Why do people shame others for their language skills?

It seems extremely common these days: if someone posts a video of themselves speaking in a language online, there are guaranteed to be tons of people saying “Actually, I speak X and their X is not that good.”


I was just watching some of the videos from the founder of this site, Steve, and he was discussing that this happened to Mark Zuckerberg when he spoke Chinese. I remember this too. A lot of people were remarking that his Chinese is horrible and he should be ashamed. Seriously, is not having great Chinese something to be embarrassed about these days? I thought making an effort in such a difficult language would be something to be proud of. Sure, if he wants to take it seriously, he needs to improve his tones, but otherwise, who am I to judge his efforts?

It has happened to me in real life too, almost exclusively from other Americans who do not speak another language. I say I’m studying Chinese and they ask if I can understand everything the Chinese students are talking about when they speak amongst themselves in Chinese. Of course I can’t, since my level is only about intermediate. People act like I’m stupid for not having a high level. “Seriously? I would have thought after 4 semesters of studying you would be pretty good by now.”

Like I said, they act as if having intermediate Chinese skills is something to be embarrassed of rather than proud of. The mind boggles.

Has this happened to you before? How did you react?
I just shake my head. It doesn’t make me upset since I know the effort I put in.


Perhaps another question we might consider is this: “WHY would someone post a video of himself or herself on Youtube speaking a foreign language?”

There are, it seems to me, different possible reasons why someone would do this. It could be that he or she is learning the language and is looking for some helpful feedback. This is, of course, a perfectly good thing to do. Usually such people have a modest demeanour, and preface their videos by saying they don’t claim to be perfect, that they would like to receive helpful criticism, etc. It is the nature of the internet that these folks will be subjected to mindless abuse by a small number of idiots. This is unfortunate - but any sensible person simply dismisses and ignores trolls.

However it is also worth remembering that that not every critic is a troll. Sometimes people posting videos on Youtube may have (how shall we say?) less pure motivations than seeking constructive feedback. For example, people may be laying claim to a notable level of expertise in one or more foreign languages in order to promote and sell something - a book, videos, a learning method, etc.

In this case it is surely entirely legitimate to apply stringent (albeit fair) criticism to the person in question? Basically, if someone claims to be “C2 level” or “near native level”, etc, then he/she had better actually live up to the claim. If not they may be (and arguably should be) called out on it.

In other cases there may just be an element of exhibitionism to the whole thing. People may be saying: “hey everyone, look at me! I speak language X! Aren’t I just fantastic!”

Well okay. But people had better BE fantastic in that case! After all, outside of the English speaking world the ability to speak one or more foreign languages - even to a very high level - isn’t necessarily anything very special or out of the ordinary. (There are parts of Africa, for example, where it is pretty much normal for people to be highly fluent in several languages.) So if you want to show off as a foreign language speaker, you’d better at least be very good!

Perhaps it’s a bit like those nutty people who streak at sports events? If one chooses to strip off in front of 50,000 people, then one had better be in sensational shape. Otherwise there is inevitably an invitation to derision…no?

I’ve wondered about this too, I wonder if it’s some kind of projection type thing, they’re not happy with their own level so they try to drag people down to make themselves feel better. The fact that it rarely, if ever, comes from a native speaker of said language might back that up, everyone is an expert in their own language so I guess they don’t have inadequacies to project onto others.


Mostly because people don’t think about how long it took them to learn their first language well.

To learn their first language people generally (and I know this is not always the case) experience: constant exposure to the target language, a family that speaks that language and talks with them (or at them) regularly…and…in a developed country they still have years and years and years of schooling in in their first language.

Heaps of exposure, lots of help, lots of native speaking partners and still plenty of schooling (9 - 3 in my country, five days a week).

Lots of materials that they want to read, activities only in the target language…the list goes on and on. TV programmes, books, magazines - many of them specifically made or written to suit a particular age group or reading grade.

Seriously, ask someone how long it took them to learn their first language really well - and if they seriously cannot remember, remind them!

And if you are in a really bad mood with them and are so inclined, find out how well they in fact know their first language - since I surely do not know every word in a serious adult’s English dictionary, and only recently consciously learned the rules for omitting “that” in English. Subconsciously, I knew it perfectly well. But I couldn’t have explained to an English learner until I saw a YouTube lesson on it made for Spanish speakers.

(Plus, I think a lot of people think that if you study languages at university, you are naturally a linguistic genius).

