepal that has such vibrant language diversity. In choosing to include instruction in the medium of English, Nepali, or a regional language, a school must respond to the desires of the community, the pressures of competition with other schools private and public, the resources available, and the strengths and limitations of the government curricula and examinations.

Ideally, students should be given the opportunity to learn in the language with which they are most comfortable. Speaking a foreign language makes you less intelligent. When students learn history or science in a language that is not their own, their grasp of the subject matter is unavoidably simpler. The depth of their questions and their creative capacity are diminished. They do not learn as well.

Unfortunately, in many places throughout Nepal today this is something of a necessary evil. A good command of the English language is considered one of the most useful skills, and English medium instruction is held to be one of the best ways to develop that skill. Schools must compete with each other by offering quality instruction in the areas that foster high SLC scores and attract students. Schools in poorer areas can also be hampered by a lack of materials and staff.

But regardless of resources or medium of instruction, in every single classroom in Nepal there needs to be the realization that language study is less about memorizing words and more about learning to communicate. Language study is difficult, often scary, and (when mastered) extremely satisfying and valuable. Speaking a foreign language will make you feel less intelligent, especially at first, but mastering a foreign language will make you brilliant.


Luke Lindemann was a 2010-2011 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Shree Udaya Kharka Secondary School in Chapagaon VDC, Lalitpur. Before receiving this grant, he worked as an English teacher for Bhutanese refugees in the United States. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Linguistics from Pomona College, and his primary interests are language issues and education. 

7 thoughts on “Speaking a Foreign Language Makes You Less Intelligent

  1. First of all, I would like to thank Mr. Lindemann for portraying the real picture of English classroom speaking Nepali language in Nepal. This is the bitter reality still prevailing in Nepalese classroom. Grammar Translation method is still being adopted by English teachers for teaching English.

    When I went through the post, I remembered an anecdote and thought to leave a comment with this.

    It happened when I first started teaching English to the students at a private English school. As I was not much familiar with the teaching methods at that time, I used to teach English using both Nepali and English languages.

    One day when I was teaching the students in grade 5, one of the students asked me, “May I go out, Sir?”

    I responded, “Yes but come soon.”

    Then the student replied, “Sir, ke ma badhi sun6u? Kina malai kam sunna lai bhannu bhayo”

    Both Come Soon and Kam Sun have similar sound but different meanings in English and Nepali language. This is why, the author says, the decision for medium of instruction is a very important decision.’


  2. Well written! Your points are not only true for Nepal, but also hold true is any language. In Texas, too many students who speak Spanish as a primary language and are placed in English-speaking classes are labeled as having a learning disability. Only when the instruction is bi-lingual can we know for sure whether it is a language issue or a disabilitiy.

