Speakers’ affective disclaimers on their language competency

September 27, 2018 9:30 am

Have you ever wondered why some people say: “I am sorry, I don’t speak the language well.” when they start speaking it fluently? We might find such an affective disclaimer funny, annoying or puzzling but it has a metalinguistic function. It co-creates the metalinguistic stance of the speaker and it allows for the interactional management of emotions among the persons involved in the dialogue.

To start with the affective aspect, affect is a structural part of our attitudes towards languages, together with cognition and behaviour (Garrett, 2010). We learn to believe through parents, teachers or media that certain claims about language are true, and we connect personal emotions to such claims and we act accordingly.  We do not have to behave in a predictable way but that would be another story. As much as language attitudes are a socially structured part of our ‘common sense’, they themselves also structure our social reality (ibid.).

Furthermore, based on our attitudes, we take stances towards languages, which facilitate the decisions that we have to take before we even start to speak. Who should use what language in what social situation? Will the dialogue partner acknowledge our language choice? Do we position ourselves as insiders or outsiders? In other words, our stances influence our situational preference of one language over another.

To illustrate this with an example, Anne Franziskus conducted a research in traditionally multilingual Luxembourg. She demonstrated that the choice of language in the everyday conversations of cash-desk assistants with their customers can be analysed as a multifold stance-taking towards languages, which bears a strong emotional charge for all the people involved (Franziskus, 2016). Imagine such a potentially tense situation, wouldn’t you prefer to address the communication partner a little disclaimer before you start to use the language of your choice? Well, the cashiers can’t – and they have to deal with the emotional consequences of the customers’ reactions.

People who indeed can align their metalinguistic stances towards the respective language with the help of affective disclaimers perform so in a way that they consider socially and culturally appropriate. Joseph Sung-Yul Park (2011) added an interesting aspect to our knowledge about the way how people negotiate their social relations and cultural positions by displaying their emotions and feelings. In his research, he exposed how the affective disclaimers on the chosen language perform the function of an interpretation frame. This serves for aligning the metalinguistic stances of the speaker and the dialogue partner, which assures that the speakers do not take an uncomfortable social position. Park studied how Korean students disclaimed the use of English. By the transactional analyses of stances, he challenged the typical notion of Korean students as “shy and not confident” English speakers. He exposed how their typical disclaimer, abroad often interpreted as a display of anxiety and uneasiness about speaking English, serves in fact as a means of social positioning in the Korean society. Such a disclaimer facilitates the navigation through the complex ideologies of English that circulate there. On the one hand, speaking English well is a highly valued competency; on the other hand, without the self-problematisation preceding the use of English, Koreans risk to take a stance of an expert or nearly-native speaker, which could be considered a socially disapproved bragging.

In the end, coming from diverse social backgrounds, speakers have various reasons for disclaiming a language. Since many language ideologies get their way in different parts of the world, we could probably find more explanations in other contexts. Above all, the ‘ideology of purims’ suggests itself, for, under its influence, speakers can’t make any mistake if they want to keep their social position in the eyes of others. We may conclude that the disclaimer “I am sorry, I don’t speak the language well…” helps our dialogue partners to cope with the language ideologies that they take for granted within their sociocultural frame. However, it can cause confusions when the frame of reference is not familiar to everybody involved.



  • Franziskus, Anne. (2016). “One does not say Moien, one has to say Bonjour”: Expressing Language Ideologies through Shifting Stances in Spontaneous Workplace Interactions in Luxembourg. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology. https://doi.org/10.1111/jola.12124.
  • Garrett, P. (2010). Attitudes to Language (Key Topics in Sociolinguistics). Chapter 2 Fundamentals of language attitudes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 19-36. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511844713.
  • Park, J., S.-Y. (2011). „Framing, stance, and affect in Korean metalinguistic discourse“. Pragmatics 21(2), pp. 265-282. https://doi.org/10.1075/prag.21.2.05par.


Written by  Veronika Lovritš Communication Study Visitor at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament (Luxembourg) and a student of the Master Program in Learning and Communication in Multilingual and Multicultural Contexts at the University of Luxembourg. She holds an MA in Law and Legal Science and a BA in Sociology from the Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic. She speaks Czech, English, German, French, and Luxembourgish.

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