You could also point out that while you have studied Chinese for only two years (probably while spending most of your time operating in English etc), you might actually speak better than a two year old Chinese kid.

Rant out.


This might be true in some cases. But I say again: I think there is such a thing as entirely legitimate criticism (e.g. where people are setting themselves up as experts or “language gurus” and trying to make money on this basis.)

Not that there is anything inherently wrong with doing this - but one does then (genuinely) have to be as good as is claimed, IMO.

Steve Kaufmann or Luca Lampariello - good.

Some other Youtube gurus - maybe not so good.

Yes, I absolutely agree with you. If people claim to have a certain level, especially if they’re selling a product saying they’ll get you there, they’d better have that level. Legitimate constructive criticism is also no problem.

I guess it’s hard to articulate the type of attitude I’m talking about but it’s basically that if someone isn’t a C2, they should be embarrassed and never speak or claim to speak the language publicly.

But even for Steve, you get a lot of people in the comments saying “hey, this guy’s accent in German isn’t really that great! He’s not a polyglot!”

I haven’t seen him claim* to have a perfect accent in any language so I don’t get why those comments are needed. It just seems to be the commenter trying to bring someone down for no reason. I legitimately don’t get why, since as I said, I don’t think not being perfect in a language is something to be embarrassed about.

  • Then again, I’ve only seen about 10 videos. Maybe he does make haughty claims somewhere and I just haven’t seen it.
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I’ve been a part of many hobbies. Let’s take my passion for working on cars. People say “your car is broken? Why don’t you just buy a Toyota Corolla, so it will never break? Dependable and good gas mileage.” Well, for one thing that is boring, and another, have you ever riden in a sports car? Quite fun. My point is, I’ve dealt with people that don’t understand the point in hobbies. They’d rather play something generic like basketball.

These people you are talking about are probably the same people that don’t understand why people speak foreign languages. “Speak English, what’s the point?” These people are also looking for self-validation, because apparently, being a hipster or critiquing from a position of authority is the “cool” thing to do. “Oh wow, this person is critiquing Mark Zuckerberg’s Chinese! He must be pretty smart!” Yeah. No. I used to remember that kid in high school; he thinks being counter culture and rebelling by calling everything stupid is the cool thing to do.

It seems certain hobbies such as language learning are taken for granted by more people than you’d think because a lot of those people probably grew up speaking these natively and are arrogant, or failed miserably and are projecting their own insecurities.


Of course, it’s not just whether or not the criticism is justified, but the tone with which is delivered that matters. Folks don’t write as they would if their grandmother was looking over their shoulder.

For my part I mostly ignore Internet commenters, especially on YouTube, and rarely if ever offer my own comments outside a close, focused community such as Lingq forums. Avoid this: xkcd: Duty Calls

Speaking of grandmother, mine had this hanging her wall:

There is so much good in the worst of us,
And so much bad in the best of us,
That it ill behooves any of us
To talk about the rest of us.

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A lot of people think I literally learned Chinese just to spy on international students.

As if I would spend that much effort for so little reward, lol.

Yeah, I guess a lot of people don’t know what goes into it. I can’t blame them. I don’t get vaping as a hobby for instance but apparently there’s a lot that goes into it.

It’s just when people intentionally try to be cool by being rude to others that I get a bit annoyed.

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I think your comment about people’s expectations of achievement for time invested is probably the one I encounter the most.

Often times people who have not tried to learn a second language assume that picking up a second language would probably happen so easily it could almost occur by accident! They believe some myth that if you’re just around a language, you can’t help but pick it up. Therefore, if one actually studied it, you’d be chatting away like a native within months.

Theres no real cure for this myth and people will continue to believe it until they themselves try learn a second language and realise what a massive mountain it is to climb.

Heres a conversation I actually had with a friend:
Me: “Sorry thats just a reminder for my Korean study”
Them: “Oh? I would have thought it wouldnt be a problem for you because of your wife”
Me: “How so? We speak English at home”
Them: “But you’ve been to Korea to visit her family a few times, and you probably hear her talking on the phone to them all the time.”
Me: “I don’t hear her speaking it all that often, and even when I do how would I figure out what she is talking about? I have no basis for deconstructing the sentences or even recognizing words”
Them: “Maybe you’re too focused on learning it. I bet subconsciously your brain understands a lot more than you realise!”

In his case he has a connection to Spanish. So I pointed out that despite having had this connection for many years he is unable to understand more than a handful of words. He reckons its just because he hasn’t had time to put attention toward it, but if he did he imagines he’d pick it up in a few months.