  3. I personally “feel” less intelligent when I am using a foreign language, so I agree with Luke. But as someone who happens to specialize in language difference in my doctoral work, I have to add one or two things about the subject of intelligence and language learning. The idea of “foreign” or “second” language is not an easy black and white one if we consider the complexity of language proficiency and the complexity of the issue of intelligence as well. For example, I have taught students in private schools in Nepal who I never considered proficient in English for daily communication but they were nonetheless extremely willing to speak in English, they were fluent in their extremely broken English in which they were very fluent nonetheless, and they were much better using that English for all academic purposes than using Nepali or other primary languages. My own proficiency in English and Nepali are similar puzzling to myself: I may not be very fluent in English when speaking at home or in society, especially when I know that my audience do not share the same kind of attitude or familiarity with English with me, but that does not mean that I can replace English with Nepali in those situations either. For example, I cannot sustain a conversation in Nepali at home with my wife, and there is no way I can talk or write about rhetoric and composition in Nepali very well even with Nepali colleagues in the same field. So, the question is not just about which is my primary language but also my audience, their and my attitude towards the language being used, the subject matter of the speech/writing, and such other things that complicate what we consider “foreign” language and what we consider our own/primary language. There are also many issues that complicate the question of “intelligence” when it comes to language use. I may “sound” less intelligent when I use English (especially to another person who has a simplistic view of language and intelligence), but I may actually be feeling highly intelligent and proud of myself using English in that same context (even though I am being perceived otherwise). So, the question of “feeling” intelligent on the part of the language user and that of being “heard” as intelligent due to language difference/proficiency can be different questions that complicate each other. The other day, during a party after a day of conference (on language difference at the Pennsylvania State University), I overheard an older sounding person’s voice behind me which I could clearly tell was modulated to fit a non-native English speaking person with whom that older person was talking: “Great, great, so what brought you to this university?” I turned around and my guess that this was a native English speaker changing his voice/tone and words/meanings to an almost patronizing level to “help” a non-native speaker easily understand him was correct. I have heard people, even in the university, suddenly start speaking much louder, much slower, and with a weirdly different tone and accent when faced with an international student or another foreigner. I am sure that many people make Luke “feel” like a foreigner the moment you start using Nepali. While that feeling may come primarily from your own heart, I am saying that it can also come from how (you are aware) you are being perceived by the other person. Nepali society is much worse than the older gentleman at the conference when it comes to “foreigners”–as the blatant use that of that word indicates. So, intelligence too is a matter of attitude, prevalent beliefs/assumptions (about language difference), and lots of simplistic ideas about language vis-a-vis brain power. Thus, the question of intelligence must also be seen in its natural complexity and not reduced to monolithic concepts of intelligent versus not intelligent, because, at the very least we need to consider that we all have multiple intelligence factors rather than just one holistic intelligence measure. For example, I may not be very good at selecting the best words when using a foreign language but I may have an overwhelming amount of knowledge on the subject that I am talking about so that the audience could be the ones to feel “stupid” when listening to me. (And, indeed, as a result, or unfortunately, someone in the audience may be surprised by my intelligence and pity my language proficiency). Many society do not conflate language proficiency with intelligence partly because they hold the audience partly accountable for making necessary efforts to understand the speaker, rather than holding the speaker completely responsible for clarity–in terms of logical clarity, language proficiency, or otherwise. It’s the knowledge of a subject that should count more towards an assessment of intelligence than language, as long as there is a manageable level of proficiency with language or as long as both sides of a conversation can manage the conversation.
    HOWEVER, having complicated both the terms language proficiency and intelligence, I must say that I totally agree with the pedagogical/curricular aspect of Luke’s argument. In the context of your argument that by introducing English as a medium of instruction, without considering the barrier that it creates between teachers and students, I not only agree with you, I actually take a bitterly critical position on the subject. I have written about this subject on this blog and in Nelta mail that I don’t want to play the old record again, but I think that by equating good education with English, the Nepali society, including its very scholars of language and education, are engaged in a national stupidity contest without realizing that the contest could be an unnecessary and misguided one in the first place.

  4. Shyam Sharma brings up some important issues. What I find particularly interesting is how people develop different levels of fluency in different languages for different situations. I believe I am hearing that English is the language of academic discourse, such that an academic may be better at speaking Nepali at home and in informal settings, but would struggle to find the correct words when speaking Nepali in formal, academic settings. In those situations, English is preferred.

    This is something that I do not encounter in my own country. As a native speaker of English in a country in which English is the dominant and prestige language, the language that I use with my friends and the language that I use in school are the same (although the register is much more formal in the latter). I think this is a relatively strange thing about American society: in many places, it is completely monolingual. It makes it difficult for me to understand the subtle and complex uses of language in a society like Nepal that is overflowing with languages.

    Shyam also mentioned students who speak English without proficiency but with fluency. I think that it is a great thing if an educator can inspire such confidence in their students that they are willing to speak with enthusiasm and fluency even without a perfect knowledge of the language. I think this the ideal situation for learning. I have seen teachers berate students for every little mistake they make while trying to speak, and I think it often terrifies students into silence and hinders their learning. Confidence and conversation must come first, and then the language can be refined.

    Also, what we call broken English now may be the first steps of the emergence of a uniquely Nepali version of English, like has happened India (and in America and Australia and many other countries). The emergence of a Nepali English dialect would indicate the English has truly taken hold in the society, no?

