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. – Elliott Frisch May 4 '16 at 23:27
  • 1
    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. – Brian Donovan May 4 '16 at 23:29
  • You could also say "david is slow." – vickyace May 5 '16 at 2:56
  • @vickyace he's not dumb or slow, he just doesn't speak french! – socrates May 5 '16 at 5:30
  • 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 '16 at 7:15

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"

| improve this answer | |
  • 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 '16 at 5:33
  • 1
    Does 'foreigner' apply to someone from another country that speaks the same language? Eg, an Australian visiting England? – Mitch Jan 24 '19 at 15:06
  • This answer is just wrong – WendyG Jan 24 '19 at 16:12

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.

| improve this answer | |
  • 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 '16 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 '16 at 18:50
  • @socrates Do you get it? – vickyace May 6 '16 at 19:10
  • sorry, I misread your question. – socrates May 6 '16 at 20:21

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.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.