Illiterate is used to describe someone who cannot read. I am looking for a word to describe someone who cannot understand a spoken language.

David was [unable to understand French] {People are speaking french around him}

Jean's friends were laughing about a joke, but David was [unable to understand French] and didn't know what they were laughing about

Not-fluent is the obvious compound, but it is rather inelegant.

  • Jean's friends were laughing about a joke, but David ne parlait pas français. It's a pejorative in English when applied to humans, but dumb would seem to fit. May 4, 2016 at 23:27
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    There are also persons who have what is called a "reading knowledge" of a foreign tongue, meaning they can read texts composed/encoded in that language but cannot manage either to produce or to follow conversation in it. This is especially the case with languages that have evolved far from the phonetic ideal, where written forms may suggest cognates that the spoken forms do not. May 4, 2016 at 23:29
  • You could also say "david is slow."
    – vickyace
    May 5, 2016 at 2:56
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    @vickyace he's not dumb or slow, he just doesn't speak french!
    – socrates
    May 5, 2016 at 5:30
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    David, being a non-speaker, should cut it. From the context one understands that he is not aphasic, he just doesn't speak French.
    – frank
    May 5, 2016 at 7:15

5 Answers 5


I have two more proposals which come close to what you're looking for:

  • A monoglot is someone who only speaks one language.
  • An anglophobe is someone who is afraid of English. (This is a neologism)
  • I don't see how the second example applies here. Being unable to speak French doesn't make you afraid of English. Nov 21, 2021 at 7:38
  • @KillingTime: Completely correct. As I said, it looks like there is no answer that fit precisely.
    – erebus
    Nov 22, 2021 at 11:38
  • Of course, for French it would be francophobe, not anglophobe.
    – erebus
    Nov 22, 2021 at 11:40
  • monolingual seems like the way to go.
    – socrates
    Nov 22, 2021 at 17:15

David was not Francophone!

This reply is from a "Hispanophone" who spent 40 minutes searching for the word "árabohablante" (Arabophone?) on the internet in 2021.

Perhaps this can help someone else in the future :) Godspeed to you!

@fev: thank you for your comment. Following your suggestion, here is what the Oxford English Dictionary says about the word Francophone:

Origin: Formed within English, by compounding; modelled on a French lexical item.

Etymology: < Franco- comb. form + -phone comb. form, after French francophone, adjective (1880) and noun (1894).

Forms: also with capital initial.


A) Noun → A French-speaking person. Example: "The study employs the terms anglophones, francophones and ‘others’ to denote respectively those who speak English, French or another language in their homes." (1969. Daily Colonist. (Victoria, Brit. Columbia). 5 July 5/1)

B) Adjective → French-speaking. Example: "The new poet laureate of Canada is Pauline Michel. Every report of her appointment identifies her as the first francophone writer to hold the post." (Times Lit. Suppl. 26 Nov. 16/2)

@KillingTime. I understand your point. However, this reply is only an alternative that may be useful to some :) Cheers!

  • Hello, and welcome to the EL&U. Your answer could be improved by providing references. See tour.
    – fev
    Aug 17, 2021 at 16:20
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    I think the question is after a more general term for not understanding a spoken language. Aug 17, 2021 at 16:37
  • Wouldn't "not a Francophone" simply IMPLY that he does not understand the written word, too? I think that if you want to convey the idea that somebody can only understand the written words of a language but not speak it (or not speak it well), you cannot simply express that with a single word. Nov 21, 2021 at 9:52

How about auditory aphasia or acoustic aphasia. It doesn't mean that he can't understand a language due to brain damage or hearing loss but there are other unknown reasons.

Here is another link.

  • no, he doesn't have brain damage! He just doesn't speak French! I've edited the question to make it clear.
    – socrates
    May 6, 2016 at 18:43
  • @socrates Didn't you understand what I typed? It says that he is not necessarily brain damaged but there are other "UNKNOWN REASONS."
    – vickyace
    May 6, 2016 at 18:50
  • @socrates Do you get it?
    – vickyace
    May 6, 2016 at 19:10
  • sorry, I misread your question.
    – socrates
    May 6, 2016 at 20:21

We would simply say

David is a foreigner.

Illiterate is usually used to describe someone who cannot read their own language; not one that is foreign to them.

foreign, adjective –Google

of, from, in, or characteristic of a country or language other than one's own. "a foreign language"

  • 1
    But David could be a foreigner, yet understand French perfectly well. Even, as with French-Canadians, have it as his native tongue.
    – jamesqf
    May 7, 2016 at 5:33
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    Does 'foreigner' apply to someone from another country that speaks the same language? Eg, an Australian visiting England?
    – Mitch
    Jan 24, 2019 at 15:06
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    This answer is just wrong
    – WendyG
    Jan 24, 2019 at 16:12

Benighted means unenlighted, so maybe you could use that, as in, "David is benighted in French", or something. Hope this helps, and if not, well, I tried.

  • This is less clear than "David doesn't understand (spoken) French".
    – Stuart F
    May 16, 2023 at 10:24

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