    1. I can’t agree more with Luke’s point in this comment. There is a lot of academic literature, at least within applied linguistics and composition studies, in the US that has delved deep into the politics, sociology, and everything about the deep-seated monolingualism in US education, society, and culture. But even though countries like Nepal are practically highly multilingual, language policies in education and the prevalent beliefs about language among even our top notch scholars–I regret to say–are usually similar to what we berate as US monolingualism. While I understand how the social dynamics of a global superpower and a monolingual society makes monolingualism invisible to those who grow up in that society and educational set ups reflecting those dynamics, I have failed to understand why scholars, teachers, and even the general public in a famously multilingual society like Nepal subscribe to and enforce monolingual policies and practices. In my doctoral work I am dealing with a similar paradox in the beliefs and practices regarding language difference among non-native English speaking scholars in the US. One possible explanation for the paradox is that the NNES scholars adopt monolingual attitudes and practices because they too are part of the power dynamics in the institutional and social set ups, they too wield power through adopting (what they might actually perceive) as problematic worldviews. There are several theories that have explained such paradoxes in society, including the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s idea of hegemony (those who wield power do so not just by virtue of domination but by consent of the dominated), the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s idea of the diffusiveness of power (power is almost never a one way street and even the powerless wield it in some ways), more specifically the idea of agency that not only works through resistance but through appropriation of power as well, and more explicitly the American scholar Deborah Brandt’s idea of literacy sponsorship where the nature of education will be determined by those who financially or socially sponsor education. Oops, that was a bit too much of theories, but anyway Luke’s entry has made a lot of us in Nepal and even others elsewhere think about the issue of medium of instruction and language policies in education. What medium we adopt for educating our children is not a simple issue, for language is simply not made of pure glass. Thanks for prompting this discussion.

  5. Dear Mr Lindemann,
    Let me begin with a hearty 🙂 my words that may be appearing as a comment on what you have offered here. So interesting, intelligence-reviving, feel like going on smiling as long as I remember your horribly bitter experience of PHARSI (=pumpkin) in place of PARSI in Nepali, but far too away from any sense of mockery. I mean that was what is so natural, so so sweet and so encouraging! That is your own originality that can’t be corrupted. Learning the Nepali word “parsi” is of course a big challenge for you, but not impossible, I hope. It is amazing to learn that you’ve been conversationally fluent in Nepali for almost two years. But, you have not mentioned when you started the Nepali alphabet. Though Nepali is my first language, if I am to speak on politics or business or something that is beyond my general thoughts and practice, I will certainly lack so many words and will try with some simple sentences, I think. In that situation, I will naturally feel less intelligent in the related subject matter, but perhaps not in the language. I think it all depends on our perspectives and learning attitudes. To speak of me, I have been an English language instructor [as learners call me! 🙂 ] for over 15 years. Yet, I need to learn much more, many more just realizing that I am a learner, just learning on and on and I feel I am growing more intelligent as I learn more and more. And, of course, I will face several difficulties while expressing myself to you, a native speaker. But, I don’t think that I have to feel less intelligent simply because of being unable to convey the exact messages, since I do have a lot to say. Language is simply a part of socialization as I have learnt. Using gestures and postures and your sincere attempts to express your matters will confirm that you do have a lot to convey and you are not less intelligent. If I learnt ten Chinese words, I would feel more intelligent than before my learning them, although I will obviously fail to communicate in Chinese with just 10 words. But, whenever I happen to hear one of those ten, I would certainly make some sense there, wouldn’t I? So, I respectfully say I can’t understand why you have felt so, and why people make teaching and learning a foreign language so complicated and communicating in a foreign language a never-tiring ever-scaring monster! Laughing or getting laughed at in course of learning any new thing with mistakes is natural and mind-freshening, I feel. 🙂

  6. Just because you are stupid, do not think every one else is. I speak 4 languages and I still use my brains on the same way with all of them. I may stamble here and there, but the thoughts are the same.

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