You’re an Idiot for Learning my Language

In Uncategorized on September 4, 2012 at 1:38 pm

You’re an Idiot for Learning my Language

The latest strategy to promote cross-cultural understanding.

By Antonio Graceffo

Last night, in the grocery store in Shanghai, I wanted to by soy sauce. I stopped a friendly looking stranger, as I frequently do, when I need help, and said in Chinese, “Sorry, I can speak Chinese, but I can’t read. Could you please show me which of these bottles is soy sauce?” In Taiwan, I sometimes got answers like “Sorry, I can’t speak English.” Which made no sense, because we were speaking Chinese. But, since coming to Shanghai, I have not had a single person refuse to help me, or almost more importantly, refuse to understand me. Not only did the woman understand me and help me, but she thought my predicament was very interesting.

She stayed and chatted with me for a while, all in Chinese. Finally, she said that she was looking for a private teacher to come and teach a group of people every weekend, and asked how much I would charge.

I politely declined, lying that the university doesn’t allow its teachers to take side work. On the whole, I would have to call this a very positive interaction. Not only was there a pleasant outcome, but if my Chinese reading were good enough, I would never have made this new friend.

Today, I told this story to my private student. She immediately screwed up her face, like there was a horrible smell in the room. “Next time, you could try English. I think many people in Shanghai can speak English.”

“Yes,” I agreed, “But nearly 100% of them speak Chinese. So, the odds were a lot better if I spoke in Chinese.”

Reviewing the events of last night, and now seeing them in written form: I made a new friend, received a job offer, and most importantly, I got my soy sauce. How much better could this exchange have gone? What benefit would there have been to me speaking English to this person? Also, it is an absolute myth that the average person on the street in Shanghai speaks English.

This particular student has a decent level of English, after having spent a year in Seattle. Did she learn English by speaking Chinese to all of the American people she met there?

This isn’t the first time I have had this type of reaction from either a student or a co-worker when I mentioned something about my Chinese studies. I remember one woman in Taiwan almost getting angry, “Why would anyone want to learn Chinese?” She scolded me.

Way to promote multi-cultural understanding. I thought to myself. If you tell an Italian that you speak two words of their language, they will invite you home for dinner and not let you leave till you emerge from a food comma, three days later. But this was the thanks I got for trying to learn Chinese. She practically called me an idiot for trying to learn her mother tongue.

I wasn’t sure where to go with this one. Should I use the logical argument, “China is the number two economy in the world and rising, so it makes sense to learn Chinese.” Or, “Twenty percent of the world’s population already speaks Chinese, and I want to be able to communicate with them.” In the end, I said, “I live in Taiwan. I need to communicate with people on a daily basis, so I need to speak Chinese.” To which, she responded, “Many people can speak some English. When you talk to them, just use simple words.”

Simple words? What if I don’t want to use simple words? What if for the rest of the many years or possibly decades I live over here, I don’t want to express myself at the Tarzan level? Am I wrong in believing I could learn more about the people and the culture by speaking the language fluently?

That incident with the Taiwanese lady happened ten years ago, and I still can’t let it go. Over the years, I have worked as a field translator or researcher, earning a living, largely based on my knowledge of Chinese language. Now in Shanghai, I have been given some excellent side work and contract work, much of which has come to me because I can speak Chinese. There are a lot of English native speakers floating around. Some of them even have teaching qualifications. So, my way of differentiating myself is by speaking Chinese.

I can’t find a single advantage to NOT speaking Chinese.

As an educator, I have to wonder to what extent this attitude influences their learning of the English language. Would this explain why after years and years of study, many students are still at the communication level? I am sure no one ever taught them “Me want cookie.” Does fossilization occur because they have simply decided that simple words are enough?

Antonio Graceffo is self-funded and needs donation to continue his writing and video work. To support the project you can donate through the paypal link on his website,

Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.

Warrior Odyssey, the book chronicling Antonio Graceffo’s first six years in Asia is available at The book contains stories about the war in Burma and the Shan State Army. The book is available at

See Antonio’s Destinations video series and find out about his column on




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  1. I think you meant “food coma”.

    Yes I received puzzled looks, astonishment, and suspicion when I first started to learn Mandarin, particularly from Chinese people. [This was before China took over the world’s manufacturing.] I think there were several reasons for their reactions.
    1. Older Chinese movies has some westerners who had learned Chinese and then swindled or manipulated them. Think back to the Cold War and remember how many espionage movies there were.
    2. Many older Chinese were suspicious of Westerners learning Chinese and then purporting themselves as experts on China and Chinese affairs. Just think of the difference between what it takes to learn some grammar and have a simple conversation versus understanding the political and historical relationships that govern social interactions in Asia.

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