Until he tries, he will never know.


also for ref - this was a thread on the actual talk, at the time https://www.lingq.com/forum/1/34639/


“almost exclusively from other Americans who do not speak another language”

Classic one of this cognitive bias that everyone needs to know

Yep, in my experience language learning certainly is among the less well-understood hobbies.

Popular idea of core language skill: speaking
Lunatic Language Fringe© idea of core skill (Kaufmannite tribe): listening comprehension

Popularly familiar language levels: 1. no ability 2. perfect as a native and walking dictionary of out-of-context words and phrases
LLF familiar language levels: 1. beginner 2. long intermediate purgatory 3. advanced (potentially all with finer gradations)

Popular idea of the main point of language learning: 1. mechanic exchange of information with people who unfortunately don’t speak your language at all, with no knowledge of even the “speak to a man in his language and it goes to his heart” soft skill aspect of it. 2. a performance trick like playing an instrument
LLF idea of main point: https://www.lingq.com/forum/1/35854/?jump_to=1#post-199443

I also agree with the analyses that less than objective, judgemental attacks are mostly neurotic defence mechanisms.

Although I also wouldn’t want an environment where there’s no cutting, hard cricism for people who make claims.

I’ve been hard on Benny, because I think he is a sizeable influence who keeps perpetuating some of the popular misconceptions about language learning I gave, and makes money off of people on a very questionable swiss cheese of a basis.
So in his case, for the purpose of building an argument against his method, objectively pointing out, among other things, that his German and Portuguese sound ridiculous rather than native (as he aimed for) is a fair shot.


benny lewis sets himself up for criticism by claiming the things he does what he is a competent speaker of the languages he speaks for most people that is a good level but heclaims that he is a c2 which i guess is near native level. and i have heard him speak in french and spanish his accent is all over the place .people who speak only one language have no right criticising others and chinese is not andeasy languageto learn for anglophones i think it’s more difficult to learn than many european languages.i have praise for non asian people who take up learning asian languages

I’ve never tried Benny’s method, although I could risk my marriage and ask my wife to speak Korean with me until I learn it! That’d be partial immersion :slight_smile:

I agree that Benny’s claims set him up for criticism - especially the whole ‘fluent in 3 months’ catchphrase he has going on. While fluency is hard to define, most people would have a definition substantially above what he achieves in that time frame and so I think people buy in to a promise which they later realize was open to a wide range of interpretation.


If I learned one valuable thing about Benny is that we should definitely go outside our comfort zones and at least take some risks. Yeah, some people like myself are more introverted, but I feel like learning a language isn’t complete without talking with some native speakers. LingQ is fun and it exposes me to a lot, but langauge learning is more than sitting in front of a screen.

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I don’t consider LingQ to mean sitting in front of a screen. LingQ is a means of turning the time I spend listening on my iPod while doing other tasks into valuable language learning time.

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I don’t think people should criticize other’s language skills unless someone makes outlandish claims in which case they are sort of setting themselves up.

I don’t mind saying that Luca is the smoothest sounding polyglot I have heard, followed by Richard Simcott but there may be others I am not aware of.

Out of all methods out there, LingQ I feel, is still one of many. It is probably one of the most valuable resources I’ve found with infinite potential (iTalki is pretty close).

However, my point lies that unless our goals are to only read and listen to media, there has to be a point where we should start talking to people.

I love learning Russian, but eventually I want to start living the language in real life.

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LingQ is not a substitute for speaking, but a way to prepare for speaking. Sign up to speak with our wonderful Russian tutors. I do.

Benny most definitely sets himself up for tough criticism, IMO. It was a few years ago, but I still feel annoyed about the so-called “mission” where he claimed to be going from virtual beginner to level C2 in German within 6 months. It turned out that he had actually studied it for years at school in Ireland and was already functional in the language before he even began!

This kind of thing p__s me off for two reasons: 1.) he is effectively making a fool out of bona fide learners who have worked patiently and hard for years, slowly improving towards an advanced level - he is effectively saying they are time-wasting buffoons whom he can overtake in a few months; 2.) He is (apparently) making some very significant money on the back of his dubious claims.

(Someone told me there is a book on small business which features Benny, and he claims to be making $80K a year or something… Sure, I know that it’s only possible if people choose to buy his stuff. But it still seems like there is an element of dishonesty to the whole thing.)