There is this fairly common thing I've noticed, when a multiglot is talking to someone about languages, and they say "say something in x", suddenly all words in that language leave my head and I can't think of anything to say. I've noticed more than just me having this problem. Most people who've had this happen say, "What do you want me to say?" which I think works as something to focus on, especially if it's a common or beginner phrase. Maybe it has something to do with nervousness.

Why can't people who speak multiple languages remember anything when asked by a monolingual?

2 Answers 2


Unlike subjects such as chemistry, history or linguistics, language as such does not have a specific focus or topic. You can use it to speak about anything, or at least anything that is within the limits of your language skills.

So when you are confronted with the question, "Say something in X", you need to pick something from a vast range of choices that potentially covers everything that exists. This leads to overchoice or choice overload, which Alvin Toffler in 1970 described as follows:

"[Overchoice takes place when] the advantages of diversity and individualization are canceled by the complexity of buyer's decision-making process."

Simply put, the decision becomes overwhelming because there are too many options. The phenomenon has also been studied in commercial settings. For example, researchers set up a booth with a range of jams in a supermarket and let customers taste some of the jams and choose one. The choice is a lot easier when fewer types of jam are available. (See also The Jam Study Strikes Back: When Less Choice Does Mean More Sales.)

In the case of foreign languages, the solution can be simple: just talk about the languages that you speak and how long you have spent learning each of them.

  • 2
    This makes a lot of sense. I've also heard that when someone is given a small amount of choices they tend to be happier than someone whose given lots of choices.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 13:15

Because the phrase "to speak a language" is vague. It can vary from an ability for a small talk "about the weather" or negotiate in a local market and end up with an ability to participate a discussion about the poetry or literature in target language.

When curious bystanders ask you to "say something in X", quite often they don't even care about that language nor appreciate your effort to learning it, let alone that some may be simply jealous and need an evidence that you are not actually "speak X" as you claim.

This is also the reason why you can't "say something in X" when asked.

In such cases, I usually tell them a dialog that supposed to occur on some public event:

— Oh, I was told that you're a poet. So read something for us!
— And I was told that you are an army General. So shoot something for us!

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