foreigner talk (FT)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

foreigner talk
Andrew Sachs as Manuel, the Spanish waiter, in BBC TV's Fawlty Towers. (Keystone/Getty Images)


The term foreigner talk refers to a simplified version of a language that's sometimes used by native speakers when addressing non-native speakers.

"Foreigner talk is closer to baby talk than to pidgin," says Eric Reinders. "Pidgins, creoles, baby talk, and foreigner talk are quite distinct as spoken but nonetheless tend to be perceived as similar by those adult native speakers who are not fluent in pidgin" (Borrowed Gods and Foreign Bodies, 2004).

As discussed by Rod Ellis below, two broad types of foreigner talk are commonly recognized--ungrammatical and grammatical.

The term foreigner talk was coined in 1971 by Stanford University professor Charles A. Ferguson, one of the founders of sociolinguistics.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • Characteristics of Foreigner Talk
    "We know that in addition to increase in volume, decrease in speed, and a chunky, word-by-word delivery, Foreigner Talk exhibits a number of peculiarities in its lexicon, syntax, and morphology, most of them consisting in attrition and simplification.

    "In the lexicon, we find most noticeably an attrition in terms of the omission of function words such as a, the, to, and. There is also a tendency to use onomatopoetic expressions such as (airplanes--) zoom-zoom-zoom, colloquial expressions such as big bucks, and words that sound vaguely international such as kapeesh.

    "In the morphology we find a tendency to simplify by omitting inflections. As a consequence, where ordinary English distinguishes I vs. me, Foreigner Talk tends to use only me."
    (Hans Henrich Hock and Brian D. Joseph, Language History, Language Change, and Language Relationship. Walter de Gruyter, 1996)
  • Two Types of Foreigner Talk
    "Two types of foreigner talk can be identified--ungrammatical and grammatical. . . .

    "Ungrammatical foreigner talk is socially marked. It often implies a lack of respect on the part of the native speaker and can be resented by learners. Ungrammatical foreigner talk is characterized by the deletion of certain grammatical features such as copula be, modal verbs (for example, can and must) and articles, the use of the base form of the verb in place of the past tense form, and the use of special constructions such as 'no + verb.' . . . There is no convincing evidence that learners' errors derive from the language they are exposed to.

    "Grammatical foreigner talk is the norm. Various types of modification of baseline talk (i.e. the kind of talk native speakers address to other native speakers) can be identified. First, grammatical foreigner talk is delivered at a slower pace. Second, the input is simplified. . . . Third, grammatical foreigner talk is sometimes regularized. . . . An example . . . is the use of a full rather than a contracted form ('will not forget' instead of 'won't forget'). Fourth, foreigner talk sometimes consists of elaborated language use. This involves the lengthening of phrases and sentences in order to make the meaning clearer."
    (Rod Ellis, Second Language Acquisition. Oxford University Press, 1997)
  • Foreigner Talk and Pidgin Formation
    "Even if conventionalized foreigner talk is not involved in all cases of pidgin formation, it seems to involve principles of simplification which probably play a role in any interactive situation where the parties have to make themselves understood to each other in the absence of a common language."
    (Mark Sebba, Contact Languages: Pidgins and Creoles. Palgrave, 1997)
  • The Lighter Side of Foreigner Talk

    Manuel: Ah, your horse. It win! It win!
    Basil Fawlty: [wanting him to keep quiet about his gambling venture] Shh, shh, shh, Manuel. You  - know - nothing.
    Manuel: You always say, Mr. Fawlty, but I learn.
    Basil Fawlty: What?
    Manuel: I learn. I learn.
    Basil Fawlty: No, no, no, no, no.
    Manuel: I get better.
    Basil Fawlty: No no. No no, you don't understand.
    Manuel: I do.
    Basil Fawlty: No, you don't.
    Manuel: Hey, I do understand that!
    (Andrew Sachs and John Cleese  in "Communication Problems." Fawlty Towers, 1979)