It’s Okay to Lie

on Feb 20, 2015

So you’re sitting down to chat over Skype with a new language exchange partner, and everything is going great. You’re exchanging names, discussing work, asking about each other’s hobbies, and then it happens. You’re asked a question that requires a more nuanced answer than you can produce in your target language.

What do you do?

Do you fall back on your native language?

Do you ask for a quick assist from Google Translate?

Do you ask your language exchange partner to tell you how to say what you want to say?

Or do you lie?

I have a lot of experience with this situation.

Language Exchange Partner:  “Why are you studying Chinese?”

Me: “Well…adoption…iPhone…dictionary…no verb conjugation…no noun genders…”

Needless to say, I usually go with Option 1 and fall back to English. In my case, I have language exchange partners with near-native English proficiency so we can have an extended discussion or discuss how best to express the thought in Chinese. This is not wasted time by any means, but it’s time that could be better spent practicing the target language.

It’s okay to lie.

I have an extreme discomfort with lying. I heard far too many lies far too early in life, and it left me with a bitter aftertaste. During language exchanges, I reflexively attempt to respond truthfully to such an extent that I become extremely frustrated with my inability to express myself. These little interruptions often end up consuming large portions of the language exchange and undermining the entire purpose of the exercise…speaking the target language.

So here are some recommendations on how to approach language exchanges.

Set Expectations 

Is a lie a lie if both partiers are merely actors in a play? No. So discuss that with your language exchange partner at the outset.

“I may make up answers if I don’t know how to give a true answer.”

Tell a Lie or Maybe a Half-truth

“I’m studying Chinese because my daughter is from China.”

I can say that sentence. It’s a true sentence, but it’s not the complete truth. That sentence is still a bit difficult. Maybe try something like:

“It’s very interesting.”

What if you are asked a question with two possible answers as in, “Do you like A or B?”

Unfortunately, life is not always so cut and dry. What if A and B are politicians? Just pick A or B and keep the conversation going. Actually, in the case of U.S. politicians, it would probably be best to go ahead and learn how to say “neither” in your target language.

Take Notes

If you had to lie in a language exchange, there’s a good chance the question is going to come up again, and you need to be able to answer it. Jot down some notes on what you want to be able to say, and use those notes to guide your study.

Ask for Help

Whether it is your language exchange partner, an instructor, iTalki, or maybe even a sentence repository like Tatoeba, find some help. Always make sure your study material is infallible because relearning is a painful and time-consuming process.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Now that you’ve used your notes to help you learn how to answer a complicated question properly, you need to practice.

Record and listen to yourself giving the answer.

Put all of the new vocabulary and even the sentences into your Spaced Repetition learning software.

Run the scenario repeatedly with your language exchange partner.

By the time you are done, you will have learned new vocabulary, possibly some new grammar structures, and hopefully you won’t have to lie anymore because lying is wrong. Who told you lying was okay anyway?